Yesterday, Scott posted the good news that six Bay Area libraries are making audiobooks available as downloads that readers can listen to on their digital devices. At least one other library appears to be jumping on the digital download bandwagon, but this one is providing the mp3 player as part of the deal. The South Huntington Public Library in Suffolk County, New York, is lending out iPod Shuffles preloaded with audiobooks. Right now the selection is pretty limited, but I think the news that libraries are beginning to digitally distribute audiobooks could point towards a burgeoning revolution in the audiobook business. Goodbye CDs 1 through 28, hello davincicode.mp3. (This is especially exciting news for me since this happens to be the childhood library of Mrs. Millions. I’ll have to look for the iPods next time I stop by.)
With little fanfare, Amazon has unveiled a new feature that has major implications for the digital distribution of books. For starters, Amazon has revamped its “Search Inside the Book” interface and renamed it the Amazon Online Reader. Looking at To the Lighthouse, the familiar links allowing you to jump to the table of contents, an excerpt, and other sections of the book are visible on the left side of the new interface, but below those is a tab called “Highlights/Bookmarks.” Along the top are buttons that allow you to jump to specific pages, highlight, bookmark, copy, and print. All of these features are inaccessible unless you use a new feature that was introduced jointly with the new online reader called Amazon Upgrade. For an extra five dollars when you buy the hard copy of a book, Amazon Upgrade gives you online access to the book and lets you “mark it up” with highlighting, bookmarks, and notes, a process which is explained here. Perhaps most fascinating is that Amazon allows you to make your notations public so that they can be viewed by other readers. To me this sounds like aggregating all the many jottings that populate the used books sitting on dusty shelves everywhere.The other aspect of this that interests me is the reader itself. The old interface for viewing a book was clunky and the text was hard to read comfortably, but with the new reader the display is much larger and easier to read, and the pages load almost instantaneously compared to the old version. While not ideal, it’s now possible to imagine actually reading a book in this way. Others have taken notice of this as well, and it is causing some to speculate that Amazon is looking to sell access to books online whether or not one buys the hard copy.For more info on the new Amazon Online Reader, check out Lifehacker and ResourceShelf.
Hillel Italie, the AP’s publishing beat reporter, has a story about how a couple of major book stores aren’t getting behind the impending release of the Sony Reader. According to Italie, both Barnes & Noble and Amazon won’t be carrying the device when it comes out this summer, while Borders will be carrying it. In a post from a couple of months ago, I mentioned the Sony Reader, which had gotten rave reviews from people who’d tried it out. Sony now has the Reader up on its Web site, and I have to say, even in the pictures, it looks a lot more usable than I expected. It’s small and relatively elegant looking, but the quality of the text on the screen is most impressive. There is certainly a paper-like quality to the display. Despite all this, I don’t think I’ll be pulping my books anytime soon. I simply enjoy all the non-textual aspects of books too much. I do think, however, that if this device is as pleasant to use as people have described it to be, then surely there will be some use for it, and certainly some categories of books will be ripe for transition to this format. Textbooks come to mind.Truthfully, I’m really not all that surprised that Barnes & Noble isn’t carrying the Sony Reader because I would imagine that the transaction of buying books for the device and the act of reading books on the device won’t have any real connection to the typical brick and mortar book store experience. Not unlike how the way many people now buy and listen to music doesn’t have much of a connection to the Tower Records down the street, and Tower Records (probably to its detriment) isn’t in the “eMusic business.” As for Amazon sitting this one out, that’s a little harder to understand, but I’d imagine it’ll jump on board if there’s any inkling in the early going that the Sony Reader is taking off. Ultimately, I think the Sony Reader will be a success if Sony manages to sell it as a comfortable reading device and not a replacement for books. There are a few other issues, of course. It’s expensive, set to retail for $300 to $400, and there are many handheld devices, and many more on the way, that can function as “eReaders,” though without Sony’s special, paper-like display, while also doing a lot of other stuff – I’m talking Palms and the like here. Regardless, though, 2006 should be an interesting year to watch the ongoing digital future of books.Supplemental Links: Another pic of the device at Gizmodo; Kevin 2.0 asks if dedicated eBook readers are really needed; Bookninja, on the other hand, calls it the “iPod for nerds.”
What’s the pedigree of a bestseller? That’s the question the New York Times asked last week in an article that, despite the endless waves of political scandal, remained on their most viewed list for the better part of a week. The article reveals the seamy side of publishing: publishers have foresworn the metrics used by marketers to study their audiences’ buying habits, because they, much like Creationists, “don’t believe in them,” leading to an industry where million dollar advances are gambled on the Flying Spaghetti Monster of editors’ intuition. So is it any surprise that an article about the billion-dollar, high-stakes world of publishing, with its talk of big bets and horse racing, comes off sounding like a description of a Gambler’s Anonymous meeting? Won’t someone stop the insanity? (Very nicely summed up here, btw.)Enter Macmillan New Writing, the controversial imprint of the British publishing house Macmillan. New Writing was founded to promote works by unpublished writers, particularly writers who have produced the kind of experimental, unclassifiable or controversial books that are worth publishing, but might not have what it takes to become best sellers, in other words, books that don’t have mass market appeal. The imprint publishes one book a month and currently comprises twenty titles, all of which are prominently featured in Macmillan’s catalog. No agents are involved, the publishing house accepts direct submissions, and writers get no advance, but earn 20% royalties.Sounds good, no? But it’s not all upside. Not only are the writers’ contracts non-negotiable, but Macmillan receives all subsidiary rights to the book and a first look at the author’s second book. Critics have reacted strongly, calling the imprint “literary slave drivers” and “vanity publishers,” and indulging in apocalyptic predictions of the end of publishing as we know it. (As if that would be a bad thing. The submissions, at least, are entirely electronic.) The negative press was so strong that the founder of the imprint, Michael Barnard, felt compelled to write Transparent Imprint, a book defending his idea. (Which the imprint, of course, published. See how that works?)Why all the consternation? Sure, novelists lose their right to film rights, translations, and licensed merchandise (Ignatius J. Reilly trebuchets, anyone?), but is that so bad? Without an agent, they wouldn’t be able to sell them anyway, and apparently Macmillan has been doing a good job so far, bagging a movie deal for the thriller The Manuscript and a decent advance on a German edition of the fantasy novel The Secret War. What’s really at stake, it would seem, is the publishing industry’s ego. Despite the fact that their best work is guesswork, they like to believe they know what they’re doing when they get into a bidding war over a total unknown. The novelist Giles Foden, quoted by the Guardian, put it like this, New Writing’s list is like “putting a bet on every horse in the race – but without paying for any of the bets.” And that doesn’t make us feel very special, does it?But, if the New York Times is right, isn’t that what publishers are doing anyway? If advances are the big gambles everyone says they are, then they only serve to make publishers risk averse. Much like Hollywood, which instead of looking for fresh material, increasingly hedges its bets by turning out retreads of once popular comic books and old TV shows, the publishing industry is in a rut. Bestsellers are inherently unpredictable, and yet, if a publishing exec had to choose between a cutting edge novel and another Harry Potter knockoff, you can bet that “Parry Hotter and The Sorcerer’s Merkin” would be the one stacked on the front tables of Barnes and Nobles nationwide. By not giving writers advances, New Writing has found a way around this problem, allowing them to take a chance on a book, while reducing the considerable overhead attached. This system should be a boon for mid-list writers who, it’s often said, are not nurtured by publishing houses in the way they once were. Sure, you’ll hear writers grousing about being unable to make a living from their work, but, with the exception of the biggest literary stars, isn’t that’s how it’s always been? For my part, I’d much rather have my books in print, giving my readership a chance to grow with me. After all, readers will seek out a good writer’s backlist, and every book that sees print should increase royalties from previous efforts. And what a boon for those writers who don’t have the savvy, connections, or good luck to get an agent. Hell, some writers, John Kennedy Toole comes to mind, are literally dying to get published.It’s been over a year since New Writing put out its first book, and the imprint’s list of well-reviewed books seem to be proving the naysayers wrong. The writers’ seem satisfied with the deal (here and here), and if Roger Morris’s Taking Comfort (recently reviewed here at The Millions) is any indication of the quality of the books New Writing has on offer, they’re doing the literary community a real service. It might be time for the rest of the publishing industry to put down their dice and take notice.Bonus Link: The MacMillan New Writing titles currently available in the U.S.
Apple’s launch last week of the iPad has ushered in a new era of competition in the publishing industry as tech giants expand their footprint in the oldest of old media, books.
Interestingly, at least among serious readers and industry watchers, a skirmish on the margins has taken the spotlight. On Friday, Amazon unilaterally and without any explanatory public announcement, removed all books by publisher Macmillan from its virtual shelves. This included both ebook and paper editions and impacted books as varied as Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall and Atul Gawande’s The Checklist Manifesto.
At the heart of Amazon’s move was a dispute over pricing. Essentially, Amazon, with its massive footprint in the publishing industry, is continually trying to dictate terms to publishers in order to maximize profits. Macmillan, seeing Apple (and therefore competition for Amazon) on the horizon, decided to hold its ground and retaliated.
As a result, two models are now in play. Under Amazon’s current model, it utilizes its near monopoly position to take an extremely steep wholesalers’ discount (up to 70%) when it buys books from publishers, and it sets prices where it wants, often offering books at bargain prices in order to draw shoppers into Amazon while still eking out a profit.
The opposing model is the agency model that treats Amazon not as a wholesaler but merely a sales force. The publisher sets the prices, and Amazon takes a 30% commission of whatever that price is. As best I can tell, the push for the agency model only applies to ebooks. Apple is touting this model with the iBook offering on the new iPad, and MacMillan intends to extend these terms to all outlets that sell its ebooks. (For more on how all this works, check out Charles Stross’s informative piece.)
For Amazon, it’s clear why the current model is preferred. The only way it can differentiate (and lure new customers into its Kindle ecosystem) is based on price. If the agency model succeeds, technically any other player out there with the wherewithal could come along and sell ebooks on exactly the same terms that Amazon does.
This is probably good news for readers. In the long-term it will spur competition in the ebook and ereader space that will inevitably push away from DRM, closed ecosystems, and expensive hardware. In the short term, however, those readers demanding that ebooks be priced at $9.99 or less are going to be frustrated. If publishers can set pricing, they are going to set it higher than Amazon would (In a memo obtained by Publishers Lunch, Macmillan has said it aims to price its ebook new releases between $12.99 and $14.99). These higher prices could definitely slow the growth of the ebook market, something I suspect may mainstream publishers wouldn’t be too upset about. On the other hand, publishers would have the ability to adjust prices, and if lowering prices ends up increasing volume and maximizing profits, they’ll undoubtedly do it.
It’s worth noting as well how Amazon has responded to Macmillan in this case and how a pattern of behavior is emerging. We noted nearly a year ago, when dicussing both
This week, there were a pair of updates on the copyright cases against Google that are being brought by publishers and authors.Initially, the two groups had been pursuing two separate complaints against Google, but this week Judge John Sprizzo consolidated the two cases into one. According to MarketWatch: “Sprizzo’s streamlining was inevitable because the authors and publishers accuse Google of virtually the same thing, and plan to use the same kind of evidence.” It sounds like that news is probably good for the authors and publishers if not terribly consequential.The other bit of new news, that the case won’t be decided until early 2008, is undoubtedly bad for the anti-Google Books camp, both because it means the authors and publishers will have to spend more money going up against deep-pocketed Google, and because Google Books will continue operating unfettered for over a year until the case is handed down, as eWeek explains.Now that we know that Google Books turns searchers into buyers, not stealers, perhaps it’s a good time for the authors and publishers to broker a compromise with Google.
In a short piece at silicon.com “futurist” Peter Cochrane talks about a potential business idea that I’m surprised doesn’t already exist: digitizing personal book collections. As I’ve said in the past, I support the various book digitization efforts from Google and others for these projects’ potential to make the sharing of knowledge easier, not because I want to read all my books (for free or otherwise) from my computer. However, I am intrigued by the option of digitizing at least some of the books I own – perhaps books I’ve read and don’t intend to read in full again. It would be nice to have searchable, digital copies of these books to refer back to, but there are some books that I could never trade in for digital doppelgangers.