Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Why Are E-Books Such A Big Deal? Part 1

I've said before here that everyone (including me) has an opinion about where e-publishing is going, but nobody (including me) really knows. The reason is the landscape is changing so fast. One element of human psychology is "presentism," (although I don't think that's exactly the term generally used) but what it means is that only the present is real and so we psychologically assign enormous weight to it -- correctly, for the most part. But it also means we have an easy time believing in gradual change but a very hard time believing in the possibility of sudden and very dramatic change. Hardly anyone foresees catastrophes, and those who do are branded crackpots, although to be fair, they are vastly outnumbered by the genuine crackpots who predict catastrophes all the time and are always wrong. What does that have to do with the future of e-publishing?

E-readership is expanding at a rate which, were it a disease or a climatic shift, would clearly be catastrophic. A study from Bowkers (one of the big names in publishing) which came out this last week drives that home. The study was of e-readership in the United Kingdom. Here are some of the remarkable changes it identified.

Effectively one third of all Brits are now or will soon be e-readers. 31% self-identified themselves as likely to purchase an e-book in the next six months. That's a big number, but what sort of a trend does it represent? The number of adults in the UK who have purchased an e-book has nearly tripled in the seven months from February of 2011 to the information cut-off of the study.

Tablets have become the reader of choice, with Kindle dominating the tablet market, with consumers purchasing well over one million of the eReaders per week from the fourth quarter of last year on. . I suspect the iPad is coming on strong, even though it is not a dedicated eReader.

So where this is going is anybody's guess. One effect has been the explosion of self-publishing. For the first time in history, authors have a nearly unrestricted access to the global marketplace, for better or worse. (One of the gatekeepers standing between authors and readers in the past was the editor, and lots of self-published eBooks would have benefitted from that particular gatekeeper having remained in place.)

Lots of folks will guess wrong about what this means for the future, but the one guess you can be certain is wrong is that this is all just a passing fad and won't have much long-term effect on publishing.

I labeled this entry "Part 1," because I'm sure I'll end up revisiting this subject again.


  1. An interesting post, Frank, and as a transplanted Brit, it's interesting to see the rise of e-book readership in the UK. I'm a published author whose career in e-books began seven years ago. Even in that relatively short time I've seen many changes in the industry, with the exponential growth of e-publishing. The last year alone saw a veritable explosion of self-published authors taking advantage of services offered by Amazon and their subsidiary CreateSpace among others. Thanks to the internet, it is indeed a global market.

    The trouble is, there's now an awful lot of dross out there, since very few of these "self-pub'd authors" bother with such trivia as copy-editing, or even spell-checker. My wife's a professional copy-editor, and she has uttered a number of pithy comments about the trend.

    As an aside, she's also the owner of one of the first generation e-book readers, an RCA model which came out in 1998. Don't let Amazon fool you into thinking they came up with the concept when they released the Kindle!

    The conventional print publishers seem to have dug in to maintain their territory. Even those appointed to promote e-books based on their own stable of authors seem to be dismissive of the phenomena. As a long-time bibliophile, I'd hate to see print books die out altogether, but I can see a time when they'll be very much a small percentage of the market. Interesting times...

    1. AJ

      Thanks for the comment and I agree almost 100%. I think if you look at Baen Books, however, they have one of the most enlightened views of ePublishing of any of the established presses, and I said that even before they became my publisher last year. They very aggressively use eBooks as a means of reaching a wider audience and -- most significantly -- vigorously opposed the Digital Rights Management (DRM) legislation pushed so hard by most of the old big houses. They pay a higher royalty on ebooks to the authors and charge a lower price to the consumers, just about the opposite of some of the older houses trying so desperately to make the old model work no matter what.

    2. Don't forget that Baen rotates some of their back catalogue through their free library in many e-book and net friendly formats.


      I have discovered and in some cases re-discovered more than a few authors this way.

    3. Pat,
      Absolutely right, and this is a good example of how Baen has their head screwed on pretty well when it comes to eBooks. I just checked and right now there are 120+ free books up on the Baen Free Library, including lots of books by their headkliner aurthors and lots of selections from popular series. If any of you have wondered if a particular Baen author or particular Baen series might interest you, why not read a book or two for free?

  2. Very good points to make, Frank. I don't think many people realize just how quickly the e-publishing world is changing and how hand-held technology is catching on with the general public.

    When I was first published by one of the pioneering e-publishers over a decade ago, I had to explain (until I was blue in the face!) that I had actually written a "book" since potential readers could only see my book on their laptop screen or Rocket Reader (one of the original e-reading devices that I still use). My mother would ask, "When will your book really be published?" It broke my heart--my book WAS published (and also came out in print later) but few thought so, even with glowing reviews and lovely comments from those early e-book enthusiasts.

    But I do think AJ hit the nail on the head about the "dross" being put out there by the self-published. It is literally drowning the sales of decent, professionally edited books, and in return, giving e-books on the whole a very bad reputation. Since a professionally e-published book and a self-published book available through the Amazon Kindle store look the same, then ALL e-books must be poorly edited, vetted and conceived, correct? That's the impression these self-published e-books make on the reading public alas.

    This negative attitude toward e-books I've heard expressed by readers lately makes me angry. We early pioneers in the e-published profession have been working for over a decade to make e-book respectable in the eyes of the book-buying public. Nowadays, a bunch of amateurs are destroying our hard-won reputation. Thanks a lot! I feel that professionally published e-book authors can stem this tide of "dross", but we're going to have to stick together and keep at it.

    More on my "My Books are Worth It!" campaign at my blog: http://www.cindyamatthews.com

    1. Cindy,
      I agree, and I think a shaking out of sorts is definitely coming. Right now there are inevitably a whole lot of brand new eBook consumers who don't know the ropes -- well, who does, really? But I believe they will get savy fairly quickly and pretty soon a new bunch of gatekeepers will emerge as a natural reaction to the market. I think people will learn they can trust the professional eBook publishers who consistently provide a quality product. They will also rely on blogs they follow regularly, and which which review books, to steer them to good ones and away from lemons.

      Eventually the same buying habits consumers have in traditional books will, I think, assert themselves in eBooks. That is, something like 80% or more of buying decisions are based on buying a book of an author the consumer already has read and like or are based on recommendations from friends. Published reviews have less effect and advertising doesn't seem to have much impast at all, at least at the consumer level. I suspect regularly-followed blogs will come to have more effect than traditionally published reviews. What appears to sell books is word-of-mouth more than anything.

      I was rereading Heller's CATCH 22 last fall and also read about the book's history. It had decidedly mixed reviews when it came out in hardback and had so-so sales. When it came out in paperback, it eploded. Why? Because in the time bewteen the hardback publication and the paperback release, everybody who was into books was talking about it. Not everyone liked it, but everyone had a strong opinion. The book had buzz. Buzz sells books, and I think blogs are more part of the buzz on a book these days than the traditional book reviews were/are.

  3. Why don't you publish all your wargame titles as PDF or whatever? Many fans would buy some or all e-versions even though they own the printed ones already.

    1. Bill, my business partner in the miniatures rules business (Test of Battle Games)and I are looking into that for those titles. Space 1889 is already available in pdf from Drive-Through RPGs.

  4. Frank,
    I work in an academic library, and we are certainly paying close attention to the development of e-reading and e-publishing. For the most part, we see it as a good thing. With the explosion of 'distance learning' programs in higher education, the e-published works (books & Journals) are of vital importance to students too far distant to visit our physical library.
    Our collection focuses on non-fiction and scholarly works, where I suspect the non-academic market is looking more for fiction and general-reader works. The hard sciences strongly favor e-publishing; for example our school of engineering has maybe a 90%/10% ratio between e-book purchases and print book purchases. In the social sciences & humanities, print still is the preferred medium. Last year a survey the library conducted found that our students want more print books, and prefer print textbooks, at least when price is not a factor.
    If I were to hazard a guess, I'd say that e-publishing will continue to expand in the general reader market faster than in the academic market, but it will continue to expand in both. As a disclaimer, my area of responsibility is care and maintenance of our existing print collection, but I don't view e-publishing as competition. E-publishing is another way to provide access to resources our students want, and so compliments the more traditional formats. The two are learning to co-exist.

    Library Bob

  5. Bob,
    Good observations. In my experience eBooks are replacing paperbacks more than hardbacks, and that's in most fields. All my history geek friends still buy top-line history and biography new releases in hardcover, but if they want a reading copy of an older book for a special project, they go eBook very heavily instead of cheap paperbacks. I have read a similar buying pattern among several science fiction enthuisiast -- new releases from favorite authors in hardcover, older books as often in eFormat as paperback. All of that is anecdotal, of course, and I'd be curious to see some statistics on what the long term effects on sales are. Of course we haven't had eBooks long enough to have long term statistics, but maybe in a year or so some patterns will start to show up.

    1. Our History department is and has been the most consistent spender in ordering new print books for our library, which tracks with the historians you know. My colleague who is our e-books librarian keeps track of how often and by how many students our e-books are utilized, but those kind of stats would not be meaningful outside of our library. What sort of patterns do you think will show up?

      BTW, on another topic, I'm looking for play aids and supporting documents for Striker. What would you suggest?

    2. Bob,
      The history deptartment's buying habits don't surprise me. We history geeks do love our big heavy books. As a friend of mine is fond of quoting, the Duke of Gloucster, on being presented with volume 2 of The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, said, "Ah, Mr. Gibbon, another damned fat, square book. Always scribble, scribble, scribble, eh?"

      Striker -- wow! Now that's a flash from the past, but a nice one. We sold more of the first edition of Striker than any other miniatures rules set we ever did, over 20,000 as I recall and I had a lot of fun doing it. Of course modern technology in some ways has outstripped it, but at least we were thinking in the right direction on some things, like the map box and other advanced C3I systems. Didn't see GPS coming, though, which was a major omission.

      Unfortunately I don't know of any play aids ever done for it.

  6. I've listened to the talk you gave at CelestiCon 2011 on Striker: 30 Years After, which renewed my interest in trying to play it. Besides the lack of a game group, my biggest challenge is the seeming large amount of data to generate to begin even a simple scenario. Any suggestions on a good 'first battle'? If you like, we could move this discussion over to my blog, or use e-mail.