Back to: We appear to have a hung parliament | Forward to: PDF: Satanic horror from the abyss, or merely evil?

CMAP #9: Ebooks

There is no topic in the publishing industry this decade that is the source of as many misconceptions, superstitions, lies, plausible untruths, and idiocies as ebooks. Ebooks generate more email to my from my readers than just about any other topic. And the situation is only going to get worse over the next few years, so strap your safety helmet on tight ...

I am coming to this topic from two different angles. Firstly, I'm an author and some of my books are published through ebook channels. Secondly, I've got a computer science degree — having graduated in 1990, this makes me about as current as someone with an aeronatical engineering degree issued in 1937 — which qualification, along with several years earning my crust as a programmer and as a computer journalist, has fine-tuned my bullshit detector.

Before I get stuck in, some revision is in order — notably, a re-reading of CMAP 2: How books are made, and my mid-2007 article , Why the Commercial Ebook Market is Broken. Then continue below for a round-up of some aspects of the ebook biz that are not immediately evident from the headlines.

The lessons I'd like you to draw from those two earlier essays are:

1. A manuscript is not the same thing as a book. Just as a random sampling of 100,000 words is not a novel, so too does a finished book differ from a manuscript (the text an author writes, which forms the core of the book). In particular, about 80-90% of the cover price of a book has nothing to do with the paper and ink object you buy in a shop; indeed, using current production standards, ebook production requires nearly as much work as paper book production. (Paper and ink are dirt cheap; proofreaders and marketing teams aren't.)

2. Ebooks differ from paper books insofar as you need a device to read them with. This device, which may be hardware, software, or both, I shall henceforth refer to as a platform. Amazon's Kindle software (or reader) is a platform. The ePub file format standard is part of a platform, which may be the Sony Reader Store/Adobe Digital Editions, or Apple's iBooks (which is just a variant implementation of ePub), or Stanza. The hardware the platform runs on has hitherto been either a PC, or a PDA, or more recently an e-ink based ebook reader, and now (with increasing frequency) a smartphone.

3. The publishing industry has been starting from a doubly-handicapped position. Firstly, publishers are used to having multiple sales channels: hardcovers, trade paperbacks, and mass market paperbacks. (I discussed the financial and structural differences between these markets in CMAP #5.) Ebooks are seen, from a publisher's point of view, as being a new format, to stand beside paperbacks or hardbacks or audio books. That's because this is the way the contracts they negotiate with their authors are set up to allocate rights, and because that's how they're set up to handle the bookkeeping. Selling ebooks cheaply is a threat to their other sales channels — the phrase "cannibalize our market" is commonly used — but readers see ebooks as being less valuable than physical objects because they consistently over-value the paper-and-ink (and we in the publishing business have systematically trained them not to recognize the fact that the price on a book doesn't reflect actual production costs, but a measure of availability — if you want to buy it early, we want to charge you more).

The second handicap hobbling the Big Six publishing multinationals is that they're owned by multimedia conglomerates, and group level policies are set at a level above the publishers — who get very little say in said policy compared to the movie, TV, and music corporations that are also part of the conglomerates. Consequently, dumb, idiotic, stupid policies get imposed by decree ... for example, that Digital Rights Management is mandatory. This worked really well for the music and film industries (not), but the publishers are stuck with it because at the highest level, the executives would rather miss out on a new sales channel entirely than risk destroying their existing ones. Consequently, ebooks have been an afterthought to the publishing industry for over a decade (even though the technology to distribute them over the internet and read them on Palm Pilots and similar PDAs has been around since the mid-1990s).

So it's no surprise that it's taken ebooks a long time to get anywhere in the market. But 2009 was a breakthrough year. Here's a graph taken from the International Digital Publishing Forum, showing recent ebook sales in the US (Click through for more meaty goodness on ebook sales):

US ebook sales rocketed in 2009, growing to over $167M — up nearly 50% on the previous year. Which may sound good, until you realize that according to the Association of American Publishers, the US publishing industry reported book sales of $23.9Bn in 2009. Yes: ebooks accounted for a gigantic 0.7% of the publishing industry's revenue.

(On the other hand, if the 50% compound growth per annum is sustained, they're going to be a major piece of the picture in five to ten years' time.)

So how have things changed since the brokenness of 2007? And what misconceptions do we need to dispel in order to have a hope of understanding what's going on?

Let's take it from the top.

Publishers initially saw ebooks as merely being a different imprint. Early-adopting readers take ebooks for a new medium.

For publishers, treating ebooks as a new imprint is the easiest (laziest) way to handle them, because it means they don't have to redesign their accounting systems, which in turn are built that way because publishers do not own copyright to the books they sell — they license them from authors, and have to be able to calculate the due royalties and open their accounts if challenged.

Amazon screwed with this model when they brought out the Kindle: the contracts they pushed at the publishers defined Amazon as being a publisher, who would license subsidiary rights from the original publisher and republic the books via Kindle. This enabled Amazon to add onerous and arguably anticompetitive contractual terms to their contracts because they weren't simply acting as consignment wholesalers, but as licensees: notably, requiring publishers not to sell ebooks for a lower price elsewhere than Amazon were selling them via their store, and allowing Amazon to pick a price point, sell at that price point, and only pay the publisher a percentage royalty, rather than a fixed discount off a (publisher-set) SRP.

Amazon got what they wanted at first, because they were the biggest ebook vendor; if you're the only game in town you can play hardball. Apple broke this perception earlier this year when they proposed an alternative model: neither wholesaler nor publisher, but agent, taking a commission on whatever the publishers sold their books for.

The agency model is ultimately going to change the structure of the ebook market; if ebooks become more profitable for publishers, we're going to see more of them. And indeed, in the past year I've seen a startling increase in the speed with which ebook editions of my work are rolled out by my publishers.

Readers ... readers see none of this, and wonder what can possibly be so hard about recognizing this revolutionary new medium for what it is ("a library in your pocket/information wants to be free/why are you charging so much for access to the file your authors emailed you?"). Mostly because they've mistaken an elephant's tail for a bell-rope.

Publishers do not develop platforms.

Platforms come from the consumer electronics industry and/or the software business. They are virtually never invented by actual publishers, or even by folks who know what publishers do for a living. The folks who develop platforms hope to get rich by selling software or hardware (harnessing the publishing folks' customers in order to gain consumers for their own product). This probably explains all those "the book will be dead in five years" puff pieces in the press (themselves no strangers to the schadenfreude that goes with some other sector of the old media collapsing in misery around them) — they're the effusions of software marketing drones, and signify nothing about the actual state of the publishing industry. Although they do succeed in scaring the crap out of the dinosaurs, who repeatedly mistake the shiny in the sky for an inbound meteor.

Just contemplate, for a moment, how you'd react to some guy from the IT sector walking into your place of work to evangelize a wonderful new piece of technology that will revolutionize your job, once everybody in the general population shells out £500 for a copy and you do a lot of hard work to teach them how to use it, And, on closer interrogation, you discover that he doesn't actually know what you do for a living; he's just certain that his WNPoT is going to revolutionize it. Now imagine that this happens (different IT marketing guy, different WNPoT, same pack drill) approximately once every two months for a five year period. You'd learn to tune him out, wouldn't you?

This is how publishers have traditionally viewed ebook platforms and readers.

Authors have nothing to do with their ebook editions.

Weird but true. When a hardcover edition comes out, I get to hear a lot about it; reviews, a crate of comp copies, and so on. (If I'm lucky, a launch party.) When a paperback comes out, ditto. But ebooks somehow slither out the back door with no publicity and no attention (and no mechanism to give the author a complementary copy, either). They're very much an afterthought, even in 2009/10. In many cases, ebooks weren't even issued at all until last year. My Merchant Princes series fell between stools: books 1-3 saw ebook editions during an early Tor experiment with ebook publishing. Books 5 and 6 came out in time for a formal group-wide ebook strategy at Holtzbrinck to be in effect, and thus are available as ebooks. But book 4 fell in the gap, and is still awaiting an ebook release. (Yes, I get email about this. A lot.) As often as not, my publishers don't even tell me when a book of mine is going to appear in ebook form. (Hint to my editors: I can't tell readers where to go to buy it if I don't know it exists!)

Publishers inflict DRM on their ebooks.

I shouldn't need to explain why DRM is bad, stupid, and doomed to failure, so I'll leave it to cryptography guru Bruce Schneier, who in 2001 pointed out that DRM is an attempt to repeal the laws of nature. When you get down to it, every DRM scheme relies on encrypting files, then giving them to someone else, along with the necessary decryption key for decrypting them, and trusting that the someone else is too stupid to reverse engineer the decryption algorithm and use the keys you helpfully provided.

The primary problem with DRM is not only that it doesn't work, but that it irritates the hell out of law-abiding customers who only buy legal products (with DRM), but doesn't inconvenience pirates in the slightest. It's actually counterproductive. Customers learn to stay away from vendors of DRM'd products, once they've upgraded a device too far and discover that their old files are locked away from them and inaccessible (because the old software or keys won't run on their new gadgets).

A secondary problem with DRM is that it fractures the market — if a consumer has to commit to a particular DRM platform in order to read their books, then they can't easily buy books by authors whose publishers picked a different platform. So unless the publishers try to support all the DRM platforms, they're going to be left offering their customers a tiny sub-set of the books they can buy if they wander off the street into a branch of B&N, Borders, or Waterstones. Supporting multiple DRM platforms is expensive and time-consuming; not providing a decent range of goods is a deterrent to building the ebook habit among your customers. QED.

DRM doesn't emerge from the publishing industry itself; it's those annoying IT marketing guys with their WNPoTs again. In this case, the WNPoT in question (each and every DRM system) is designed to deal with a ingrowing toenail, but appears to involve leg irons and a chainsaw, if not a guillotine. For some reason, senior management recommend it.

I'm hopeful that the DRM nonsense will pass, if and when the music and film industries pull their heads out of their collective cloaca. Of course, the publishing industry may be a smoking crater by then: but hey, I'm an optimist.

(Some of you may with some justification point to Cory Doctorow and say, "how come he puts out free ebooks without DRM?" To which, I'm afraid to say the answer is that Cory is a Special Snowflake with EFF superpowers and New York Times Bestseller mojo which make him immune to the normal laws of man and nature. The rest of us still get to pay cash.)

There is now a standard ebook platform.

Well, not exactly: but we're down to three overwhelmingly dominant file formats: MobiPocket (prop: Amazon — it's what the Kindle runs on), ePub (prop: everyone else, including Sony and Apple), and PDF (horrible for reading novels on handheld devices, but nevertheless ubiquitous for things like illustrated text books, scientific papers, and role playing game manuals). With fewer formats it becomes easier to produce visually appealing ebooks that run on every platform (modulo the caveats about DRM).

We're also down to a handful of competing DRM platforms. There's the Kindle, and there's going to be Apple. There's Adobe Digital Editions, there's MobiPocket (waning) and Microsoft Reader (almost dead) and Peanut Press eReader Barnes and Noble. (B&N ePub dead pool: I give them less than two years before they switch.) Finally there are the indie publishers who eschew DRM altogether, like Webscriptions.

Historically, ebook readers have been dedicated fans using eccentric niche machines or cumbersome applications on desktop PCs, trying to deal with fragmented proprietary file formats and competing DRM schemes. (Or just going to bittorrent or usenet or IRC. As noted: DRM doesn't inconvenience pirates — indeed, over time it trains law-abiding users to become pirates out of sheer frustration.)

But now we have the iPhone/iPad/iBook combination which, with 70 million users, is going to be a major player once iPhone OS 4.0 (and iBooks for iPhone/iPod touch) ship this summer. And we have the Kindle platform, which is also available on the iPad/iPhone juggernaut, as well as on PCs and Macs. These two alternatives dwarf every other platform by at least one order of magnitude in potential size. Which means an Apple/Amazon duopoly is on the horizon for 2011, and if we get that far, we're close to seeing a large, viable, barely-fragmented market.

A "market" where no platform has more than a million users is pretty much useless from a publisher's point of view. But a single market with 70 million possible consumers is something else again. And in anticipation of such a market emerging, ebooks are already rocketing up the publishers' priorities.

At the same time, something's going to have to give on pricing. Treating ebooks as a parallel imprint, equivalent to hardcovers or paperbacks, is insane. Rather, we need ebooks with variable pricing — moderately cheaper than the corresponding paper edition (to reflect the reduced cost of production), and dropping steadily over time. There's going to be a lot of experimentation and some howls of outrage as the publishers flail around, trying to square the circle of a new medium with group policy handed down in the absence of information.

The casualties

My prediction is this: ebooks will kill the mass market paperback distribution channel.

The "mass market" is not a book size, even though it's associated with the ubiquitous C-format paperback; rather, it is an abstraction of the magazine/periodical distribution system. MMPBs are shipped out in the publication month. They are sold on terms that require the booksellers to pay for sold units 90 (or 120) days after receiving them — or to destroy the books and provide proof of destruction (the stripped covers). This is how magazines are sold via newsagents, albeit magazines are sold/stripped after one month, not three or four. The strip-and-pulp thing is an artefact of the cost of returning outdated periodicals — paperbacks don't go out of date but are costly to ship and warehouse, so it has traditionally been easier to treat them as a kind of long-duration un-dated magazine.

"Trade" paperbacks are merely paperbacks that are sold like hardbacks — if unsold, the entire book must be returned for credit.

In the UK, the mass market book distribution channel collapsed more than 20 years ago. We still have C-format paperbacks; they're just treated as trade books.

In the USA, the C-format is reserved for mass market books, to avoid confusing bookstore staff (who do not want to accidentally strip-and-pulp trade books that will then have to be paid for in full).

But the inefficiencies of a distribution channel that discards and destroys up to 50% of its produce should be glaringly obvious. I am told that the US mass market channel nearly collapsed in 2008, with one of the major distributors entering Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection. With high street bookstores under constant pressure and facing competition from internet sales and now ebooks, mass market paperback distribution will only be stressed further in the next few years. Ultimately I expect the channel to disintegrate. (But if you're a reader who likes the C-format paperback format, don't worry: they'll still be around, albeit fewer of them and sold as trade books.)

Ebooks have no returns.

From a publisher's point of view, ebooks have a couple of brilliant advantages over dead-tree books. The first is that you don't print the ebook and ship it to the store until a customer actually pays for it. The fulfillment model via the iBook or Amazon store is that when a customer clicks the "pay now" button, a request is sent via the bookseller's store database to the publisher, who encrypts a copy of the master image of the book (for DRM) and sends it to the customer via the store in question. No more 90 days or 120 days of credit: the publisher can demand immediate payment from the bookseller! Why, the accounting implications are earth-shaking. (And for their part, the bookseller never has to worry about selling out or running short of shelf space to display their wares.)

But that's not the best bit ...

Ebooks may in future drive surprise bestsellers.

In 2006, when I emailed the manuscript of "Halting State" to my editor at Ace, we both thought it would do reasonably well ... but it wasn't until Ace began getting advance feedback from booksellers that they got a vibe that possibly, maybe, it would sell very well. They took a gamble, and ordered 25% more hardcovers from the printer than they had with my previous novel.

Then they had to go back to print for another 40% of their initial run, in the first month, because it sold close to double the numbers of my previous book.

If they'd had the extra book blocks in the warehouse on the day of publication, it might have generated enough momentum to get into the extended bestseller lists, which in turn generates attention — reviews and news coverage — that attracts more readers. But they didn't, because if they gambled and lost, the cost of the surplus stock would wipe out the profit on those books they succeeded in selling.

Breakthrough bestsellers (as opposed to bestsellers by established superstars like Stephen King) are generated by a kind of murky positive-feedback mechanism that nobody really understands. All we really know is that the one thing that Makes Books Sell is word of mouth: your readers are your best sales team. You can only exploit that kind of feedback loop if you're in a position to sell books to customers who want them. As it is, it takes 2-4 weeks to get a rush order to and from the printer and then into the warehouses and bookshops. This is a woefully long response loop if you're trying to satisfy instant demand for a novelty item. In a market that is largely ebook-driven, we may see unexpected bestsellers: books that nobody knew would catch fire, but which — thanks to the instant-print effect of ebooks — can go exponential very rapidly.


Ebooks don't make typesetting, book design, and proofreading obsolete.

I get this a lot from dedicated ebook readers: "I don't care about formatting and design in ebooks!"

I think this is a peculiar kind of brain damage or mental scarring that mostly afflicts those who have read one too many OCR'd and badly proof-read scans of pirate copies on their Palm III with a 160x160 pixel black and white display. To reach a mass audience, ebooks are going to have to be comparably readable to a dead tree edition: sensible use of screen fonts, layout directives, and some eyeball candy are all part of the package. So is a cover picture, believe it or not, if only so you can spot the iconified version on your virtual bookshelf. If you think ebooks are all about text and not layout, I encourage you to contemplate the world wide web; the web was initially about semantics and information interchange too, with no idea about layout or pictures, but you won't find many designers agreeing with that thesis today. Indeed, even a primarily-textual website such as this blog requires some eyeball candy in this day and age.

So don't write the old skills off just yet!



At the moment close to ninety percent of books I buy are secondhand, older books. What I wonder about is how the "ebook revolution" is going to influence that, when there finall is a generation of readers whose primary reading is done and has always been done through ebooks.


The graph doesn't display properly for me in Chrome on Windows, (Does in IE 8 and FF)


This is a really tiny point, but: You say that "ebooks accounted for a gigantic 1.4% of the publishing industry's revenue." I get 0.7% (167/23,900).


(a) Not my graph, and (b) I don't have Windows, or Chrome.

Your call.


I get this a lot from dedicated ebook readers: "I don't care about formatting and design in ebooks!"

Ha ha ha! I just had to discuss a conversion bug in Calibre because it made a single book unreadable on the iPad solely because of formatting! (Lack of paragraph breaks made everything run together; where there were paragraph breaks, it made the text italicized, and smaller.)


I've read precisely 3 eBooks (from Baen using Stanza on an iPhone)

The eBooks were free and in each case I went on to buy the other 2 / 3 in the series.

Current tally - 3 free eBooks downloaded and read, 7 companion books ordered online and collected from my local Waterstone shop.

This worked for me - and I bought 7 books I wasn't intending to buy, I hope it works for everyone else involved.


Just a few thoughts, one of the problems that the industry has had is the level of training that takes copyeditors from reading hardcopy proofs and starting them on the road to tagging and onscreen copyediting.

There can be quite a bit of resistance and you can often end up explaining to people that it doesn't matter what a level 1 (or A) heading looks like, it's just the tagging that matters.

Also, the advent of wide-spread Print on Demand might help prop-up the Mass-Market Paperback. A large cost for publishers is warehousing stock that's going out or that they sell themselves. POD can really help slash that, which might give the physical copy a respite.


I borrowed an ebook reader from a friend the other day, to see what it was like, and read a couple of books on it (including Accelerando). My general reaction is that it's a pretty nasty experience. Given me a book printed on real paper any day. However, I tend to get sent to foreign countries on a regular basis for work, and my luggage usually consists of 50% clothes and 50% books --- so even though it's nasty, an ebook reader would be a godsend for me.

But, to me, ebook readers have a huge disadvantage: I already have a large collection of books on paper. I don't want to have to pay for another copy of a book just so I can read it in a different format. In addition, a lot of my books you just can't get in ebook format. Keith Claire's The Tree Wakers, a fantastic (if very strange) book, has been out of print since before I was born! It's hardly likely to turn up as an ebook any time soon.

So, to me, ebooks are an inferior extension to paper books, suitable for certain specialised tasks (reading when travelling), but generally much less desirable than a paper book. They're expensive; there's no upgrade path from my current library; you can't lend them to people (due to that stupid DRM); there is no second hand market (I get most of my books from charity shops); and it's a major disaster when I drop them in the bath.


Nick, POD is not and cannot be mass-market. (You don't buy POD books on consignment and return the stripped covers if they don't sell. QED. POD is expensive per unit compared to rolling an offset press.) C-format paperbacks are another matter.


Excellent perspective as usual, but... you've hit a nerve...

The so-called "agency model" is not an agency model. It is, instead, a price-restricted consignment model, and there's a helluva lot of math, business, and legal experience behind price-restricted consignments. Calling it an "agency model" is yet another example of the publishing industry hijacking a term that seems to mean x and defining it to mean related-to-but-not-x.

An agent:
* has a duty of loyalty to the principal (definitely not true here);
* has only explicitly delegated authority from the principal (definitely not true here);
* has no ownership interest in the subject of the agency (generally true here, but not always — nonreturnable items, such as e-books, are a bit dubious);
* has an obligation to timely, fully, and correctly account to the principal for both monetary and nonmonetary expenditures on behalf of the principal (ha! nobody in publishing — not even literary agents — does);
* may not compete with the principal (Amazon's proclamation that it is the "publisher" of Kindle works sort of belies that one); and
* is obligated to maintain all legal duties that the publisher is obligated to maintain... such as refraining from unfair competition, refraining from damaging goods and services, and so on (again, ha!)

There's actually another word that the publishing industry has already hijacked that comes closer to the so-called "agency" model for e-books than does "agency": "distributor." The sole distinction — admittedly, it's a huge one — is that in ordinary commercial usage (and always in publishing usage), a distributor has only negligible relationship to the actual end-purchaser.

Ultimately, calling it an "agency model" is just another linguistic step in hiding the underlying legal-economic nature of the publishing transaction... but I won't hijack the thread further, and I certainly don't want to leave the impression that I disagree with anything Our Gracious Host has said in CMAP 9 except the characterization of the Macmillan-led e-book sales model as an "agency model".

See? That legal training can be good for getting one's blood flowing before caffeine on a Sunday morning (in this time zone)...


"But book 4 fell in the gap, and is still awaiting an ebook release."

Ummm... actually... no. It's just not the kind of release you or your publisher were, likely, hoping for, and that is one issue that really bugs me in discussions like this. We can all merrily agree that the cost of producing an ebook goes well beyond what the author needs to be paid and agree on all the difficulties with ebooks you listed, but the problem is (as with the music/movie industry) that the competition is not "books in different formats", but the same thing, only free (and illegal), often rolling out in timeframes far more attractive to the user who, having read the book, will not go back and buy it to calm their conscience, but will simply move on as I did countless times.

I just ran across one of your Laundry books in a local bookshop a couple of weeks ago - and that's the first appearance of any of your work in a local (as in "country") bookshop (yes I'll buy what they have, if for naught else then to donate it to a library). Meanwhile, your complete bibliography (OCR'd and *well* proofread) has been merrily accompanying me from hard disk to hard disk (as they fizz out) for years, and not you, or the publishers have seen a dime off it.

"I think this is largely a peculiar aberration afflicting those who have read one too many OCR'd and badly proof-read scans of pirate copies on their Palm III with a 160x160 pixel black and white display."

Ummm, possible (that's me (too) being described in the sentence above), but unlikely. I just moved from a Nokia 5800 to a HTC Desire, and the way to achieve "sensible use of screen fonts, layout directives" in the ebook readers on both platforms is "Settings -> Style", or some equivalent. While formatting might be a large issue with textbooks or other books where layout and design are important, I'd wager that text-based fiction such as you produce will do just fine without typesetters.

but readers see ebooks as being less valuable than physical objects because they consistently over-value the paper-and-ink (and we in the publishing business have systematically trained them not to recognize the fact that the price on a book doesn't reflect actual production costs, but a measure of availability � if you want to buy it early, we want to charge you more)

Careful here. You're conflating two different notions of value - two different kinds of economic thinking, really.

"Value in exchange" is the price of the item in a market: the intersection of supply and demand. This is driven by the cost of production. "Labour value" is the amount of labour required to produce the item.

"Value in use" is the amount of discomfort (effort, boredom, whatever) eliminated by the use of the item, and is distinct from the price at which the item is sold. Demand here is driven by the difference between price and value. This is sometimes called "utility" or "use-value".

What you are observing here is that the utility of an ebook is lower than the utility of a paperback (because people like paper, it makes them more comfortable, and because ebooks are saddled with annoying misfeatures like DRM), while the price of an ebook is not very different to the price of a paperback because their labour values are about the same. This is unfortunate, but not uncommon in economics.

Both the price and the utility of ebooks are subject to change. I can't predict how much this will happen.

Discussions on this subject usually involve readers and authors talking past each other, with readers pointing out that the utility is lower and authors pointing out that the labour is the same, and both of them calling it "value".


Whilst I do like ebooks and take into account platforms such as the ipad (and other tablets/smartphone-like devices) i doubt that ebooks will overtake paper books in the near (or even middle future), for the same reason people still buy records, its aesthetic. People like the look and feel of a book and what it symbolises. >99% of the market won't be swayed by ebooks and the various platforms any time soon


Whoever fit the curve on that sales graph needs to be beaten to death with a statistics textbook.


And I'll also point out that Apple also has the "lowest price guarantee," and doesn't actually let publishers sell at any price they want. (I'll add the caveat the confirmation I got for this comes from a /. article, so take it with a grain of salt -- but it matches many comments I'd already seen, and the price granularity exactly matches the App store price granularity.)

One thing not mentioned is the ability for ebooks to be more than electronic versions of paper books. One of the most interesting "books" I've seen for the iPad so far is "Elements"; there's also an animation-rich version of Alice in Wonderland. (The only reason I didn't get the latter is because it's just a small portion of the book.)

Hm. Here's a question for you, Charlie: how willing would you be to do a version of, say, The Fuller Memorandum links to references to other books, explanations of the styles you're homaging, etc? And how much more would you need for such a version? (Okay, that's two questions :).)


There is one more issue with ebooks – geographical restrictions. This abomination appeared in my then-main (except Webscriptions) source of ebooks – Fictionwise about a year ago. I went to another ebook seller, Diesel. This April they got hit by the gr, too. So, in effect, I buy less ebooks then I did a year ago. I suppose that sooner or later I will go to Amazon, as the only seller who would sell me most of the new ebooks even if I do not have the dubious luck to live in the USA…

(BTW, there is a problem with Unicode characters in the comments. They appear correctly in the preview, but get mangled in the edit window below. For instance: – shows as –)


The issue, from the publisher's perspective, is that they don't know that you bought the 7 books because of the 3 ebooks so they can't tell what the relationship is between an ebook and subsequent sales of that or related books. They can infer some things (we did a promo of an ebook and saw sales in the follow N weeks for that author jump), but what they need to do is instrument the ebook - put in "If you liked this book you can order others in the series here: " links. That won't be perfect though.

I'm somewhat concerned about indie booksellers but I'm not sure what can be done - sometimes I use the one closest to me simply as a place to go get a new book that I know about and in that regard they don't really offer an advantage over being able to download the book as both are just distribution actions. What I'd miss is the ability to simply browse and hang out there, possibly discovering a new book or grabbing something that catches my eye. Online commerce is terrible at replicating that experience.

Oh and the chart thing is a Chrome bug - Chrome seems not to like heights declared in percentage terms for images so it sets their height to zero.


Your comment about "I don't care about formatting..." rather struck a note. I didn't care about it much either (and I was reading webscription books converted to text plus _italics_ at the time), until I started Earthlighting as a proofreader. On paper. And ran smack into the fact that books are not just text on paper. They are also graphical art, using typefaces/formatting/etc. to make information transfer to the eye as easy and comfortable as possible.

That's not a trivial point, and it's one reason why many people prefer paper over eInk. It's just one heckuva lot more comfortable, and I say that after one eInk-induced migraine from the first reader I tried that wasn't my trusty PalmPilot.

My own preferences for electronic books, by the way, have become: eReader for fiction, so I can turn it into text plus _italics_, the way I have for years, and for tutorial materials (e.g. Learning Python), DRM-free ePub on my copy of Firefox, since PDF does not play well with changes in monitor size/arrangement.

But I have always considered DRM as an abomination unto Cthulhu, and it's noteworthy that the publisher who got me into going all-eBook, all the time, was Baen(webscriptions), which has never used it. In fact, DRM-free eBooks got me back into reading and buying (electronic) books again after a five-year hiatus where I rarely bought anything. For the record, my Fictionwise account shows over three thousand novels, magazines (I subscribe electronically to Analog, Asimov's and F&SF.) and short stories. That comes to an average of about three hundred items a year, and by now most of them are novels.


So you're merrily coming here and telling Charlie you're stealing his work? Hmm... Of course if you bought the books you OCRed that's a bit different.

As for your take on layout and type - as with most non-designers you mistake good design for fancy visuals. Good design isn't how something looks though - it's how something works. A well designed book with the right font, font size, line spacing an d layout on the page is much easier to read than one without those things. People will not comment on that but that doesn't mean there isn't thought and work behind it.


Records are a bad example - very very few people buy records in comparison to CDs now. It's a niche, aesthetic thing. We habitually underestimate the pace of change - Amazon is less than 15 years old yet look at its influence. When I joined my first web startup in 1997 no one used website addresses on advertising or business cards... 13 years later look around. Napster was a niche upstart in 1998 and 99... How many billions of songs has just Apple sold in the iTunes store by now? Ebooks might not be prevalent in 5 years... but they will be in ten.


Charlie, what about Google Editions? How will it affect things?


Agreed records are not the best choice of comparison. But the primary reason that people switched from records to CDs and onwards is the advantages, a record breaks (marginally) easier than a CD and can hold only about 10 songs. A standard ipod can carry thousands more. But an ebook as a single ebook doesnt seem to give any advantage over a book to the consumer. why should I buy an ebook when I can by a book? Sure I can download it instantly and pay slightly less but reading of a screen is a pain. An advantage is that you can hold many books within a small platform but i dont think this is enough to win over the general consumer.

In short i dont see why the average consumer would be persuaded to buy an ebook over a book though i invite someone to show me up (personally i read ebooks and i dont mind but i consider myself one of the niche)

final thought considering the pace of technology it wouldnt suprise me if the technology to make an affordable platform that looks exactly like a book (with pages indistinquishable from paper that can change their content and some sort of internet connection allowing to download more books) arrives before or around the time ebooks start to overtake paper books. thoughts?


what about Google Editions? How will it affect things?

No idea. I think that's an imponderable, at least until the Google Books settlement has been vetted by the courts and the case is closed.

(What they're announcing sounds a lot -- to my ear, at first hearing -- like Apple's iBooks, with added orphan works and public domain content on top.)


final thought considering the pace of technology it wouldnt suprise me if the technology to make an affordable platform that looks exactly like a book (with pages indistinquishable from paper that can change their content and some sort of internet connection allowing to download more books) arrives before or around the time ebooks start to overtake paper books. thoughts?

We have the technology these days to build automobiles that are entirely indistinguishable from horse-drawn carriages (except for the papier-mache horse out in front). Thoughts?


One other thing publishers need to get into their heads is that books in a series sell better if all the series is available in the same format.

Until the publishers started playing games recently with pricing and availability (and my Fictionwise pre-order of the eighth book in a series got canceled without my consent), I'd rather gotten into the habit of, if I was interested in an e-book that was part of a series, having a look at the description, and then buying it only if the rest of the series was available and getting them at the same time.

This is not as big a gamble as it seems. A series lives only if the first and subsequent books sell well enough to continue it, and any series with more than two-three entries comes self-recommended. As a result, I've frequently spent fifty or sixty dollars assembling series books for my collection, and getting around to reading them when I have time.

Specific examples include my (all bought at same time) sets of Casey Daniels' "Pepper Martin"), Carrie Vaughn's "Kitty", Preston and Child's "Pendergast", (I'd already read "Relic" and "Reliquary" as treeware, so when all the books showed up as electrons...), Rachel Caine's "Weather Warden", and Mario Acevedo's "Felix Gomez". These are just the examples that come readily to mind, I'm certain there are others.


I agree we can but a car has many obvious advantages over a horse an carriage that the consumer can easily see. with the case of ebooks and readers i dont see the sales potential to the market when ebooks don't have that much advantage over real books. my point with the "indistinquishable" idea was that potentially thats guna be a good way of selling to people who dont like reading from ebook readers.

on another note ebook readers built inside other things (i.e. the ipad is an ebook reader but thats not its primary purpose) and the diffusion of technology like that will likely make ebooks more appealing to the public. atm joe consumer doesnt want to on mass shell out for ebook readers over books


"So you're merrily coming here and telling Charlie you're stealing his work?"

Yes, since as noted several times in other CMAP comment threads, I have no viable option of purchasing them legally (correction to that: now I do, for a very limited number of books, and will - but I did not have until about a week ago, due to a mix of geographic restrictions impacting both book distribution and electronic payments that put the country where I happened to be born and live at a severe disadvantage compared to the rest of the world), without paying 5-10 times the actual price of the book and having no solid guarantee that it would, in fact, arrive in the mail. I'm no angel and pirate some stuff simply because I don't feel like paying for it, but there are people, Our Gracious Host included, whose work I pirate simply because I have no alternative, and see no point in hiding this fact - open dialogue is, most often, the best way to solve a problem.

A whole different issue is whether the dialog should be taking place with OGH at all, since he doesn't have much say in the matter either.

"As for your take on layout and type - as with most non-designers you mistake good design for fancy visuals."

Not quite. I do (to an extent) work in design and understand the difference between graphical design and typography/typesetting. The thing is that all of the e-readers I had during the past couple of years had the following settings built in: font (family), size, line spacing, margins, alignment, color, all applicable to tags for the equivalent of paragraph, title, section title, headers, annotation, verse, etc. Colors (background/foreground, tags, etc.) are also settable, as well as night/day mode (beige on black is far easier on the eyes in dark than black on white), all this with the option of overwriting whatever the original document defines. I've set mine up just the way I like it, which was very different to what the built-in default was and what is likely to be the most comfortable for you or someone else... and that's just the thing, just like with HTML - produce properly structured code and provide a usable default style, but overdo the format tweaking and you'll just make it tougher for users/readers who (for whatever reason - from aesthetics to usability to disability) might want to change what you feel is the best design. For a book that's heavy on graphics, laying it out is demanding, but for a book that is a series of paragraphs with part of the text quoted and parts of it italic/bold... let's be realistic.


As always, very interesting, but you keep saying this in one form or another:

but readers see ebooks as being less valuable than physical objects because they consistently over-value the paper-and-ink

You might have a point if you said "overestimate the /cost/ of paper-and-ink"; but yes, I get 2 or 3 times more value out of a paper-and-ink book, because I can lend it/give it to a friend, sell it to a used books store. Or it can simply serve as furniture.

Maybe you're spoiled because you must get tons of swag from publishers / marketers and so on, but as someone who has to buy the stuff, I'm not exactly overwhelmed by piles of useless tons of nicely bound books.

I can definitely see how you may misjudge the value of the physical objects to your readers. I once was overwhelmed by tons of useless CDs in the 90s because I participated at some point in a student magazine that got some exposure (very relatively speaking). I reviewed a few albums and I got a few dozen CDs for promotional purposes. I was glad once I could turn them in mp3s and dump the damn plastic bits.


People will buy ebooks over paper books for the same reason they buy MP3s - convenience. What they won't do is use a dedicated ereader - there will be no long term match to the iPod. Instead, they'll buy ebooks and read them on he iPad and its successors and competitors, i.e. they'll use multi-purpose devices that they will also use for web, music, etc.

The ebook market doesn't and will not have an intermediate format ala CDs though. The progression of music went:

Analog physical (LPs, cassettes, etc) > Digital physical (CDs) > Digital virtual (MP3s, AAC, etc).

The intermediate step to CDs meant that when people were considering buying an iPod etc they could take their CD music with them to that iPod. They'd already gone through the "I have to rebuy music I already have on LP?" issue years before, so the friction to moving from LP to Mp3/Flac/etc was broken into two phases with about a decade between them - the "I need to rebuy music?!!?" phase from the move to CD and then the "I need to move my music onto this new device" phase. The latter was easy since CDs are easily ripped.

In contrast, the move to ebooks collapses those 2 phases into one - "I need to rebuy my paper books in electronic form?!!?" AND "I need to buy a new device....". toss in DRM which was less of an issue in the music transition since you could rip your own CDs without it and the ebook transition has more friction to overcome. But what will happen is that the casual reader will simply stop buying physical books - they'll find it dead easy to buy their summer vacation reading on their iPad, WebOS pad, smartphone, and more of us will have those around. Most of us won't rebuy our books, but we'll find ourselves buying new books digitally as we end up buying the tablets and smartphones to use them for a myriad of other reasons. Only the most committed will use the Kindle and Nook e-readers.


One area that I think deserves more attention is that so far the most successful e-books are sequential art serials. The business model is a curious one: the artists give away their work, serially, on the web, and then sell paper compilations and tie-ins. This seems to be a workable business model, at least for some people; the Foglios are doing well.

Another point: based on my experimentation with the iPad, I think it's the best reader there's been so far. I am not convinced by it as an application platform, but I am utterly convinced by it as a reader.


I definatly agree with the last point, people will buy ebooks with their latest gadget but it will be a while until devices suitable for ebook reading are owned by everyone in a phone-like fashion.


A whole different issue is whether the dialog should be taking place with OGH at all, since he doesn't have much say in the matter either.

I am studiously tip-toeing past the tar pit that is any discussion on the internet of issues surrounding intellectual property, copyright, and piracy. You can dive in if you want, but I've got better things to do with my life.

(FWIW I think our system for encouraging/rewarding creators is broken at such a fundamental level that we have great difficulty in even beginning to identify what's wrong. The terms "intellectual property" and "copyright" are themselves symptoms of the underlying disease. Unfortunately they're wired into our legal systems at the level of international treaty law, and can't easily be replaced with something Fit For Purpose.)

People will buy ebooks over paper books for the same reason they buy MP3s - convenience. What they won't do is use a dedicated ereader - there will be no long term match to the iPod. Instead, they'll buy ebooks and read them on he iPad and its successors and competitors, i.e. they'll use multi-purpose devices that they will also use for web, music, etc.

Darn straight. Even the best dedicated reader has two drawbacks. First, it's literally just another damned electronic gadget to carry around (with an awkward form factor). Second, reader providers (yes I include the Abomination That Is Kindle) want to lock you to their gadget with DRM. So buy a Kindle edition for your PC/Netbook(e.g. Merchant Princes 1-3, 5,6), and somebody who doesn't know gives you a Nook for your birthday?

What got me into reading eBooks was nothing more or less than the ability to stuff them into my Palm(5 ounces), and carry around ONE gadget to deal with my eBooks(equivalent, at times, twenty pounds of paper) and my schedule, to-do list, checklists and pretty much the whole of my personal information management.


That's why I distinguish between platforms and reading devices.

The Kindle store/client apps are a platform. The Kindle reader is a device. Kindle e-ink gizmo: doomed. Kindle on iPad, iPhone, Android and elsewhere: radiant future ahead.

Most folks are already used to reading text on their phone screen. Smartphones like the iPhone or Nexus One with big, sharp, bright displays are probably where the future of casual recreational reading belongs.

(And so on.)


I know the price thing has been done to death, but Waterstones has Alistair Reynolds' Terminal World in Hardback for £10.39 and the ebook for £13.29.

The market could take a long time to develop if that kind of idiocy carries on.


The publishers (or their big media conglomerate slavemasters) are trying to make the phrase "There's no real market for eBooks." into a self-fulfilling prophecy. Not that they'll succeed (cf. the legend of King Canute), but in the meantime it's a pain in the anatomy.


I'll note that the Barnes & Noble Nook device already uses ePub as its primary format with eReader being the secondary one. Both can be used either unencumbered or with their DRM, although I don't think you can use ePub files with non-B&N DRM. I got it specifically because I have a huge library of eReader format books that I've bought over the years from Fictionwise, but it seems to treat the ePub ones a little better than the old PDB files.


You've got 'republic' in there, and the word you want is 'republish'. I'd suggest leaving it; manuscript not being book, point made, etc.

I have a bit of a problem with ebooks, as once I've read it I cannot sell it or give it away, which decreases its utility more than a little. I read so quickly I'm unlikely to buy a book at all unless I think I'm going to reread it. An ebook one despises can't be traded for credit at the local used bookshop--it just squats in your flash memory, using space that could be devoted to tentacle porn.*

*Or your guides to identifing Soviet vacuum tubes. Whatever.


But can't you give them away and sell Stross branded cheese to make a living?


The whole thought of ebooks just makes me despair. I don't see the analogy with CDs at all. If you want to carry your music around with you and experience it, you need something to play it on (unless, I suppose, you decide to sing it yourself.) So mp3 players met a need. But you don't need anything to play your books on. They play themselves. So going the e-route means buying a thing just to put yourself in the same position you would have been had you, er... just brought your book. It sounds like a con trick to me. Yes, less of a con trick for a multipurpose device like the iPad than for a dedicated reader device, but still a con trick.

I will just stick to my hardbacks. (Yes, I can see some specialised uses - like regularly updates technical manuals - but those aren't things I'd read for pleasure.)


A suggestion for a future CMAP: WTF is typesetting and why do I want it?

I generally want the formatting in my ebooks to be as simple as possible, so it doesn't break if I change the font or size to what suits me. (Times New Roman, 10 point please.) I'm inclined to be be one of those who say they don't need it, but I'm wise enough to know I've no idea what I'm talking about.


I don't think anyone who's read your blog for a while is under any apprehension that an eBook should only cost $3. You've educated us on all the backend processing that goes into creating a book, no matter what medium it's published in (not to say that some of those processes couldn't be optimised, though!)

However I do take small issue with the phrase "they've mistaken an elephant's tail for a bell-rope", even if you were referring to the non-Stross-blog-reading public.

People have been taught by content providers that you pay more for better presentation; thus CDs cost more than LPs (until LPs became a rarity), mp3s cost less than CDs; DVDs cost more than VHS, BluRays cost more than DVDs, Amazon downloads cost less. Trades cost more than MMPB, Hardbacks cost more than Trades, eBooks cost... umm! And that's not taking into account the reduced utility (DRM preventing sharing, losing access, etc). We've been trained that the cost of the presentation may be more than the cost of the content ($10 for a paperback, vs $25 for a hardcover... the content is the same so the difference in cost must be in the presentation).

You appear to be trying to making this an argument of early access (pay more for early access) but this is not how the general public has been trained, and the different media used emphasises this training.

eBooks have the potential to help re-train the public, but this requires sane pricing models and that may be very hard when you get dead-tree resellers doing massive discounts on hard-covers when the "day 1" purchase price of the hard cover may end up being cheaper than the "year 3" purchase price of the paperback!

I do have a question relating to "early access", though. How important are these sales? I, personally, rarely buy hardcovers because the increased price normally does not have that additional utility (indeed; harder to carry around => less utility) and there are still 10,000 other books in the bookstore that I could buy while waiting the year for the cheaper paperback edition (in reality my bookshelf has enough backlog that those books come out in paperback before I'd have had time to read the hardcover, anyway!). I'm aware publishers may use hardback sales to predict paperback demand, but that's just a legacy of the model they use to predict future demand. Absent that, how important are "early access" sales?


Charles can probably provide a more full explanation, but see post #19 for short form. There's a reason why, in many programming environments, an area for text and graphics display is called a "canvas." Letters and typefaces are graphical objects, designed to help the eye flow over the page, and many aspects of typesetting are intended for the same purpose, to see to it that the reader is not distracted from the content by the mechanics of reading it.

That, BTW, is why migraine-inducing eInk readers are such failures with me. The "flash" of page cleanup was torture.


Hi Charlie,

As someone who obsessed about packing density when shelving his library, I think that you've got your paperback formats backwards.

C-format (135mm x 216mm) is the size commonly known as trade paperback, while A-format (110mm x 178mm) is the mass market paperback size popularised by Penguin.


I am one of those that likes books on dead tree (or preferably hemp).
Thing is, i had the Kindle, an Iliad and a cheap Sony reader on loan for a week each and those things are just not good enough.
If there was no DRM i could consider reading the eBook on my not iStockholm mobile and transfer it over to a dedicated reader when there is one, until then, i just don't see the point to pay the equivalent of more than 10 hardcovers, before i can even buy an ebook.

And yes, i would buy a liscence to have an ebook version, in addition to the paper edition. A bundle thats cheaper would be nice, maybe ebook for the half price together with the hardcover version? 1.5 times the hardcover price for the bundle at release? when preordered?

I have to agree that the electronic stuff leads to more sales.
Maybe another CMAP topic, audiobooks.
Got the free Metatropolis audiobook from audible and can't wait for my preorder of the hardcover to arrive.


Beautifully done, C (he says, after a silence of years...).

And the slow, painful, inevitable integration of audio with e-book rights will sooner or later add to the turbidity of the picture. The iPad's Alice app had everyone running around looking for visual gimmicks, but it's the integrated audio that promises creative added value. That or moon-faced RADA trolls killing our prose rhythms...

It's fairly obvious that some publishers don't want to sell ebooks at all. They price them so high that the only target market is the very small percentage of people who will only buy ebooks, but are not price-sensitive.

Take for example, Trudi Canavan's Magician series. New book came out this week. Hardback is $17 at Amazon. The ebook is embargoed for two weeks, but when it does come out, it's $13. A price I'm not going to pay. And now, you might say 'but it'll be cheaper when the paperback edition comes out'. And it might. But the evidence for this publisher is against it. The last book in the series, Magician's Apprentice, has been out in paperback for $8 for awhile. The ebook price on it, set by the publisher? $12. This publisher simply does not want my business.

In my circle of acquaintences, there are four of us who want to read this book. All four would prefer electronic editions. Only one of the four is still willing to buy physical editions of books. So what's going to happen is he will buy the hardback, and then it will be loaned between us. If the ebook were out today at a reasonable price, it would be 4 sales for $40, instead when we're done reading it he'll probably sell it at Half Price Books for about half what he paid for it. The publisher loses at least three, and probably four sales because of his unwillingness to actually, you know, sell books to folks who want them.

I know that our gracious host has railed against the Amazon $10 price point, but what he's missing is those aren't, by and large, missing hardback sales. They're disposable paperback sales, early, for a few dollars price premium.


My biggest two grips with the ebook market in the uk are this.

1) For a new ebook, the price is often _more_ that I'd end up paying for a paperback released at the same time. They both have the same cover price, but stores will discount the paperback more than the ebook (if they discount the ebook at all). Why should I pay more for something that _does_ cost less to produce (although I know it's not as much as many might thing), as well as something that is less flexible. Due to DRM I cannot loan, trade or resell an ebook which leads me on to...

2) I can't loan, trade or resell an ebook. Sure, I get that the publisher and author get no money from me loaning a book or reselling it to a second hand shop or whatever so want to restrict that if they can. However, why not produce a model where the DRM is transferrable. Digital editions already has the ability to do temporary licensing for borrowing from a virtual library. Why not produce a DRM that allows for this between people. Doesn't have to be free even. Put a small cover charge on each loan or sale and you can generate earning from a secondary market that you're denied from with paperbacks.

The one thing I'd really like to see though is a system that lets you pay a monthly fee and "borrow" x ammount of ebooks a month from a library. I'd happily pay a useful ammount of money for that.


I'm an ebook reader. Well, maybe it'd be more accurate to say that I'm a reader of ebooks. I use mainly the Kindle for iPhone app, and sometimes the Nook app but not as often. In fact, I almost never buy paper books anymore, and find myself getting annoyed if a book isn't available in digital format. I'm interested in the content, and the fact that I can have a few books in my pocket-sized device makes me feel like I live in the future. The only thing I miss at all about paper books is giving them to my daughter when I'm done with them.

Sure, the iPhone screen is smaller than a paperback. So what? I can set the type size to something that's a good balance between being readable and having a 300 page book be 1000 electronic pages. As to design, for the iPhone I'm not interested. Give me the regular cover and then plain text. On the other hand with something with enough screen size, an iPad for example, you can use the same (or an adapted) layout as the paper book.

I spent years reading the occasional Project Gutenburg book on various Palm devices, and probably read many classics I might never have otherwise read. Now that ebooks are becoming mainstream I'm very happy about the future.

I think the argument about ebook pricing needs some more data. I pretty much *never* buy hardcovers. Price is certainly an issue, but it's also about size and weight. Paperbacks are just much easier to throw in a backpack or read on the subway. That's one reason I'm such a big fan of reading books on my iPhone. The data I want, though, is a "typical" percentage of hardcover vs. paperback sales. We might also need some research on ebook cannibalization of hardcover sales at various price points. For example, let's say the next Laundry book has a hardcover print run of 5000 (randomly chosen number). If a same-price ebook is released at the same time, will hardcover sales be reduced? What if the ebook is, say, 10% lower in price? Will that make a bigger difference or none at all? If you only sell 3000 hardcovers but also sell 12000 ebooks at 70, 80, or 90% of the hardcover price you're still way ahead of where larger hardcover numbers would have had you. It's this sort of information we need to be able to talk intelligently about ebooks.

For me, ebooks would mean I'd just be able to buy the book sooner. You wouldn't lose a hardcover sale, instead you would get my money maybe a year earlier than you otherwise would have (and maybe a little more of it than you would have for the paperback). The same goes for the back end. I might buy back catalog ebooks at a lower-than-paperback price that I wouldn't have bought otherwise. The research I'd like to see would hopefully tell us what the magic pricing sweet spot is, the point where the amount of hardcover sales you'd lose would be balanced out by the ebook sales you wouldn't have gotten in the past. Without this fact-based knowledge, we're all just guessing based mostly on emotions.



But you do need something to "play" your book on - even if it's just those dead tree bits. You still have to carry something around if you want to read.

Your hardcovers look nice on a shelf, but they won't fit in a jacket pocket like my Sony PRS-300 does. Let alone the dozens deep too-read pile I have in mine.

I was a sceptic too, before I got one. Now you'd have to pry it from my cold, dead fingers.


Just as a point of clarification, Amazon didn't invent the rule about not charging more for an ebook there than anywhere else. That's been a standard in most of the industry for more than a decade, because prior to the last five or six years the majority of ebooks were published by independent ebook publishers who sold (and still sell) from their websites.

When the first ebookstores arose--Peanut Press and Fictionwise--they understandably took a dim view of publishers setting a higher price point at the bookstores than they did on their own websites. They instituted the one-price-fits all rule, not Amazon. In fact, Amazon likely "inherited" it when they bought Mobipocket.


Regarding layout, conversion issues were highlighted for me this week when I got the Hugo Voter's Packet. The novels (I haven't opened the .zip's for the other awards yet) are PDFs, most complete with printer's margins, headers on each page etc. This format is presumably a semi-standard part of the current production process, and easy for publishers to provide.
As I don't intend to read 6 novels (plus the shorter works) in the next several weeks on my laptop or desktop screen, I'm converting to epub for my iPhone. Most are reasonably straightforward (use calibre to convert to rtf, Word to do search-and-replace, convert to epub), although the result doesn't have a proper chapter structure, and I'm dis-inclined to figure out one of the free tools that look to be able to insert one.
However Julian Comstock has footnotes, which don't exactly flow when a simple conversion is done. I hope that epub as a format has a way of presenting them in a more useful way, and further hope that publishers are adjusting their processes to make utilising them straghtforward.


With you all the way on this one. Two thoughts:

1) When the standardizing formats, DRM platform issues, and sliding pricing stuff are all a bit more worked out five to ten years down the road, the e-book market is going to be different in another way. Rather than just a parallel, other sales channel/market like the publishers have treated it or a new medium that will supposedly drown out print editions (as the IT drones indeed erroneously have it,) e-books are going to also substantially be part of a packet market. A lot of folks are wanting to buy print editions and electronic editions of the same works (and perhaps not planning to keep either edition for long,) but in that case they want the e-book for free or at least not to have to pay as much as the hardcover price for it (and so quite a few go out and steal the e-book edition apparently.)

So bundling of print and access to electronic editions is clearly going to become a substantial market, like the special DVD sets. Rather than cannibalize the other markets, e-books seem poised to enhance them, in addition to straight e-book purchases. With series books, this would be particularly attractive -- the boxed set of print that also gets you the whole set of e-book versions. DRM is an issue there -- and Apple and Amazon like DRM as much if not more than corporations that own publishers. But a better model for publishers on this may not be music or film/t.v. but toys. Webkinzs, which were all the rage and are still very popular, was essentially just a line of small and mini stuffed animals. But when you bought one, you got to go on line and have the animal as a virtual pet and play games on the website. Your ability to access it would last for a year, at which point you had to buy another Webkinz to keep on. So kids were fascinated by the different stuffed animals -- with new models being released periodically a la Beanie Babies -- and also with the website connection.

So there are a lot of potential marketing ploys -- buy a print book and get a discount coupon for e-books of other authors on the publisher's list or Kindle store. Buy a print/electronic bundle -- and pay the extra for it -- and get an exclusive three short stories from the author, etc. But it's becoming clear that a good chunk of the book market in the future will be joint print-electronic, not necessarily just one or the other.

2) I don't think that e-books are going to wipe out the wholesale mass market sales venues and I don't think it would be a good idea for that to happen. The collapse of that market wiped out half the paperback sales and book publishers, especially for fiction, have been struggling since to get the books in front of buyers' eyes outside of the bookstores. Bestsellers sell less, mid-list authors sell less (and often have to drop out of the field.)

Recently, the publishers have been making strides in the wholesale areas, with renewed interest from department stores like WalMart and Target, with books popping up (paperback and hardcover,) in music stores, electronic stores, in more airport stores (i.e. mag/news stands of a sort,) and this improves sales because there are a lot of people who don't go into bookstores and who also don't go into on-line book vendors and/or don't have expensive e-readers or want to read a novel on their tiny phone screen. It's just that the new wholesale outlets (electronic stores, game stores,) may be a bit different from the old wholesale vendors (grocery stores, pharmacies, newsstands.) And there is that pulping problem and it is going to become a bigger issue.

Ultimately, these new wholesale vendors for print books and the e-books can help to do the same thing -- stick books in front of people's faces, make books seem interesting and worth checking out, and be worthy of impulse purchases. The rapid development of the e-book market recently and all the hoopla over the iPad have put books somewhat front and center (a place they're not really used to being for the past fifty years.)


I have a home full of hardcover books and, I love them. I also make extensive use of my local public library and will continue to do so.

This past Christmas, I spent 8 hours flying to New England and 10 hours flying back. I do not have a Kindle or any ereader other than my iPhone (I know, I know, my contract expires in September and I will never again enter the walled garden of Apple). The iPhone is useless due to battery life.

In order to support my reading jones, I ended up spending over $50 for paperback books, each of which was discarded upon completion. Ugh!

Since I fly very little now, I cannot justify buying any of the current readers because of their cost. If I could buy a reader for under $100, it would probably replace the paperbacks I have - so Charlie's right.

What all of the preceding is leading to is: Does anyone see the eBook as replacing printed books? Will eBooks even make up a majority of book sales? Those are real, not rhetorical questions.


Michael: and right there is a sticking point. If you honestly prefer to read a serif font (10pt, at that!) on a tiny little screen, you must have AMAZING eyes.


Chris L, here's the thing. My eyes are bad. And electronic readers let me bump the font size up. The kindle reader on the iphone (well, iPod Touch) I bump it up one notch from default. The Kindle itself I bump up two notches. Compared to the tiny, tiny font that publishers end up using on many of the weighty fantasy or space opera books in order to make them not be oversized, it's much easier on the eyes.

Don't get me wrong, none of the readers particularly do typography very well - Microsoft Reader did a ton better almost ten years ago in a product almost nobody used, because they basically let it die. But for me with bad eyes, ereaders, especially the e-ink versions, are easier on my eyes today.


I think there is something the critics of specific e-book reading devices don't get. Reading books on your iphone might be feasible and attractive when you're young and read only on the subway. For bibliovores like me who spend most of their job-time already staring on a backlit screen spending even more hours reading on another backlit screen that's tiny to boot is a nonstarter. To much time concentrating on backlit screens hurts in the eyes and induces headaches, that's where e-book readers with grayscale e-ink such as Sonys PRS series come in. Reading on those devices creates the same "strain" on your eyes as reading on a MMPB. Before I got my PRS-505 I'd never finished reading a full length e-book on a computer screen (at least for pleasure). After the first three to four hours of straight reading on a backlit screen the eyestrain and headache just throw you out of immersion.


It depends on the lighting and the device.

In everything but outdoor sunlight, I find the iPad easier to read than my Sony Reader Touch. I can read a book in my (admittedly relatively dim) living room light, or I can read the Sony -- in both cases, having a little LED booklight helps. But I can read the iPad in the same light, or in a dark room. (I do have to manually adjust the brightness level.)


@Chris L

I've just flipped through a bunch of books on my shelf, and I didn't find a single one that did not use a serif font. The print is larger, I'll grant, but 9-10 point is the standard for newspapers. I wear a mild eyeglass prescription. Maybe that gives me better than 20/20, I don't know.

The screen on my reader isn't tiny, it's only slightly smaller than the printed area on your standard paperback.


re: Seth Elgert's comments about pricing.

I have nothing useful to say about the prices of books and e-books but your comment did remind me of a keynote address given about video games questioning their pricing structures. Valve Software has an online content distribution system that is broadly analogous to e-books. They decided to begin experimenting with pricing.

Although Valve was initially afraid that volatility or variability in pricing would confuse or anger its customers--or even cannibalize retail sales--Newell says that was not all the case.

In essence they've decided to have lots of "specials", often up to 75% off the list price.

"Those that discounted their games by 10 percent saw a 35% uptick in sales--that's dollars, not units. A 25 percent discount meant a 245 percent increase in sales. Dropping the price by 50 percent meant a sales increase of 320 percent. And a 75 percent decrease in the price point generated a 1,470 percent increase in sales."

They found that not only was there that initial huge spike but that there were follow-on effects:

It energized the user base, says Newell. When the sale ended, baseline sales were double what they were prior to the weekend discount.

Mostly I just want to say: the fact that the "mass market" destroys product is _fucking insane_.

Regarding formats, as one who reads eBooks, I find that PDF is the most enjoyable, especially with technical books where formatting is important (consider a book on Python, for example). The deluge of competing eBook standards really seems to be a pissing match between corporations, and most of them seem only to be suitable for paperback fiction with uniform styling and font, whereas PDF is *a lot* more versatile.


PDF is fine for exactly the issues you sight, but for anything other than presenting a digital version of a piece of paper it is THE SUCK. The key concept here is that a PDF is a digital presentation of a physical object. ePub and other digital formats are designed to preserve the content (other than content that requires precise a4 formatting) and make that content easy to consume.
I would gather that you do not read PDFs on a phone or anything smaller than a netbook...


Michael, I don't think you've grokked the huge difference between a printed page and a screen display. What's the resolution of an ebook device, maybe 150dpi? If you're lucky? If you squint, you can see the individual pixels that make up the letters. The books will be printed at more like 300dpi, and their effective resolution is over 1000dpi; you can't see individual dots in the letters. The font sizes really aren't comparable across the two media. The "serifs" that give a serif font their name are barely visible on most digital displays, all they do is make the letters look blurry and hard to decipher. That's why no web designer who knows their stuff will specify a serif font for body text: sans-serif fonts don't have the detailing that ends up being 1 pixel wide (or less, and not displayed).

If you're having to bump up the font size to read stuff on screen, try a sans-serif font. You'll probably find it equally legible a size down from where you have your serif fonts.


Kindle is 167DPI, IIRC. But for me it's not the DPI, it's literally the letter size - most books i have to hold within probably 8 inches of my face. The Kindle I do not. The ipod touch I do have to hold that close, but with its lack of weight, it's not a problem.


"When the first ebookstores arose--Peanut Press and Fictionwise--they understandably took a dim view of publishers setting a higher price point at the bookstores than they did on their own websites. They instituted the one-price-fits all rule, not Amazon. In fact, Amazon likely "inherited" it when they bought Mobipocket."

Sorry Elizabeth, but that's not the way it happened. Yes, we took a dim view of publishers selling books for less than they charged us. But they did, time and again, and there wasn't a thing we could do about it. We were always in the position of being hat in hand, begging the Big Six to give the rights to sell their products. The only Big Name that we got early on was Stephen King, but we never had the really big guys, like Tom Clancy and John Grisham. It's only since the debut of the Kindle that the publishers really have started to open the spigots and let the product flow.

And yes, now they're embargoing some titles, (I'm waiting for the The Big Short now) but at least we know that we're going to get most of them.

Mike Segroves
VP Marketing and Business Development
Peanut Press, 1998 - 2003


I've been holding off on ebooks (I've bought a few, but they're what I consider 'disposable' books) and use Mobipocket on my notebook.

I'm hoping to end up with something similar to the "Steam" service, where my library of purchased games can be used from any web-accessible device (though with ebooks I'd prefer to not have to be logged on to access them).

Google's 'cloud' library may or may not be where I end up for my ebooks - from what little I understand of it, it's not going to force me to purchase through a single distributor, and doesn't seem wedded to a specific format.

Amazon's 'sub-publisher' model with the Kindle bothers me primarily because they don't seem interested in checking the quality of the product after they run it through their conversion process. The author and the original publisher seem to have little control over the Kindle product quality, and Amazon appears to have removed copy-editing out of their definition of 'publication'.


@Chris L

The eReader's we're talking about don't use the screen displays you're thinking of. eInk is a very different beast from LCD. Mine has a resolution of 200 DPI, and no, you cannot see individual pixels.

You're also wrong about LCD's (google subpixel rendering), but that doesn't apply here.


The iPad is an LCD, isn't it? I did know about sub-pixel rendering, I left it out to make things simpler. I'm pretty sure it doesn't let you render sans-serif fonts properly at small sizes.

I haven't looked at an e-ink device, but I'd like to. I suspect that I read faster off paper than I do off a conventional screen.


I reckon it's a good first approximation to say that all books published today pass through an ebook-compatible stage.

Getting to that stage is what costs the money.

I suppose that what the printer gets is a PDF file and it's the earlier stage of the marked-up etext which would be the common root source for the different platforms.

I infer that a successful future publisher, one who isn't wasting money on the internal process, will have a different structure for the editing process. It might also change the points in the process where the author sees proof copies.

There's going to be a lot of carry-over at the publishing-house level, but the survivors will be those who are not pinned down by the Big Daddy body-slam of the current media conglomerates.


@Chris L

The iPad does use an LCD, which is why it would be an absolutely awful ebook platform. I'd rather claw my own eyes out than read a book on one. It's intended for magazines and web browsing, ie short form reading. ebook support is an afterthought.

Eink is very, very different. Go look at one. It looks like paper.

@Dave Bell

You'd be wrong. A PDF does not really make a good ebook source and can require a fair bit of work to look nice as an epub.


M'colleague Blaine has written a pure javascript ePub reader that runs in your browser (taking advantage of the fact that ePub is basically HTML with a few annoying extra constraints and a manifest file):



I have just opened the Novellas packet for the Hugos. And lo, verily, they have turned the nice ePub file I sent them (of Palimpsest) into a cruddy PDF!!!

A complaint will be issued. Too late for them to act on, but hopefully next year someone will listen.

Sigh. In the meantime, if you want Palimpsest in mungeable-to-other-formats HTML, You can click through to it here.


IMPORTANT THING THAT I FORGOT: Impact of sales taxes.

To those of you in the UK who are complaining about ebooks costing more than paper books, BLAME THE GOVERNMENT.

Books are zero-rated for VAT (sales tax). But software and anything delivered electronically, be it on CD or over the internet, is liable for VAT. If it's UK standard rate VAT that adds 17.5% to the cover price. If it's international European sales-standard it's usually 19%, although in some jurisdictions it may be 21%.


The thing that really worries me is that even if the DRM issue gets solved, we wind up with region coding, as we have for DVDs and as Apple's ITMS already implements. "Sorry, you can't buy _The Family Trade XII: We Finally Find Out About That Dome Thing_ because it is not available in your region", and even if you do obtain the file, your iPad 8G won't read it unless you crack it.


"I don't care about formatting and design in ebooks!"

Well, I do, and in real books as well.
This is one reason why, ay present I won't go near e-books - readability. And, anyway, I LIKE dead-tree-format.
The same applies in dead-tree books.
I got rid of my first, pbk edition of "The Blind Watchmaker" because it was in an almost-unreadable Vitorian font. The hbk is in a nice, readable, easy-on-the eye typeface.
Far too many electronic "publishers" in the broadest sense of that waord and activity, ignore this at their peril.

An abilty of the reader to change both the type-size AND the font in all readable text (at least) .....

@10 - VERY good point - what about older editions, that are not on Gutenberg?
Come to that, is it going to be possible to download Gutenberg-texts to your e-book. And if not, why the HELL not? Especially, IIRC that Gutenberg seems to be in .pdf-format (ARRGH! as Charlie says)

Sebastian @ 28
Where the HELL do you live, then?

who would license subsidiary rights from the original publisher and republic the books via Kindle.
ITYM "republish". Living in a monarchy getting to you?

You say: "A "market" where no platform has more than a million users is pretty much useless from a publisher's point of view."

and many countries in Central Europe and all over the world do have population about 5 millions of people, many of them have their own language, different from English ( do You knew that? - sorry for the sarcasm) . If we assume that about 1/10 people buys a paper books this markets are far below given by You barrier. Is that mean that there in no paper books in Finland? Or You may prove that there is so much readers in Norway? Sorry but what You say in that light seems to be very strange...


One more thing to take into account when comparing ebooks to other digital media is the fact that unlike DVD's and CDs, paper books are not easy to pirate. Most pirated ebooks are a pain to read. Unless we're dealing with a writer such as Rowling, with millions of fans, a vanishingly small percentage of which would be willing to pore over the result of an OCR and manually proof it, a pitrated ebook won't impinge on an author's sales. Also, currently, most of the population doesn't have a way to read an ebok comfortably (reading off a PC screen or a smartphone isn't for everyone), while practically everyone has a means to listen to pirated music or movies.

So *currently* piracy is not a big issue. BUT at a certain future time when devices the size of an Ipad with long enough battery life and low price are on the market, everybody will get one, and then the bottom will drop on the ebook market. Why should a publisher take the risk? the current model is working just fine.


Editing error there near the top, fwiw.

"to my from my readers"

I anticipate this getting widely linked and hope that'll get sorted to give the essay even greater influence.


RE: formatting. I've read many a Project Gutenberg book on an old Psion. Text-only, no formatting at all, and still Dickens reads marvellously.

RE: only 10% of a book's costs are due to paper, printing, distribution... This sounds to me like a good argument from the overlords at the corporation summit, to slash editorial budgets in the publishing subsidiaries.

RE: destruction of the mass-market paperback. Ebooks in general will only sell for lower prices than the available discounted price of a print edition, unless readers see more value in the ebook. Currently with DRM we see less value in the ebook, and we are unlikely to pay as much for the ebook edition. We want to pay less ... a lot less. Publishers are defending their book chain sales but this will change. It will have to.

At the same time, with DRM, I can see a preference for (cheap) ebook editions of any light reading -- a book you will read only once and then throw away. (Even there, the resale value of the used book offers a good return.) I think if you're just reading a Harlequin romance every week, the ebooks will be a fine substitute.

RE: a book is more than a collection of words, and all that. I think we will see a rising tide of authors like yourself, already established, who take a rejected MSS. and sell it as an ebook without 'benefit of publisher.' Keeping all the publisher's share as well as the paltry author's share. This indeed might encourage authors who would like to write something out of their ordinary field or genre, or who would like to push the boundaries of taste and subject matter within their genre. Or who simply have a tale they have been burning to tell, but it's 'not commercial enough' to get an advance or likely publisher sale.

This sort of change will suddenly open up a world of opportunity to the famous authors. Imagine Stephen King, even with a commercial text, self-publishing first through Amazon and Apple and Barnes and Noble, reaping in 70% of the cover price on the ebook for the first 6 months or year, then turning around and selling the print version through his regular publisher (minus ebook rights). If the ebook is already a hit, a name brand like King will find a print publisher, after a nice little period when his ebook, at decently low prices, has made him a million dollars or so.


The sort of publishers I'm talking about here are the Big Six -- multi-billion euro turnover multinationals. And I'm talking from my point of view -- as an English Language author selling translation rights separately.

Translation adds a large extra cost to publishing -- namely, paying the translator. Moreover, where there's a strong national language market a population of 5 million or under can sustain some activity -- but if the population is very English-literate, the market diminishes. (For example, I'm translated into smaller language markets than the Netherlands, but that market is very close to bilingual in English, so generally only best-sellers get translated.)

To make a living as a writer given current book prices and reading rates you either need government grants or access to a market with 100 million-odd potential customers.


sebastian@28: dude, where do you live anyway, North Korea? I live in the outskirts of civilization (specifically, Sao Paulo, Brazil), and own a small pile of Stross books! Can't get them on the local bookstores either, I have to order via Amazon; they take a while to get here, but meh. And no, I'm not rich: even when you take the price of a U.S. paperback and triple it, it's still less than what you'd pay for a few beers at a bar anywhere on Earth.


"One more thing to take into account when comparing ebooks to other digital media is the fact that unlike DVD's and CDs, paper books are not easy to pirate."

This is only true if you are trying to rip paper books. If there are already DRM'd ebook sources, it becomes absurdly easy to make a pirated copy.


See how that graph starts sky-rocketing in 2009? That was before Apple's iPad and next up, Google Editions, entered the picture. Charlie's right; ebooks will kill certain elements within publishing and create entirely new ones, like the need to filter the gems from the garbage. I'm a self-published author applauding every new device, software, announcement, etc because the possibilities this means for me, for creativity, for world literacy, sharing, learning... it's all about to sky-rocket just like that graph. Loved it so much, I even wrote a guide teaching others how to make, market and sell ebooks - all for free.
Hello new world.



No it isn't. A few beers at the pub across the road is considerably cheaper than a Stross paperback, locally.

For $24 I am pretty sure you could find bars in the USA where you would get a lot of beers, as opposed to a few........


Sigh. Relative growth rates: Of COURSE small segments of the market grow fast! That's what the math does. Going from 0.5 to 0.75% of the market is a 50% increase. It's a little different than going from 10 to 12%. Yes, fast relative growth rates are a great place to invest if you can, but there's no way they're going to be sustained over time. This is a matter of math, not economics. Anybody that tells you they are is lying.

Second issue: eBook taking over the trade paperback channel. Maybe. This is an infrastructure question. eBooks have infrastructural needs too, including interesting exotic elements from unstable Third-World Countries. The big question here is which is more stable in the long term, the oil-based infrastructure for moving books, or the rare earth and electricity-based infrastructure for building dedicated tech devices.

Neither infrastructure is sustainable in its current form, so there's a fascinating question of how this mess is going to evolve towards sustainability, or crash and die.


Since I got my iPad reading has become so much easier & more pleasant, I've had a regular orgy of reading. It even distracted me from the 'net! So I'm happy with and in favor of e-books. And me a retired librarian!


Blue Tyson@87: well, yeah, it's the same down here. I was being hyperbolic.

Still. R$ 28 (~US$ 16) for The Atrocity Archives in paperback? Totally worth it.


I'm an ebook buyer, and an ebook reader, and while my Sony 505 is far from perfect, it's an excellent replacement for mass market fiction. It's easier on the eyes than most LCDs (although my phone has better DPI)and while the print isn't as sharp as a paperback, not having to deal with the difficulty of reading near the spine of a thick paperback is worth the trade-off.


Well, if someone thinks it's not worth it they can decide not to buy it or hit the library. What pirates do is decide they want it but that they don't want to actually pay for it either out of 'principle' or because they're cheap.

That's the problem with electronic media right now - we've got a generation that combines "I want what I want" with the ability to get that at very little risk. It's one thing to try to shoplift Charlie's books at the local store.... that's likely to get you caught and in trouble, so people either bought the book, did without or went to the library. Now, they just steal it.


I wonder when e-book reading tablets will become ultra-cheap commodities. (In 10 years? 20? 30?)

Come to that, is it going to be possible to download Gutenberg-texts to your e-book. And if not, why the HELL not? Especially, IIRC that Gutenberg seems to be in .pdf-format
My Sony PRS-505 is full of Project Gutenberg books. I download them to my computer, then use Calibre to tweak their metadata and load them on the Reader.

Most if not all PG ebooks are available as plain text, HTML, epub, mobipocket, plucker, and something called QiOO mobile, whatever that is. PDF doesn't really come into it. Feedbooks and Manybooks mostly scrape PG, and they offer PDF (among other formats; in the case of Manybooks, MANY other formats).

I bought my 505 because I wanted to be able to read PG books in bed. Now I wouldn't want to be without it. In its travel cover, it's about the size of a trade paperback; out of it, easier to hold than a MM paperback. I'm now spending more on ebooks than on pbooks (and that's with a limited variety of sources, since I will not buy DRM-restricted ebooks). It's as easy to read as a MM paperback, and a lot easier on the eyes than backlit screens (and I say this after years of reading on both CRT and LCD).

I'm in the process of moving. I just paid to ship literally tons of dead trees books. It will be a long time, if ever, before anything electronic can replace some of my coffee-table books (and in some cases, I mean "coffee table" in the sense that you could attach legs to them and put them in front of your sofa) but for fiction and graphics-light references, ebooks are now my preferred format because they have neither volume nor mass. When things are at the point where your selection of a place to live involves inspecting the floor joists to ensure they're sturdy enough to withstand your library, this really starts to matter.

DRM is a major issue. Aside from the moral implications, there's the whole problem of platform lock-in. Therefore, I will not buy DRM-restricted ebooks. This has led to some shifts in my reading patterns, causing me to stop buying books from authors I formerly read and discover wonderful new authors I hadn't read before. That's great for the new authors, of course, but the old authors have lost a reader.

The publishing industry is drinking the same kool-aid (and passing it around) that the software industry has been chugging. The BSA has this idea that every teenage warez d00d with the latest version of Photoshop would have bought a legal copy at full retail price if he didn't have access to the pirate version. Because, of course, every teenager has $2,599 on hand for a program to put stupid captions on their Facebook pictures. That's bogus, of course; without his pirate copy of Photoshop he'd use Paint. But the BSA lobbyists have spent years braying about the loss of that $2,599 sale that never existed in the first place. That warez d00d wouldn't have bought Photoshop if it was $25.99, let alone $2,599. It's not a lost sale unless the sale would at some point have existed. But it makes good press.

@92: What pirates do is decide they want it but that they don't want to actually pay for it either out of 'principle' or because they're cheap.

Would they have gone to the store and bought it if it wasn't available free?

If the answer is "no" then it's not a lost sale. It's a morally reprehensible act, sure, but the author has lost nothing. In order for it to be a loss to the author, there would have to be a sale in the absence of a pirate copy. If, as in one case mentioned above, the reader would have bought a legitimate version if one had been available, it's a lost sale all right -- but one lost by the publisher's actions, not the copier's.

And as Charlie said, one of the big downsides of DRM and of publishers' insane pricing (charging more for an ebook than a paperback, even more than a HC) is they're training honest people to become pirates. Learning the best ways to strip DRM should not be a necessary part of even an honest reader's skillset.

With no printing, no shipping, no warehousing, and especially no returns, an ebook can be sold for less than a pbook. This is intuitively obvious to readers. So when they're charged $15 for a book they could buy in physical form for $8, they resent it. They feel like they're being ripped off. This nudges them closer to the dark side. "If the publisher won't deal fairly with me, why should I deal fairly with them?"

I don't buy DRM-restricted ebooks, and I have a century-long backlog of public domain books to read. So I'm not their market. Not anymore. But I would have been, if they'd wanted me.


The Canavan e-books are signficantly cheaper and available now at Barnes and Noble. Their apps for PC and iPhone are free. I read e-books irrespective of platform (I have an iPhone, a PC, and a nook, although all things equal I prefer the e-ink reader), and generally go for the cheapest available copy if I can.


I am wrong about the pricing for this particular series, once I reread the original post. However, I am now going to *read* this series because in researching the prices I found it looks interesting...

And it is true that different online e-book sellers do have different prices for the same books--just not this series-- so being platform-promiscuous can pay.


"Would they have gone to the store and bought it if it wasn't available free?

If the answer is "no" then it's not a lost sale. It's a morally reprehensible act, sure, but the author has lost nothing"

Ah the old 'is it a lost sale' canard. The answer is... it's irrelevant. I'm not making the argument that you should pay for something because if you don't someone is harmed. You should pay for something because you're getting value from it. How do I know you're getting value from it? If you're not.... why do you want it? Why would you spend time reading it? You wouldn't.

People who pirate digital content keep saying "but I'm not depriving someone else of this - it's not like physical products where if I steal a CD it's gone from the store and the CD itself has real cost...." Again, that doesn't matter. You're still getting something and paying nothing. As long as people feel it's fine to do that, we have a problem.


Ignoring the moral/legal issues for a moment, the economic effect of piracy is not black and white. Any brand name, be it a musician, artist, or author, is building up a fan base that will generally continue to buy products for many decades. The key here is for the consumer to initially find the products he or she will like, and file-sharing piracy is very effective at this. The cost of buying a book from an author you're unfamiliar with is very high, without necessary good returns--that's why word of mouth is so important, it let's consumers know that the product might be worth buying. But with piracy they can sample the product for free, and they might find something they like. Yes, that cuts into the immediate profits of the books, but since an author is presumably writing more than one book in their lifetime, the pirate-turned-fan can now be an economic boon to them. In a sense the file-sharing world becomes a library of free media, albeit one that competes much more voraciously with the publisher than your local public library.



Then where shall we send the bill for the comments you've read here? By your own reasoning you've derived value from them, so you'll be making a payment, right?


I suspect Sebastian lives somewhere like South Africa. We've been buying books by UK authors (OK, Jasper Fforde) and posting them to someone in ZA, because they pay about five times the RRP, assuming they can find them at all. And if they order from Amazon they either pay huge import duties or never see it at all.

Even here in NZ I could get pretty tiddly for the price of a Stross paperback (I paid $26 for Saturn's Children, and had to wait about 6 months after the release before I saw it anywhere).


I'm aware that ebooks have the same editing/copyediting/typesetting requirements as a deadtree, plus a few more (perhaps a different cover image must be gotten, perhaps they need to check for reflowability). My question: Once the deadtree has been made, what marginal cost is there to the publisher to make the ebook version? And, perhaps more relevant to me, is there any hope of being able to pay $deadtreeprice + a small sum for the deadtree and ebook in the foreseeable future? After all, the most of the cost of them are for the same thing.

Wireless is currently $24.95 (but actually $16.47 after discount) on amazon, while the Kindle version is $10.79. I would gladly pay, say, $27.95 ($19.47 after standard amazon discount) for a bundle of both of them. (Leaving aside the DRM issues currently present on the Kindle; that's a topic for another comment.)


Supporting multiple DRM systems is not just expensive, it's sometimes even impossible to combine them in the same device:

But that's just another reason why this DRM stuff is just silly.


Unfortunately, this also cuts both ways, for two reasons:

(1) Electronic piracy of books often leads to horrendous, embarassing, meaning-changing errors. The "suspension of disbelief" can be extremely thin, at times — particularly for so-called "literary fiction"! — and getting thrown out of the story by errors can be extremely frustrating, and is more likely to push many readers away than to entice them to purchase the underlying book. (Sadly, the errors one finds in pirated e-books often reflect increasingly sloppy proofreading at commercial publishers...)

(2) Too frequently, undirected and/or fan-directed publicity efforts undermine author efforts. This might be as simple as the fan effort pushing toward a disfavored/completed series or work; it might be as complex as {name withheld due to client confidentiality}'s problems with fan activity undermining the author's ability to deal with accusations of defamation.

I'm not saying that giving a taste of an author's work is always an ineffective sales tactic; I'm not even saying that the other legal aspects dominate. Instead, I'm saying that fen should not assume that authors are too stupid to market their own works appropriately. (Go ahead and assume publishers are, though... <vbeg>)


Yawn...... are you trying to snark or is that serious? If it's serious, it's seriously stupid. But I'll answer anyway:

1) Charlie makes this site available for free by his choice. That's in no way equivalent to a creator who makes a product available for a price. Note that he doesn't have a tipjar, etc here. Note also that it is his choice to enable comments.

2) If Charlie charged for this site and I hacked in, you'd have a point as then I'd be receiving value that the creator wants to charge for for nothing.

Try thinking next time before typing. It makes the discussion more interesting.


We're talking economics here, not morality. Piracy of an ebook only matters in an economic sense, and in the context of this discussion, if it is costing the publisher a sale.

Let's say I write a book and put it up for sale at one million dollars a copy. I sell exactly 0 books, but 100 people download illicit copies from somewhere or other. How many sales did I lose due to piracy?

The answer is ZERO. None of the 100 people who downloaded my book were going to pay a million dollars for it. If you could magically make it impossible for them to have downloaded that book, my sales figures wouldn't change a bit, because nobody is going to pay a million bucks for a crummy book by some random novice. Those 100 downloads weren't lost sales; they were sales that were never going to happen.

This isn't about morality; if you hadn't noticed, morality has no place in the modern business world. This is about whether illicit copies of books -- either ebooks or scans of pbooks -- are a significant detriment to sales of those books.

I maintain that they are not. Most of them, like the non-buyers of my hypothetical million-dollar book, were never sales to begin with.

Someone who is not going to buy your product, whether it costs him a million dollars or a single penny, isn't part of the economic equation at all. If there's no way you can get someone's money, then in an economic sense it's like he doesn't exist. Whether he reads your book or not doesn't matter; there's no economic impact from his reading. Only people who may potentially give you money matter, economically.

What the publishing industry isn't getting is that the people whose hearts and minds they have to win are the morally shaky ones who are going to buy a book if they see a good price:value ratio, and are going to pirate a book if the legit copy is too expensive or not useful enough, such as being encumbered by DRM. Those *would* be lost sales, but they could be more accurately described as throw-away sales, because the publisher could have had them as customers simply by offering them a good product at a fair price.


I think it's pretty obvious that there's a demand for an intermediate layer between publisher and consumer, ala Steam or Impulse.

Also, if that application provides a subscription capability, similar to O'Reilly's Safari Bookshelf, that would mostly suffice to address the use cases that are currently supported by lending and resales.

If anybody here has used Vuze, I think that provides a good image of what my hypothetical library app should look like. Vuze allows youto download videos, yes, but it also provides converters for various portable devices, for viewing after the video has been downloaded. Or you can burn a DVD for the kiddies in the back seat of the minivan. Or, it can reformat a video for streaming to an Xbox or PS3. And it has the streaming media server builtin.

So to translate that idea to a library app, the app would have presets for the most popular devices, iPad, iPhone/iPod, Nook, Kindle, Android, and know how to copy to those devices when they're connected (or into iTunes, as appropriate).

On the content provider side, rev0.5 should provide connections to Gutenberg, Wikipedia, Thomas, RECAP, and Open Courseware. Build in an RSS feed reader to add magazine/newspaper or serial fiction functionality. For the open beta at rev0.9, build partnerships to the more user friendly providers such as O'Reilly's Safari, Baen's Webscriptions, and even Drive Thru RPG if possible.

It's an idea I've mentioned here (and elsewhere) before.


Calibre on steroids. :)


My current e-reader is a cleverphone that I use to browse to Google's Reader page, where I read my newsfeeds, so I haven't really been checking in on software.

Thank you for pointing me at Calibre...I see it's a good start, and it's developed in Python. I see they support RSS feeds, which is good, but they should still have connections to providers, such as Gutenberg. I'll check the roadmap.

I think there's a very real opportunity for any given platform to gain some serious traction by building connectors to Thomas, Edgar, and the US Code.


Harald: Mobipocket was acquired by Amazon a couple of years ago. An Amazon subsidiary trying to sabotage a rival ebook/DRM format does not come as any kind of surprise to me.


I wonder when e-book reading tablets will become ultra-cheap commodities. (In 10 years? 20? 30?)

Five years ago.

That's when early-gen Palm IIIs got really cheap on eBay.

If it runs off AAA cells, can hold a dozen novels, and costs $40 or less, I'd say t's well on the way to being an ultra-cheap commodity.


I get that the publishing industry claims paper and ink and binding and shipping, and paying the people who do the binding and printing and shipping, doesn't account for much of the cost of the book. Fine.

So why don't hard covers cost $10 or so? Amazon did fine selling at that price.

113: is/was selling them at a loss. (At least some of them, quite likely many of them, unlikely to be all of them but I can't rule it out.)


"Kindle e-ink gizmo: doomed. Kindle on iPad, iPhone, Android and elsewhere: radiant future ahead."

Let's hope not. For me longer text has to be displayed via a (semi)-static display. Reading on an LCD or even OLED is ok for short stuff, but "Palimpsest" is already something I converted to my Kindle instead of reading it on my (very expensive and very good) LCD screen. E-ink is far from perfect and so is the Kindle and its vile DRM, both still need lots of improvements, but it is the thing nearest to reading a physical book without most of the drawbacks of reading a physical book.
Sure, it is another electronic gadget to carry around, but compared to a moderate 300 pages novel it isn't even noticeable in my bag.


The connections to ebook sources are planned (and will cost me a dinner "somewhere expensive" when Kovid and I happen to be in the same city, by way of thanks). I think that's what I'm looking forward to the most. There's an active Calibre support forum over on MobileRead.


I've been resistant to ebooks, mainly because of the DRM issue (I have been around long enough to have had the issue of data on obsolete formats crop up a number of times, and another potential way to lose access to my own data doesn't appeal). And I didn't think I'd like reading on my little iBook screen (and I just don't like the Kindle, and I'm waiting for the 2nd generation iPad) But, recently, I wanted to re-read one of Lee & Miller's Liaden books to get warmed up for the next one, and I found that I had mislaid my copy. And then I discovered that Webscriptions has a bundle of several books in that series, including the one I'd misplaced, for $25. So I'm reading it on my iPhone using Stanza, and much to my surprise, I like it a lot. It's always in my pocket, I can adjust the typeface size to just how I like it, and if the screen doesn't show much at one time, page flipping is plenty fast. And it doesn't take up my increasingly limited shelf space. So I'll probably be buying more ebooks, although I'm still not willing to touch the DRM-laden ones.

But I do care about typefaces. I think an ebook has to be able to reflow the text to be useful, but I'm disappointed with being stuck with a handful of standard typefaces. And the Stanza has only two acceptable serif typefaces (does anybody really enjoy reading a book in sans-serif?). I think a good typeface can really complement a book. Any solutions to that on the horizon?


iBooks will be on the iPhone eventually, and you can use it to read Webscription books. (I have the same bundle, as well as, hrm, another 60 or 70 books from them, I think.) I don't know if it'll be any better than Stanza on the iPhone, though.


Charlie et readers/commenters, I'm new here, so please excuse any unintended impoliteness or general n00biness.

The 80-90 percent comment spiked my interest.

I'm curious as to what portion of a book's final cost is due to overhead connected to the sales outlet (bookstore wages, cost of storage, import/export fees, distribution costs et cetera) as opposed to the production costs. Is there any data on this that is generally available?

FWIW, I read my ebooks on a tiny-tiny-tiny sony-ericsson very-much-non-smart-phone display in plain old text format.
For me, having access to (some) books on a device that I always carry with me certainly outweighs the undeniable value of good layout/type-setting, especially since the small screen makes changing the format pretty much a must-do thing.

Mind you, most of those ebooks are Cory Doctorow's free stuff and Project Gutenberg classics. Currently I'm slogging through The Canterbury Tales and devouring Cory's essays on DRM and ebooks, neither of which I would have read or bought otherwise.


I've been wondering for a while whether the bookstore-on-demand model (which I've only seen so far from Blackwells here) was going to go anywhere - and whether in future people will be able to go and pay a little for a dead tree on-the-spot printed and bound version of an ebook they've bought if they particularly want to. It seems like the obvious sort of thing to have if/when ebooks become more common, but I guess they'd want to limit the number of prints you could do from your ebook so you couldn't just run off a number of copies of your 8GBP ebook for 3GBP each for your friends. (I don't really know what the asymptotic cost of POD is, I'll freely admit.)


readers see ebooks as being less valuable than physical objects because they consistently over-value the paper-and-ink

I disagree with you about why readers see e-books as less valuable than paper books. E-books are genuinely less valuable. When I buy a paper book, I can keep it for decades and re-read it, lend it to my sister/mum/friend (who return the favour and lend me their books). Or if I didn't like it enough to keep it, I can trade it in at the second hand book store. You can't do any of these things with e-books, therefore they are less valuable to me and I am willing to pay less for them accordingly.


E-books are genuinely less valuable. ...You can't do any of these things with e-books

This isn't quite my view. I simply won't buy an ebook that I can't extract from its DRM. Where I am that isn't illegeal in itself, but I'm not sure if I'm protected from 'theft' due to breaking the supposed contract with the e-retailer. An ebook that I can crack typically has a value to me between US/UK e-retail plus forex fees and NZ pbook retail.
The Aussie bookstores are about to launch stores with pricing to compete with Amazon (for AU delivery), they say. Remembering that if you order a typical mmpb on its own from Amazon that the shipping charges are more than the book, it will be interesting to see where the Aussies price things. I'm happy to give retailers their share, I'm a lot less happy about paying e-retailers a ebook price at a level designed to 'protect' sales that have to allow for significant shipping costs.


Already been done for at least one famous series of books. Admittedly a quick-reprint-on-demand of a previous dead tree version, but interesting.

The Collins New Naturalist series of books, orignally started in 1952, and still being issued (they're up to No#113 now, are both famous and much sought-after.
The publishers made an attempt to kill them off through neglect in the late '70s-early '80s, and some of those editions, with small print-runs have got VERY expensive. You can now get a print-on-demand for £40 of ANY older edition, including some of the early ones, which are period pieces now, but still a very interesting read. Those earlier copies are also very expensive for originals, of course.
I especially recommend #3 "London's Natural History" by R.S.R. Fitter: a picture of a vanished world, with smog in the capital, and backyard pig-rearing for food, and ......

And, yes, apart from #76 (unobtainable at anything like a reasonable price) I do have a full set.
I wonder if anyone would do the same for "King Penguins"?


Mikael, I've covered these issues extensively and in depth in a series of postings titled "Common Misconceptions About Publishing", which you will find here.


This is all very depressing. I do most of my reading commuting. Paperbacks are ideal for this. I loath the size, weight and cost of hardbacks and will not buy them.

I have in the past (and will again) bought DRM-free short stories and magazines, to read on my laptop. I am not keen on reading novels this way. If someone gave me an ebook reader that took DRM free-ebooks that cost the same as paperbacks I would give it go. But I am not willing to pay anything for an ebook reader, especially one using DRM'd books.

Looks like its libraries and charity shops for me then :-(

Alan P.


I suppose what I meant by what you "can't" do with e-books is what you are legally allowed to do, more than what you technically can or can't do. If you buy a paper book, you own the copy and are free to lend or sell the book as you choose. As I understand it (and I could be wrong), with e-books you don't own a copy in the same way - you are licensed to use it, but the license would typically state you cannot lend or sell your "copy".


Do you have to have the very latest books?

If not, start reading your way through hundreds of years of literature, from the great classics to Tarzan of the Apes. While I can't seem to stop buying from Baen Books (which, by the way, sells DRM-free eboks somewhat cheaper than the average MM paperback) because I'm pretty much precisely their target market, most of my other ebooks come from MobileRead, Project Gutenberg, et. al. Buy a used Sony PRS-505 (okay, I'll admit it, I'm partial), load it up with a thousand or so of your favorite public-domain ebooks, and read away; your commuter reading needs will be taken care of for the rest of your life.


The new Zune browser is surprisingly good, but not as good as the iPod's. It works well, but isn't as fast as Safari, and has a clunkier interface. If you occasionally plan on using the web browser that's not an issue, but if you're planning to browse the web alot from your PMP then the iPod's larger screen and better browser may be important.


The DRM issue is not important to the majority of ebook buyers, or they wouldn't have bought Kindles in the first place. Only a tiny subsection of readers care about DRM at all - the ones who have inherited an ethos born in the technology industry. It's hard enough for Amazon etc., to get people to care about ebooks. My point being that whatever the effect or lack thereof of DRM, it's not going to make or break the ebook market.

And honestly, unless I'm reading you wrong, saying the music business bought it because of DRM is a bit much. The fundamental reason the music industry is dying/died is that the lions share of the money it relied on suddenly dried up. The ill-will against the 'evil industry' existed because they didn't want to give away the records they made for free, before DRM was a term that the punters knew. Whether it hurt or helped or had zero effect, DRM is not what turned the music business into a 'crater'.


I don't think it's that people don't care about DRM; it's that they don't know about it.


It may not be an issue to the majority of buyers now, but let them get next year's New Big Thing and then discover that all the ebooks they bought are unusable, and it'll be an issue. It's not an issue right now because they think they're buying books, just like they do at the brick-and-mortar bookstore, not a limited privilege to read those books in very limited circumstances, and totally under the seller's control. Once DRM bites them in the ass, though, it'll be an issue all right.

The music industry's income has not dried up. Declined, yes; dried up, no. Their biggest problem is not piracy, DRM, or anything else. Their biggest problem is that they've been pumping out dreck. They do more and more of the same-old same-old, they churn out stuff so derivative that a lot of people wouldn't even want it for free ... not to mention albums with two good tracks on them and all the rest filler ... and then wonder why nobody wants to pay inflated, fixed prices for it. You can buy a movie DVD for a lot less than a music CD, and you can't tell me a dozen songs cost more to produce than a two-hour movie.

And no, the ill will isn't because the record companies don't want to give music away for free. It's because of their adversarial attitude towards their own customers, the lies and misleading data they spin, their pressure on the government to pass laws solely to protect their business model, and their legalized extortion, all of which hurts the good guys far more than it does the bad guys. Not to mention things like Sony and the rootkit incident. If you did that, I can guarantee the legal response would be something other than "oh, they're just protecting their IP, they're allowed to rootkit your comp if they want." They set themselves up as my adversary, not the other way around.

And, by the way, all my music, all my movies, and all my ebooks are 100% legal, either bought and paid for or (in the case of books) out of copyright. So I'm not one of the "bad guys"; I'm just one of the victims of the industry's demonization of its own customers, as are we all.


YES. Oh Yes.

When Charlie said

"Readers ... readers see none of this, and wonder what can possibly be so hard about recognizing this revolutionary new medium for what it is"

I was thinking to myself than yes, and guess what... we dont care. Which is wrong, of course - this article and the rest of it are interesting and show sides of the business and reasons why it is like it is that I didnt know about.

But... frankly, I dont care :-P See, if all the complicated mess of issues ends up in a situation that me, reader that found out about book X and want very much to buy it, gets to a webpage and finds out that no, even if the book is a file and we have this Internet thing to deliver files around, I cant not give you my money cause you will not sell it to me cause I'm not in the USA... well, all that complicated mess of issues is a moronic mistake.

This is the reason I'm still on the fence about buying an ebook reader. I want - hell, I'm moving to a new home and boy do I have TONS OF PAPER to move around. But buying a reader and then finding out all the books I want to buy are not available cause some opaque reason makes them unavailable on my country... well, guess what, I either keep buying them on paper (and wasting energy and warming the planet moving them from say, the UK to Spain), go pirate, or stop buying so many books. I dont like the pirate option (I like knowing I paid my favorite authors something), I may have to stop buying books for lack of space... so basically is the publishing industry loss.


Professionally sold books will still need professional proofreading and design - but I think you are underestimating the potential for an emergent new market in _unprofessional_ ebooks and publishing. The readers have a choice, now, to prefer good quality control or cheapness, and there will be those who prefer cheapness.


That's already happened -- the evidence is visible on any POD site, from PublishAmerica to Lulu and everything in-between.

There are useful and interesting works on a variety of subjects of interest only to a tiny, micro-focussed audience too small to attract a major publisher.

And there are also oceans of slush, published because it's now easy for an author who doesn't want to hear the message that they're not ready for prime-time yet to put their book on sale at their own expense.

The readers, as usual, are voting with their wallets ... for the commercial product, for the most part. (Honourable exception: fanfic, which by its very nature isn't sold commercially.)


About this Entry

This page contains a single entry by Charlie Stross published on May 9, 2010 2:40 PM.

We appear to have a hung parliament was the previous entry in this blog.

PDF: Satanic horror from the abyss, or merely evil? is the next entry in this blog.

Find recent content on the main index or look in the archives to find all content.

Search this blog