My top five red herring ebook stories, 2010

download.jpegThe pundits have been out in full force this year, as ebooks finally hit the mainstream. But amidst all the hot air about pricing and contracts and DRM and i-Whatevers, a lot of ink was shed on some red herrings—issues which, on the surface, seem very important but in my opinion are mere diversions from the real story of the future of the ebook world. What are my top five red herrings, and why do I think they are not the stumbling points the pundits make them up to be? Keep reading to find out!

RED HERRING #5: THE WAY THINGS WORK

This excuse was trotted out dozens of times to explain things like pricing, geographical availability, DRM and other publisher excuses. The reality is, the way things work now is not the way they will always work, nor is it necessarily the best of most efficient way for them to work.

Yes, there are certain realities of the supply chain right now. But these realities came about based on a business model of shipping, storing and producing physical objects. In a mixed model where a portion of the customer base will be purchasing products which are not physical, all of these excuses become a moot point.

My father calls publishing the finest business model ever put forth by the bright minds of the 17th century. He is not far off. If ‘this is the way things work’ was really a viable excuse, we would still have professional telephone operators, and a portion of the money you pay for your car would be going toward subsidizing the buggy whip makers who are now out of business. The ‘industry’ will surely fight change, but it just as surely will happen, in the end. Such is life.

RED HERRING #4: THE AGENCY MODEL

The agency model is a royal pain in the butt right now, but it will sort itself out eventually, and here is why: the reality is that in the end, its going to matter very little what the publishers ‘want’ to do, unless they can get customers to pay for it.

I’ll give you an example: I recently worked with my boss on the opportunity to run a for-profit after-school program in the new year. There were many aspects we negotiated, including use of space and resources, how much help I could rely on from the admin and other support staff, what their cut would be, what my cut would be and what we would charge the parents, This was all important stuff and very interesting, but the bottom line was this: there was a limit to what people would pay for this sort of thing, and if we could not make it profitable to run the program within that limit, the program wasn’t going to happen.

To bring this back to the publishers, there are many stake-holders there too: agents, authors, distributors, editors and so on. But at the end of it all is a customer who is going to pay, or not. If the ‘agency’ model continues to lead to situations where customers don’t want to pay, they won’t pay and the publishers will have to change their tunes. And given that this seems to be the only area of the book market that is experiencing major growth right now, I think they’ll change it in a way that keeps them in the game.

RED HERRING #3: THE BLAME GAME

The blame game comes up whenever a customer or reader has a complaint. Book not available? Author says it’s not their fault. Publisher says it’s not their fault. Vendor says it is certainly not their fault. There are contract issues or there are workflow issues or blather blather blather? Here’s why none of this matters: because the customer doesn’t really care. They just want the book, and if someone won’t sell it to them, they will get it elsewhere or do without—and no business wants their customers to be sitting there with money on the table and nowhere to spend it!

The bottom line is that of all the people whose ‘fault’ it may be, the one completely innocent party is the paying customer who is willingly offering up their money of only someone will let them have the book. And as I said earlier, any publisher who has not come to terms with this yet will have to do so, soon. All the behind the scenes negotiating and issues and deals or whatever is needed to sort this out will happen once they do so. There are problems, now. But I think these problems are fixable, and will be fixed, because it just makes more sense to let people buy stuff if they want to.

RED HERRING #2: EVIL BIG CORPORATE

Being in Canada, I hear this a lot. Amazon is going to take over the world and squeeze out the local publishers. Google is going to take over Amazon AND the world. Regional publishers will be decimated by the upcoming ebook shift and we can look forward to a world where the only books people can buy will be Stephen King. John Grisham, Nora Roberts and JK Rowling. It’s nonsense, and here are two words that prove it: Giller Prize.

This was one of the more interesting stories to come out of the ebook business this year, and outside of Canada, was under-reported. The short version is this: The Giller is a major Canadian book award, and when the shortlist was announced, Kobo (which is majority-owned by Indigo, our major book chain) set out to bundle the shortlist into a convenient one-stop shop on their own site. The problem? Not all the books had available ebook editions. So they took the initiative and approached the publishers, offered to make the ebook versions for them, and had the whole shortlist up on their website for weeks while the Giller people were out promoting these books to the media. And it doesn’t end there—the eventual winner was put out by such a small press that even the print version was not in stock—anywhere—when the win was announced. The only place Canadians could read this hot property was Kobo—in ebook!

It gets better. According to the numbers Kobo sent me when they announced this little coup, the book (and the other titles on the shortlist as well) were not only top sellers at Kobo, but they were out-selling another hot book—the winner of the Mann Booker Prize. So what does this prove? It proves that Canadians really do want to read Canadian books if they are made available to them. And I am betting the same thing holds for Australians wanting to read Australian books, or Spaniards wanting to read Spanish books. If Kobo continues their strategy of partnering with local book chains—and in this case, local publishers—when they launch their reader in a new country, they could potentially be far more of a player than any uber-Empire could be! People want to read Stephen King and Nora Roberts, but they want to read local books too, and the internet is not going to change that. Smart marketing and local partnerships really can give local presses leverage in this digital age. They just have to DO it!

RED HERRING #1: THE UBER-DEVICE

The iPad is going to kill the Kindle. The Android is going to kill the iPad. And so it goes—or not. Here’s why: we all have different needs, and one device is not going to do it for everybody. I’ll use myself as an example. Sure, I could replace my iPod Touch AND my cell phone with one device, an iPhone, that would ‘do it all.’ But I don’t want to. I am not a major phone user (really, the only person who phones me regularly is my mother) and my phone is a cheap phone on a very cheap plan. The cheapest iPhone plan is nearly three times as costly! So having that one device may be handy, but it would cost me a fortune. It’s better for me to have separate devices and pay less, even if it means keeping more ‘stuff.’

Or take the iPad as another example. I love and adore my iPad—for games, for light net surfing on the go, for Netflix while on the exercise bike and for keeping my work stuff with me when I need it. I don’t read on it, because my Kindle has features it lacks which I need. Specifically, it has support for multi-language dictionaries (I read in French) and text to speech (I commute and like a hands-free option I don’t need to look at sometimes). I have an uncle who does not read in French and does not care about text to speech and he is happy as a clam reading on HIS iPad! Different needs, different devices.

Of course, I can’t predict what future technology will bring. But I remain unconvinced that one device will rule us all. More likely to me is a scenario where we get to a hard-drive-on-a-stick sort of endgame with one’s entire OS—apps, files, media, all of it—on a SIM card and just gets plugged into various dumb terminals. Plug it into your phone, plug it into your television-sized screen, plug it into your book-sized screen, it doesn’t matter. No need to sync across devices or rely on the vagaries of the ‘cloud’ because you’ll just always have it with you. Those who want to run it all from their phone are more than welcome, and those who need more specialized devices can plug it all in to whatever hardware they need.

So, those are my top five red herrings of the year. Anything I missed? Leave a comment with your ideas!

10 Comments on My top five red herring ebook stories, 2010

  1. “They just want the book, and if someone won’t sell it to them, they will get it elsewhere or do without—and no business wants their customers to be sitting there with money on the table and nowhere to spend it!”

    Experience would seem to indicate that the content-distribution industries (book publishing and, until they were pummeled into acceptance by the Reality Stick, music and film) are actually quite happy to have their customers sitting there with money on the table and nothing to spend it on.

    I’m not terribly sure how that makes sense as a business model, but they all seem pretty attached to it.

  2. “the content-distribution industries…are actually quite happy to have their customers sitting there with money on the table and nothing to spend it on.”

    Ebook publishers are sadly mistaken if they think that is what all ebook readers are doing. I’m definitely not. If I don’t buy the ebook in which I’m initially interested, for whatever reason (price, DRM, price, regional restrictions, price…), I almost always buy something else. So more often than not, when I go ebook shopping someone *will* get my money. Just very rarely a major publisher these days.

  3. I subscribe to the experienced-belief that there is no one device that works well for all applications. eReaders, like the Kindle, are light, cool, easy to hold in one hand and have weeks between battery recharge time. Anything larger is heavier, warmer on your lap, requires two hands and has very limited time between recharges. Laptops have vastly superior keyboards, adequate screens for web surfing, and allow you to actually do some real work on them. I own both, along with a very powerful desktop, and wouldn’t consider trying to use one to the exclusion of the other. There is no “uber-device” unless you narrow your requirements down to one function.

  4. Great post. Little typo:

    “paying customer who is willingly offering up their money of only someone will let them”

    if only someone

  5. Number 5 and Number 1 are the ones I’m the tiredest of. I’m tired of being told that LCD reading couldn’t possibly tire out my eyes and that really, touch screen is the only way to go, and why would I would wireless connection anyway? You read the way you like, and I promise, I won’t try to tell you it’s wrong; just don’t tell me I’m wrong because I like to read a different way.

    And number 5 is all bundled up with the “ebooks don’t really save the publisher much money.” That may be true, in their current business model, which is built around print. But their current business model isn’t necessarily the most efficient way of producing ebooks.

  6. Why would #5 change? It hasn’t for the music industry, and they’re certainly further along in digital distribution. If I want to purchase digital downloads of jpop for instance, I’m pretty much screwed if I don’t live in Japan. Regional restriction prevent me from legally buying it without jumping through a lot of hoops (ordering an iTunes prepaid card from a proxy service for instance, who charge extra for the privilege).

    Same goes for #4 – why would the agency model collapse? The big publishers have an iron grip on their authors and it’s in their best interest to keep prices high, even if it would gain them more income for some individual authors.

  7. And the biggest red herrings of all:
    Nobody reads anymore/ physical books are going obsolete.

    New technology will always face skeptics who won’t change until they are forced. When cars first started becoming popular, a lot of people still preferred the horse and buggy. But they had to switch because once roads started getting paved, they’d literally get run over if they didn’t. A lot of people still prefer records, but most are forced to listen to music on other devices because record players have become rare and hard to find.

    Nobody’s going to get run over because they prefer reading off a dead tree. And books don’t need a player. E-reading will be huge; but there’s no way for e-readers to sway the skeptics.

  8. “the one completely innocent party is the paying customer who is willingly offering up their money of only someone will let them have the book.”

    Innocent? Hardly. Many of them are deliberately living in the wrong countries!

  9. And … they don’t even get to ‘own’ the book and do what they want with it .. like lending it to their wife/mother/sister ..

  10. You may not turn out to be 100% right on all five herrings, but you are refreshingly sensible and non-hysterical. I agree that much of what seems to be a problem now will sort itself out as more people shift to e-reading as one of their choices and their money starts to be worth really going after. I buy eBooks from B&N, Borders, Amazon, and Baen. I get free eBooks from my library, Project Gutenberg, openlibrary.org and other sources. I use calibre to tidy up loose ends. And an SD card in my Kobo holds a life time of reading already. And I still buy and borrow hard copy when that works best. The whiners can keep whining. I’m having a good time.

Leave a Reply

wordpress analytics