An American Editor

April 8, 2010

Can eBooks Save University Presses?

University presses are very important in the world of scholarly nonfiction publishing. Like many other small businesses, they are suffering in today’s economy — and have been suffering even when economic times have been good. University presses (UPs) bring prestige to a university and publish work that the for-profit commercial publishers, like Hachette and Random House, often will not publish because expected sales are so low and the reading audience so narrow and/or small.

UPs are generally subsidized by their schools. Absent the subsidies, there would be few, if any, UPs (excluding the giants like Cambridge University Press and Oxford University Press). But when university budgets need reducing, UP budgets are often among the first to get sliced.

One problem that UPs face is that of book pricing. To make a book potentially profitable, the UPs have to list their books at high prices, much higher than the commercial presses. It is rare for a UP to have a runaway bestseller that is able to carry several other titles with it. And as we book buyers know, the higher the price, the less likely the book is to have mass appeal and sell in significant numbers. I suspect, but do not know for certain, that the largest number of UP sales are to libraries, the repositories of knowledge in a community, whose own budgets are being squeezed. As always, there is a ripple effect.

So that raises the question of the role of ebooks in the future of UPs. There are lots of hurdles that need to be overcome, not least of which is establishing an authoritative version (see Will eBooks Return Us to the Days of the Scribe? and eBooks and the Never-Ending Rewrite for a discussion of the problems of constant revising). The printed book is a resource to which all readers can look and see exactly the same content; the ebook is a resource that has the potential to never be settled thus even readers who look at an ebook have no assurance that they are seeing the same content.

We know that distribution and production costs are reduced with ebooks. Other costs remain the same as compared to a print version. If only an ebook version is produced, composition costs can be significantly reduced because a single template can be created into which content can be flowed — or so one would think. The reality is different, unfortunately. There may well be a change in composition costs, but it might not be less than for a print book, at least not under the current standards. As standards improve and become more nonfiction centric (as opposed to the current fiction centric), composition costs may well be reduced.

But there are advantages to an ebook that do not exist with a pbook. The obvious one is ease of delivery. It costs virtually nothing to deliver an ebook over the Internet. Perhaps the most important advantage for UPs, however, is the ease with which new editions can be created as new information is discovered. Modifying an electronic file is significantly easier than recreating a print version. And this might be the way for UPs to capitalize on ebooks: encouraging authors to continue with their research and update their books.

In fact, UPs should consider selling books as subscriptions rather than as final sales. Today, when I buy a UP published book, I get today’s offering and nothing more. Perhaps the author is continuing to work on the project or perhaps other scholars are using the particular book as the basis for their own enhancements to it. If so, I do not get the benefit of that work for many years, until a new edition is published or another author publishes a followup work, if ever.

A subscription, on the other hand, could serve me, the UP, and the author well. The UP would get a constant stream of revenue; the author would receive a constant stream of royalty as an incentive to continue research in the subject matter; I would get a constantly updated book. Granted this wouldn’t work with all UP offerings, but it shouldn’t be difficult to isolate those offerings for which it would.

A scheme such as this would also allow the UP the option of not offering a pbook version. Or it could offer a pbook and ebook in tandem (see eBooks & pBooks in Tandem), with the ebook being a subscription. The pbook would serve as the base, authoritative, original version of the work and the ebook would serve as a planned update service to the original research, whether by the original author or by other scholars in the field. This in-tandem combination would allow an initial sales capture (with its revenue) and an ongoing subscription sale (with its revenue).

Once this concept took root, there would be nothing to prevent UPs from creating packages of related books and ebooks that could include backlist titles and even forthcoming titles. For example, if the UP created a series on the history of the Tennessee Army in the Civil War, it could offer a subscription ebook series that included the first title in the series and the next 5 titles. By buying a subscription, the reader would be assured of getting the information and the UP would know sales in advance and revenues in advance. The subscriptions would encourage authors to continue their research and to share it with others via this model. The UP could even follow the Baen model of offering forthcoming manuscript in various stages and inviting readers to give the author feedback on everything from content to composition.

Perhaps not a perfect model, and really more just a collection of thoughts, but the UPs need to be forward thinking if for no other reason than we rely on UPs to preserve knowledge as nonprofit presses. The subscription concept could be a win-win-win — for readers, authors, and UPs.

February 25, 2010

Magazines in the Age of eBooks

I’m a big magazine reader. In addition to the many books I buy each year (I have more books in my to-read pile than I can read within the next few years), I subscribe to a lot of magazines. My subscriptions include Smithsonian, The Atlantic, The Week, The Economist, American Heritage, New York Review of Books, Business Week, PC World, U.S. News & World Report, The Scientist, Discover, and several more. I begin my day, every day, with a pot of tea and the day’s New York Times and my local newspaper. Between the books I buy and the magazines and newspapers to which I subscribe, I spend a lot of time reading!

I admit to being curious. I like to keep up with what is happening around me and I really dislike the 10-second news blurbs that TV and radio offer (although National Public Radio deserves kudos for All Things Considered). I think being broadly read helps me as an editor.

But times are changing. Magazines and newspapers are struggling. Several that I had subscribed to have folded print editions and are now available online only, such as PC Magazine and a book collecting magazine to which I once subscribed; once they became online-only magazines, I stopped reading them. Unlike the magazines that have made the transition to online-only status, I haven’t followed — I really hate sitting at my computer to read an online magazine: Isn’t spending my work life on my computer sufficient? Do I have to be chained to a computer — be it laptop or desktop — for my pleasures as well as my work? This feeling of being chained to work is one reason why multifunction devices don’t appeal to me for pleasure pursuits.

As illogical as it seems, I actually distinguish between reading on my computer and reading on my Sony Reader, a dedicated reading device. I enjoy reading on my Sony Reader, equally as much as I enjoy holding a print copy of a book. I had thought that I would switch my New York Times subscription from paper to electronic when the Times became available through the Sony store; this was to be the start of my evolution from print to electronic for my magazines and newspapers. But I was cautious and downloaded a single day’s issue to try.

The experience was okay, but not great. Setting aside the slight inconvenience of having to load the Times onto my Sony Reader (my PRS 505 model doesn’t have wireless), the screen size (6 inches) simply wasn’t conducive to enjoyable reading of something as “big” as the Times. Plus there is a tactile experience that accompanies and enhances the reading experience when holding the Times in your hands. Yet, I am determined to make the switch from print to electronic; the questions are when and on what device (and how cooperative the magazine publishers will be).

I’ve been contemplating “upgrading” to the Sony 900, which has wireless and a 7.1-inch screen. I had really thought about the iRex DR 800SG, particularly because of its 8-inch display, but there are just too many things I don’t like about the device, not least of which is that its touchscreen requires the use of a stylus and I think that will be much too easy to lose (and if my cat decides it’s a toy to play with,…). So I’m sitting on the fence and waiting.

I know the Apple tablet isn’t the answer for me for a lot of reasons, but the tablet idea intrigues me. PlasticLogic’s Que also intrigues me but the price seems exorbitant (if not extortionate) for my purposes — I am looking for a device for reading books, newspapers, and magazines, not for checking e-mail, visiting websites, watching videos, and all those other things that multifunction devices permit. I’m a dedicated-device type of person.

I’ve drifted a bit from where I had intended to go with this article, so let me shift my course. Who are the subscribers to newspapers and magazines? I ask because I know my demographics (and, yes, they are still desirable to advertisers even if I am gray-haired) and that surveys show that people in my demographic group tend to be the biggest spenders on and readers of books, newspapers, and magazines. Because those outside my demographic are significantly less focused on these ways of obtaining information, I wonder what the future holds for magazines and newspapers as information sources. What is the likelihood of print versions surviving many more years? And when they disappear, what will the electronic versions be like? Will they be as shallow as much of the TV/radio news reporting and “analysis” is these days? Will we lose access to in-depth reporting and analysis because all that will interest subscribers will be 10-word “wordbites” of the latest celebrity faux pas?

And what will readers like me do? Will The Economist still be The Economist in something more than name, or will it be more like People Magazine? Will Business Week become just a steady stream of feeds and wordbites? Does anyone but me care?

What brings my concerns to the fore have been my attempts over the past 2 years to extend my subscription to the New York Review of Books. My current subscription expires in 2012 (some of my magazine subscriptions run until the 2020s). Several times I tried to extend my subscription by 3 years, and each time NYRB has declined, saying it doesn’t know what will be so far in the future. I recognize that NYRB isn’t a magazine for everyone (although I think every book lover should be a subscriber; its reviews are significantly better than anything found elsewhere including online, in the New York Times Book Review, and in the London Review of Books), but I would think that it has a loyal base of subscribers and so it wouldn’t be so worried about its future. Like The Economist, the NYRB is not an inexpensive subscription so it attracts the serious and probably faithful subscriber. (Interestingly, The Economist, unlike most magazines, continues to show subscriber growth and without “special subscription deals.” So there must be a desire for this type of coverage.)

Clearly, I am wrong, and if the NYRB is worried about its future, perhaps I need to worry about the future of my subscriptions — and about the quality of reporting that one should expect to see — in the Age of eBooks. What will survive and in what form is worthy of consideration in this transitional period, before it is too late.

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