Some thoughts on the future of books
I just did a quick email interview for Dirk Koppes, a journalist at the Dutch newspaper De Pers, on the future of ebooks. This isn’t something I’ve been thinking loads about, as it doesn’t make a huge difference to me as an author where people read my books, but it was cool to jam on the topic and thought it was worth publishing the full interview here.
Dirk: Amazon, Apple, Google and others fight for a major market share of ebooks. Thanks to the iPad publishers even can ask more (14.99, iPad) in stead of less (9.99, Amazon) dollars for their new titles. Is this a good development for the industry? And for the readers?
Me: It’s too early to say but it didn’t work for the record business. For me the thing is to give readers as many ways to pay for useful versions of your product at as many price points as you can. If you’re competing with pirates, you need to offer better services than they do. Giving people less makes piracy more attractive.
iPad, as you write on your blog, blocks everything with its DRM. Is this gonna hurt the ebook-industry?
Probably not too much in the short term, and in the long term I think they’ll get rid of the DRM the same way they did with music. This is classic Jobs – start as proprietary as possible and try and control everything, then later figure out it’s not what people want and change accordingly. DRM is a waste of time, it doesn’t help – it’s kind of depressing we have to keep going through this with every new media format. But letting go of control (or the perceived notion of control) isn’t easy for big media companies.
What should booksellers do to avoid the calamity in the music industry?
What happened to the music industry wasn’t a calamity. Behavior changed as technology changed. The business of people making music and coming up with new business models around music is in great health. The calamity was something that happened to the big record labels that didn’t respond to these changes fast enough, because changing your entire business model is hard to to do.
The only thing publishers can do is stay on top of how people are actually using books and respond accordingly (the big news: More people are reading books on cellphones than on eReaders, because the device is already there. It’s like Woody Allen once said “80% of success is showing up.”). They need to keep adding as much value as they can to the process of making a book, rather than trying to create new distribution bottlenecks that in reality are meaningless. People will keep paying authors and paying for books. It’s authors who will decide which publishers stay in business, because they will only work with those who are really helping them get their message to people and adding value to the creative process.
A famous Dutch writer (Leon de Winter) wants to start his own website and sell his own books, so he can keep more income because he skips bookstores and publishers. Good idea?
It’s worked for some authors – it’s a great idea for some to do that, for others there could be reason to go a more traditional route. With music there isn’t one business model per label, there’s several business models per band or artist now. The business of making money from content has become much more complex than it used to be. We’re living through a period of experimentation, where many people will do many things, some will work and others won’t, and those results won’t necessarily repeat themselves if someone else uses exactly the same business model. The trick with complexity is to develop a business model where all the places where people can get your work fro free add value to the places where they pay. I like to think of it as creating virtuous circles (and am currently working on a book about this process).
Another Dutch writer (Ivo Victoria) publishes his books for free, people have to decide how much they want to spend on his books (a bit like Radiohead). Better option? The ebook is published by his traditional paper publisher.
I did this with my book too and it worked really well. It didn’t cannibalize physical sales, it got the book to a lot more people who wouldn’t have found it otherwise, and I get emails every day from people who found the download somewhere and went and bought the real book. The amount of money the free version continues to bring in in terms of speaking and consulting work is substantial, and the number of influential people The Pirate’s Dilemma got to as a result of the free download was crazy. No amount of marketing dollars could have spread the message of the book as well as the free version. For me it was word of mouth marketing on steroids. Does this mean this will work for everyone? No. Like I said, different business model for every author (or even every book). Find the virtuous circle.
J.K. Rowling doesn’t want ebooks of the Harry Potter saga. Now there are tons of pirate versions. Is this going to happen more, and does this teach the book industry it should take better care of its readers?
Like I said – give them what they want or they will get it somewhere else. The publishing industry is in the business of building bridges between readers and authors. To get the work from one to the other in the most efficient way possible and generate profits along the way. Not releasing ebooks is not part of that equation. Rowling is missing out and she should rethink. I understand why this scares people. Change is hard, especially if you’re an author who just spent a few decades making eight figures a year from a business model only to be told one morning it no longer works. I wouldn’t wanna change either!
Is 2010 the breakthrough year for ebooks?
It could be. It’s up to the publishers and authors, and probably Steve Jobs and what they all decide to do about DRM. I’m worried the prices are too high right now – they are making the same mistakes the record business did with that – the focus should be sell more at lower prices, because people know the overheads are lower and know you’re ripping them off.
What excites me is the possibility of more people reading books and authors creating new forms of books – new media forms altogether based on the ebook. My UK publisher Penguin asked to get involved in an experiment with digital storytelling last year called We Tell Stories that offered a glimpse of this.
The real problem for authors and publishers is that people don’t read enough. I’m excited about books becoming more accessible and e-books becoming a new form of media in their own right where the book becomes something new. All this noise about how devastating new tech is will go away once people start to figure out all the new revenue streams that will come into existence as people start behaving in different ways with that tech. That’s how it has always been with new tech from the printing press on down. There’s no need to panic, just focus on doing great work and getting it to people in great ways.