Tag Archives: kindle

Four things that are going to change whether the publishing industry likes it or not

It was an accident of circumstance that led the music industry to experience a major transformation, from selling objects to selling information, sooner than the book-publishing industry. Simplifying wildly, the fact that headphones are much cheaper to produce than screens is all that has held up the status quo in publishing for so long.

Currently some of the discussion in publishing centers on the fact that music is now sold in $1 downloads rather than $15 albums. But this too is an accident of circumstance. The length of a CD album is not a golden standard of the quantity in which people like to enjoy music, but one person’s personal taste: Sony vice-president Norio Ohga wanted a CD to hold the entire of Beethoven’s 9th symphony, and so for over a decade that is how we purchased our music.

Current commentary sometimes seems to imply that the music industry allowed the business model to be shifted to single-track purchases (to its cost) due to poor negotiation, and that the print industry might avoid making the same mistake. This is a delusion: certain changes in technology simply invalidate the old assumptions.

I expect the Amazon / Macmillan negotiation soap opera will resolve itself before long, but is in danger of drowning out discussion of the lasting shifts that the industry will inevitably go through. Here are a few of my predictions:

More competition with out-of-copyright works

In a physical book shop works that are out of copyright tend to sell for almost as much as recent releases. This is not unreasonable, since they still require editing, desigining and promoting, not to mention the cost of printing the physical book. Shelf space is a major cost in high street book shops, and costs no less when the work is out of copyright.

In a market for electronic books, some of these costs go away. The rest can be defrayed over a much longer period of time, since there is no opportunity cost to keeping books on the shelf. Competition with amateurish free copies will drive down the cost of a professionally-edited version to far below the cost of a new work, while still allowing publishers to turn a profit.

Most authors are not blessed with the wisdom of Marcus Aurelius, the wit of Jerome K. Jerome or the inventiveness of Arthur Conan Doyle (just three authors I’ve enjoyed for free on my Kindle). Of course the modern world has its own share of geniuses, and even those of middle rank can offer great value to readers by writing about the subjects that interest them, but it would be a sad world indeed if people didn’t capitalise on the opportunity to enjoy classic works for peanuts.

More flexibility in length of published works

It used to be that a book had to be of a certain length to be worth publishing. This is going to change, since the fixed costs of printing have gone away. The only question remaining is whether people will consent to pay small amounts for small amounts of content. There is no rational reason why not, but the field of paid content isn’t a shining example of rational consumer behaviour to date.

More competition from the back catalogue

The ‘long tail’ effect, where stock can diversify as shelving cost drops to zero, can flourish in the electronic market as the cost of warehousing drops out of the model. No book need ever again be out of print. This is going to help some authors and hurt others: books that have fallen from prominence aren’t necessarily bad, and if priced keenly they might prove a worthy substitute for recent publications at hardback prices.

More competition from the ‘gift economy’

Once you discard the requirement that books have to be printed on paper to be consumed, the barrier to entry to the market is much lower. Vast amounts of text in blogs, wiki articles and social network postings become readable in exactly the same circumstances as published books.

People who infer that this will drive the price of all textual content down to zero are unjustified in their conclusion and hopefully wrong. A well-researched, professionally-written and carefully-edited document is worth substantially more than an amateurish one, and a rational consumer will be prepared to pay more for it. However, for the portions of our reading time (hopefully not all) that are idle escapism, it may well be that the difference isn’t worth caring about.

Don’t shoot the messenger

I’m not saying the above out of ideology, but because I think the trends are inescapable, in direction if not in extent. More important is what won’t change: people will still exchange money for items that are of value to them. The lesson from the music industry’s experience is that the publishers that embrace the new rules and figure out how to turn them to their advantage will prosper.

Why Amazon’s retroactive deletion of Kindle books isn’t such a big deal

It was of course ironic that the first case where Amazon were legally compelled to revoke rights to a book purchased in their store was George Orwell’s 1984. But to hear some commentators talk about it you’d think this was some sort of censorship.

I’m not too worried about Amazon’s technological ability to delete books that have been purchased and downloaded to the Kindle, because Amazon’s actions are still constrained by the only two things that really matter: the law, and good business sense.

If I go to eBay and purchase a laptop that later turns out to have been stolen, I don’t have any right to retain ownership of the laptop once that fact has come to light, no matter how innocent my purchase was. The laptop will (ideally) be taken away from me by the police and returned to its rightful owner. I won’t even get my payment refunded by default, it will be up to me to pursue the matter with the seller (who may themselves not know they had been dealing in stolen property).

The Amazon case isn’t so different to the stolen laptop. By selling the book to people, the right of the copyright holder to control distribution had been taken away from them, and it was only right that that was corrected. The innocence of the purchasers of the book (who received an immediate refund when the book was taken away from them) doesn’t change that.

The capability to remove books could in theory be used for suppression of ideas, but I can’t see it making business sense to do so. The Streisand effect means that removal of an existing book will make much more of a splash than not listing the book in the first place (which they are equally well able to do with plain old dead-tree books). The vast majority of books in the Kindle store sell so few copies that the best way to keep a text out of people’s minds is simply not to promote it.

First thoughts on the Kindle

Being in the UK I’m obviously late to the Kindle party since they only became available here a few months ago. I got mine a few days ago (as a Christmas gift from my wonderful parents), and I’m excited enough to write about it here even if it’s all been said before.

I won’t say too much about the physical device itself, which functions very well. The e-paper screen is a pleasure to read from. The slightly reduced contrast means it’s tough in very dim light, but the trade-off of being able to read in bright sunlight is well worth it. The inclusion of a qwerty keyboard is a real marmite feature, but on balance I’m glad it’s there.

What really excites me about the devices is its potential to change the way I read. In the past I’ve left a trail of half-completed books in my wake, as I’ve never had the right one with me. Sooner or later I’d forget where I was in a book or even that I was reading it in the first place. If nothing else, the Kindle works well as a way of centralising my collection and tracking where I am with each one. Could I do the same with a few cheap bookmarks and a large sack to carry the books? Kind of, but the point is that I never did do that.

The built-in mobile phone circuitry that supports “whispernet” (global wireless delivery of books) looks on paper like massive over-engineering, since I purchase books far less frequently than I sit down at a computer. However, it changes the nature of the device from a portable book collection to a portable library, and that starts to feel like something out of a culture novel (the series of science fiction stories set in a high-technology utopia.)

Whispernet really comes into its own for newspapers and magazines, which benefit especially from arriving with you fast and effortlessly, and from old issues not taking up space. At the moment the catalogue of magazines is small and many suffer from the lack of graphics, but there are already some good titles that are very keenly priced. If I could transfer my subscription to The Economist to Kindle I might never read a paper magazine again.

One of the most overlooked things about newspaper and magazine delivery is its potential as a monetisation platform. Because it’s linked to your Amazon account, you can pay large or small amounts for content with ease. It may seem odd to say that I like having to pay for content, but he who pays the piper calls the tune. If I want something, I’d rather pay for it than hope that some advertiser values my eyeballs highly enough to pay for it on my behalf.

Using an electronic format essentially kills the second-hand market: since data doesn’t get worn out like a paper book does, resale of e-books by customers would compete unacceptably with new sales. Therefore Amazon has no choice but to prevent resale from happening. I don’t have a problem with this, provided that publishers recognise it and price their books accordingly. Second-hand sale of a book (whether for money or swapping in an informal economy) helps to defray the high cost of acquiring new books (at least part of which is in printing cost, and cross-subsidising printing of unsuccessful books).

In this sense, a Kindle book is less valuable than a brand-new hardback, since it has zero resale value. In the case of back-catalogue books it is also competing against virtually free copies of the dead-tree version from charity shops or Amazon Marketplace, which further lowers the price I’m prepared to pay. I suspect that the publishers who realise this and price accordingly will benefit.

One last thing about copyright: I don’t like the Digital Rights Management (DRM) of the Kindle. DRM is the technology that binds a copy of a book to a particular physical device, preventing you from lending the book to a friend or using it on an e-book reader not made by Amazon. It’s not unduly restrictive in everyday use, but the prospect of buying my entire collection again if Sony wins the format war is a bit of a downer.

However, I think the best way to ensure DRM goes away is to back up my voice with my wallet. DRM on music is on its way out, and this is not because of the people who forcibly broke DRM, but because the iTunes store proved that there was a market of people who were prepared to pay money and play by the rules. Adhering to the spirit of copyright when safeguards were in place gave the industry confidence in a way that arguing over the letter of the law never did.