A Couple Items On eBooks

Will Truman

Will Truman is the Editor-in-Chief of Ordinary Times. He is also on Twitter.

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59 Responses

  1. greginak says:

    The plethora of crappy books out there makes a great opening for curated lists of good books. Basically it gives reviewers and people with good taste a viable role in helping people separate the good from the crap. For writers it will likly be harder to make money although being a writer was always a poorly paying job.

    The biggest problem with DRM is that it takes away a capability we used to have with paper/ CD’s. With a paper book i could lend it to someone easily. Nobody freaked out 20 years ago about people lending books because everybody did, no one would take it remotely seriously as a crime and many authors figured that it might lead to a future sale. Borrowing stuff was how we did it in the old days. When new tech takes away a capability that people enjoy, then they really don’t like it and are going to rebel. Pro-DRM people don’t really seem to get what they are suggesting is to take away a common and popular feature of paper books.Report

  2. NewDealer says:

    My biggest problem with e-readers is not that it is dramatically increasing the number of bad books out there. There have always been bad books and self-published authors.

    What I worry about is the death of printed books. I have yet to join the E-reader crowd. I love printed books. I love the smell and feel of paper and the weight in my hands. I love turning pages and placing bookmarks. I love the way books like when they line a room and browsing shelves of bookstores to see if anything catches my fancy. The idea of living a world with just e-readers and no bookshelves is highly depressing.

    This should be a very easy live and let live situation but it because people are absurd, it has to become a culture war battle. I’ve been told by that my love of physical books is bad for the environment as an example.

    This is why I don’t get along with tech-utopians all the time. I don’t mind a world with e-readers but they should co-exist with physical books. Not gleefully hasten their demise.Report

    • Will Truman in reply to NewDealer says:

      Print isn’t going anywhere. I’ve actually had this debate with the technophiles who think that one will destroy the other (or is in the process of doing so). Technological advancements in printing have improved to the point that even if ebooks dominate, it won’t be that expensive to print very limited runs. It’s why, prior to the ebook revolution, self-publishing was skyrocketing. It was becoming affordable with print-on-demand.

      The only way I could be wrong is if books themselves evolve into something that print cannot do.Report

      • NewDealer in reply to Will Truman says:

        I don’t necessarily think print is going away either. But I’m rather curious about why tech-utopians get so much glee about the idea.Report

      • It’s kind of an obnoxious trait of techie people, the eagerness with which to call current technology dead (or soon to be dead). It happens all the time with the PC, people wanting to call it dead. With the desktop before that. Everyone wants to be able to say “I’ve been saying this since 2008!”

        Nobody remembers the things they got wrong.Report

      • BlaiseP in reply to Will Truman says:

        I remember once, at an all-hands meeting — this was many years ago — where an earnest fire plug, recently promoted to the head of software development at a bank I was consulting at — got up to tell us about the death of the mainframe and the rise of the then-new and ultra-stylish Client-Server paradigm. After some half-hour of bloviation, she asked for some feedback.

        I raised my hand. “The steam engine locomotive was invented almost exactly a century before the rise of the internal combustion engine and the rise of the personal automobile. Yet curiously, I took a train to work this morning, from the distant suburb of Elgin. The mainframe is not going away. It will only become more powerful and more useful than ever. It will become the server in Client-Server and these little Personal Computers will only become ever more attached to what they will serve up.”

        This she did not want to hear. But a whole section of the audience, the mainframers and DBA types, began to laugh and applaud.Report

      • Of course, now I ram against the opposite. The computer with a hard drive is going to be a thing of the past. Everybody will have a Chromebook or its equivalent and everybody will do everything on some server somewhere through the cloud.

        At a time when a couple hundred dollars gets you a 256GB SSD HD or 2TB of 2.5″ hard drive space on a regular drive.Report

      • BlaiseP in reply to Will Truman says:

        The Cloud! The Cloud! When I see a cloud symbol in a systems design document, I have often wanted to substitute a big pair of buttocks. CICS has been around since the 1960s, the most obvious and robust system of its type, supporting logical units of work and massive online transaction services, long before anything of the sort was even dreamt of in the Personal Computer space.

        Well, thank goodness it’s all been reduced to protocols so anyone can write these services for anyone else to use. e-books must evolve a bit more, and they will. Stephen Jay Gould talks about Punctuated Equilibrium: evolution happens in fits and starts. The hardware is always a step or two ahead of the software anyway: evolution will prune off the weak branches as it always does. There will be a standard of some sort.Report

      • Kim in reply to Will Truman says:

        evolution half the time pares off the good branches. The fifty cent chip that made audio as good as soundblaster for $100… you know the drill.Report

      • BlaiseP in reply to Will Truman says:

        Soundblaster is a classic case of Sherman’s Law: Firstest with the Mostest. Anyone can whip up yet another DAC but Creative decided to clone the market leader, AdLib. Those were the days of cloning: everyone could make three nickels where the other guy was making a dime by making a plug-compatible product.Report

      • Mo in reply to Will Truman says:

        I’m still waiting for the paperless office.Report

    • Kim in reply to NewDealer says:

      I lack enough space for bookshelves for all the books we own.Report

    • dhex in reply to NewDealer says:

      “This should be a very easy live and let live situation but it because people are absurd, it has to become a culture war battle.”

      where? i mean, i’m about as close to the world of printed books as i certainly care to be without actually being made out of books, and this is not a thing in these circles. a lot of hand wringing about why the kids these days read certain books and not others and how to encourage these trends but not too much worry about the decline of print.

      full disclosure – i have not bought a print book (for myself) in almost three years. i read everything on my phone now. i still buy a fair amount of books, but only for kindle.Report

      • Glyph in reply to dhex says:

        GET HIMReport

      • dhex in reply to dhex says:

        no, you know what? books are stupid.

        i just finished packing a whole bunch of them. a whole STUPID bunch of them.Report

      • Chris in reply to dhex says:

        The only thing I miss about print books, and I am down to about 1 print book for every 10, is writing in them. I get an odd pleasure from writing in the margins.

        I do not miss trying to find somewhere to put them. In the 7 months I’ve been using a Kindle, I’ve probably bought 6 paper books, and all 6 are sitting on a table next to the couch because I don’t want to bother trying to figure out where to put them.Report

      • Stillwater in reply to dhex says:

        i just finished packing a whole bunch of them. a whole STUPID bunch of them.

        Same with vinyl.Report

      • LeeEsq in reply to dhex says:

        Chris, people who deface beautiful books by writing on the margins or underlying passengers are committing a grevious sin, akin to desecrating a work of art. Even the most boring looking print book in the world is to be protected, respected, and revered. When I was in college and law school, I always shelled out money for new rather than used additions because I knew there would be no markings on them.Report

  3. BlaiseP says:

    I have a mountain of technical stuff in machine-readable format and use them in preference to my dead tree editions of same. I’ve just never quite gotten to the point where I’m reading books for pleasure on a tablet, which seems to be the only viable form factor for e-books.

    Part of the problem is my reticence to jump onto anyone’s technical bandwagon until a reference standard has developed. the e-book market hasn’t arrived at such a standard, not yet anyway. Calibre is useful for conversion but it’s something of a pain. I want a reference standard.Report

    • Kim in reply to BlaiseP says:

      Kindles are nice for the eyes, as they aren’t backlit. easier to read than a normal book.Report

    • Will Truman in reply to BlaiseP says:

      The lack of a standard (an “MP3” of books) is one of the reasons that I figured I would hold out longer than I did.Report

      • Mike Schilling in reply to Will Truman says:

        There are two main standards (mobi and epub), and good, free software to convert between the two.Report

      • NoPublic in reply to Will Truman says:

        There are a couple of standards. An older one (mobi/prc) that Amazon adopted and made their own (complete with an at least partially broken parser to this day) and a newer one (epub) that supports more features but is also in some ways harder to code for. Think of them as html3 and html5+javascript (which is actually mostly what they are inside)Report

      • Just Me in reply to Will Truman says:

        Calibre will solve all your e-book format problems.Report

      • There are two main standards (mobi and epub), and good, free software to convert between the two.

        And always worth mentioning, all of the encryption schemes have been broken. There is a decrypted copy of everything I’ve bought from Barnes & Noble for my nook tucked away for safekeeping, in case B&N decides to go out of business, or my nook dies and I replace it with something that B&N hasn’t blessed, or something.Report

    • LeeEsq in reply to BlaiseP says:

      I find that I read differently when I read on my kindle. E-readers encourage faster reading than printed books. With books, its a lot easier to focus and study.Report

      • Chris in reply to LeeEsq says:

        My Kindle shows me how many minutes I have left in a chapter, which makes it pretty easy to infer reading speed. I become moderately obsessed with this, which has undoubtedly increased my reading speed, at least with the e-reader.Report

      • LeeEsq in reply to LeeEsq says:

        I just find that there is something about reading on a screen that makes any sort of focused reading really hard. When you have a page of text, its easier to force yourself to pay close attention to the words and slow down in order to absorb everything.Report

  4. Kazzy says:

    Do you use GoodReads?Report

  5. Vikram Bath says:

    @will-truman , I think you probably misquoted the original article (though I didn’t check the original). Instead of

    At a recent publishing conference in London, Andrew Franklin, founder and managing director of Profile Books, blasted authors who self-publish.

    it should be

    At a recent publishing conference in London, Andrew Franklin, founder and managing director of Profile Books, blasted authors who self-publish.


  6. Just Me says:

    Project Gutenberg at gutenberg.org has a bunch of free classic kids books.Report

  7. ScarletNumber says:

    I refuse to read eBooks until they come down in price more. They are much too expensive when the marginal cost of each book is practically nil. The publishers act like they are doing you a favor to offer an eBook, when the profit margin is much much larger.Report

    • Badtux in reply to ScarletNumber says:

      ScarletNumber, the marginal cost of paper books is practically nil also. It costs less than 50 cents to print the average paperback, and less than $1.00 to print the average hard back.

      Where does the rest of the cost of a book come from? Well, first of all, the average book sells around 3,000 copies. I hear you say, “3,000 copies? WTF?”. Yep. That’s it. The average advance to the author is around $6,000, meaning that $2 of each book sale went to the author. The rest goes to the editor, the proofreader, the cover artist, the typesetter, any technical consultants necessary (for example, if it’s a police procedural it’s standard to pay a former or current police detective to read and critique the procedures involved, unless you’re a former police officer yourself and don’t need that help), marketing (ads in trade magazines, submission to book catalogs, etc.), and of course to the bookseller and publisher. *ALL OF THESE COSTS ARE THE SAME FOR AN EBOOK AS THEY ARE FOR A PAPERBACK*. Except for the 50 cents or $1 that actually got spent putting ink on paper.

      In other words, from a cost point of view, an eBook should cost anywhere from 50 cents to $1 less than a paper copy, assuming that the price of the paper copy was set to pay for all the costs involved in publishing the book.

      Of course, from a marginal utility point of view, it’s a bit more murky. I can trade my paperback books at the local used book store for different paperback books. I can’t do that with an ebook. That gives my paperback books a marginal utility greater than that of an ebook. How much greater? I’d estimate I get around 25% of the price back on the paperback. Meaning that an ebook should be priced at 25% less than a paperback from a marginal utility point of view.

      Which is why consumers believe that ebooks are overpriced, while publishers believe that ebooks are underpriced — there is a mismatch between the per-unit cost to the publisher and the marginal utility to the consumer. But don’t expect publishers to sell ebooks for 25% less than paperbacks anytime soon. There’s a word for businesses that sell goods for less than their cost of producing said goods. That word is *FORMER*. As in, bankrupt.

      Regarding self publishing, self publishing is something to do if you don’t want to write for a living (and I recommend *not* attempting to write for a living, as the numbers above show it is a sure-fired way to poverty) but think you have something that someone might want to read. Maybe you do, maybe you don’t. I have a stable of authors whose works I regularly read, and limited time to read, so I don’t go seeking out self-published works and after a couple of experiments, never buy them when my Nook recommends them. A good editor is worth the time and money, in my opinion. The self-published works that I read annoyed me because it was clear that either a) the idea wasn’t worth the electrons in the first place, or b) it really, really, *really* needed a lot of editing. But in any event, definitely self publish if you feel like it, but don’t expect any people to read it — the 3,000 copies that the average book sells will seem like a ton of books by comparison.

      – Badtux the Writer PenguinReport

      • CardiffKook in reply to Badtux says:

        Great comment. It is a real treat to learn so much from a single comment.Report

      • Chris in reply to Badtux says:

        Your final numbers in this are close to reality, but you got to them wrong. First, unless they’re printing a pamphlet or a giant run, the cost of printing a book is well over 50 cents for a paperback and 1 dollar for a hardcover copy. On top of that, you’ve got storage, shipping, some design costs that you don’t have for e-books. The cost of these things is going to vary, depending on how many books they’re printing (the per-copy cost goes down the more they print, of course), and there are other print-only costs that should also be figured in (certain advertising costs that are higher for print books, the fact that for most books, not all of the initial printing will be sold so the publisher has to include that loss in the per-copy cost, etc.), and you’re looking at somewhere between $3 and $5 bucks in costs that e-books don’t have. By the time you figure in the costs associated with e-books that aren’t associated with print books (royalties tend to be higher, as do sellers’ cuts, which they call commissions for whatever reason), you’re looking at a $1-$3 difference in in per-copy revenue for the publisher between print and e-books, from which everyone who works at the publisher has to get paid, along with rent, utilities, and maintenance (don’t want those stored copies getting mold, mildew, or roaches, ‘cause roaches love paper). That’s with current e-book prices, which are somewhat artificially inflated. For example, Amazon’s plan was to sell most new e-books for $9.99, but most publishers said screw that, and the prices are now $12.99 and up for most new e-books. I’ve been waiting for the e-book price on a book released in May to come down from $19 (it’s now at $16, I’m waiting for $12).

        Oh, and most advances are written off by publishers as losses. However, the books that sell well more than make up for those losses, which is why publishers continue to exist.Report

      • NewDealer in reply to Badtux says:

        Agreed that this is a really good comment.

        You can also lend your books to friends.

        And then have your friends never give them back….Report

      • Badtux in reply to Badtux says:

        Chris, the big publishers “cook the books” so to speak (it’s all legal and above-board, but allocating corporate bloat costs to a book that doesn’t require that corporate bloat for its lack of success is just shenanigans) to make sure that most advances never “earn out”. The best sellers produce the profits that keep the business in business but the reality is that the price of books (and size of average advance) is set up to capture the marginal costs involved in publishing the average book so it doesn’t result in the publisher being in a worse cash position after publishing the book than he was in before publishing the book. They don’t make money on the average book (and they aren’t trying to rip off the authors, by and large, it’s just how the accounting has always been done), but they certainly aren’t in business to be in a worse position after publishing the average book either. That would offend the gods of capitalism.

        Regarding your costs for storage etc. of the paper books, those are similar to the costs for the infrastructure of electronic publishing. All that computer infrastructure doesn’t create and maintain itself, y’know, it needs air conditioning too, and bandwidth isn’t free at that level.

        Regarding the ink-on-paper costs, the big publishers own their own printing presses and buy paper by the ton and ink by the barrel so it literally *is* ink-and-paper costs for them, whether it’s a small run or a big run. Not for you or me, but we aren’t big publishers. The numbers I mentioned may or may not be correct for their ink-and-paper costs, they came from a mid-list writer who got them from his editor, but the point — that the actual marginal per-copy cost of a paperback book is a small fraction of its cover price — remains. If we were to price ebooks at their marginal utility cost of approximately 25% less than their paper counterparts publishers wouldn’t be able to stay in business. (And in case you wonder how many copies a mid-list writer who has won one of the top awards in his genre sells, it’s around 20,000 — he churns out one book a year and still barely clings to a middle class lifestyle only because he lives in a very low-cost area of the country).

        The core problem, of course, is that the number of people who regularly read books is insufficient to read all the thousands of books that are published by “real” publishers in any given genre in the course of a year, much less all these self-published books that sell a few dozen copies to the family and friends of the author. If I read a book per week I still wouldn’t have brushed the surface of my favorite genre. Still, I like the situation of too many books to read far better than the situation of not enough books to read… it is the kind of problem that capitalism is *supposed* to produce.Report

      • Chris in reply to Badtux says:

        All of that is true, but it is still a fact that the difference in revenue, for the publisher, after the author and distributor/seller get paid, is $1-$3 extra in revenue from e-books. That means that publishers could reduce the cost of e-books by $1-$3 and still get the same revenue that they get from a paper book.

        Also, that there are some e-books that cost more than their paper versions makes no sense.Report

      • Kazzy in reply to Badtux says:

        Doesn’t this assume that prices are set by costs?

        Supply and demand, fellers!Report

      • Badtux in reply to Badtux says:

        Indeed, the fact that there are some ebooks that cost more than the paper copy makes no sense. For that matter, pricing the ebook at the *same* as the paper copy makes no sense, given that it does have lower marginal costs than the paperback. No doubt that publishers in that case are overpricing their ebooks. I was talking more about the disparity between the lower marginal utility of an ebook (around 25% less than a paper book since you can’t trade it at a used book store) and the lower marginal cost of an ebook (maybe $1-$2 less than a paper book, if we’re being realistic), which even if ebooks were priced at their “real” cost of production would result in most people *still* thinking ebooks were overpriced.Report

      • Badtux in reply to Badtux says:

        Kazzy, there is a word for businesses that sell at below cost. That’s *FORMER* business. The reality is that given a choice between selling below cost, and selling fewer items at a cost sufficient to stay in business, 100% of businesses will choose the latter — they’ll accept lower sales. A perfect example of that situation is price stickiness in deflation, such as during the Great Recession in 2009. People noted that commodities prices did not drop, in fact, actually *rose*. That is because the fixed costs of, say, running a nickle mine, are the main cost in today’s highly automated world. If they sell less nickle because the economy has crashed and demand for nickle has similarly crashed, they’ll raise the cost of nickle until they make enough money to pay their fixed costs — the payments on the loans to buy the equipment being the biggest one after they lay off as many employees as they can. They will accept lower sales in exchange for staying in business, in other words.

        The same applies to books as applies to nickle.Report

      • Chris in reply to Badtux says:

        I suppose that’s true, though I’ve found that my own price thresholds for e-books are pretty high relative to paper versions. As some of the folks around here can tell you, since I got my Kindle if you recommend a book, I’ll probably buy it, because it’s so easy and convenient. I’m used to buying used paper copies, and for many books the e-book price is similar to the price of a used paperback copy at a large used bookstore (assuming the e-book is not relatively new, and the paperback is not a mass paperback). The difference (the e-books are usually slightly more expensive) is made up for in convenience, which I suppose approximates the difference in marginal utility.Report

    • Just Me in reply to ScarletNumber says:

      I like Baen free library. They introduce me to new authors for free. If I like the author I will then purchase their books. I tend to get eBooks first and if I really like the author I buy “real” books to add to my collection.Report

      • Kim in reply to Just Me says:

        +1 for Jim Baen!Report

      • Badtux in reply to Just Me says:

        I like the Baen free library too, it solves one of my core problems with ebooks — the difficulty of skimming a book before buying it with an ebook.

        As for why ebooks in the first place, it’s simple. I have four bookcases in this duplex that I live in. One of those bookcases is computer reference works that by and large aren’t available as ebooks. One is for non-fiction works regarding the history and geology of an area of the country that I am interested in, as well as general reference works such as cookbooks, travel books, mathematics texts, service manuals for automobiles, dictionaries in English, foreign language references, and so forth. Two others are for fiction (though the fiction is spilling into the reference bookcase). In storage, I have approximately 45 boxes of paper books, or almost *two tons* of books (an average box weighs around 80 pounds), if I were to attempt to unbox them all every wall would be lined with bookcases and I’d be risking foundation failure, the last time they were out of boxes was ten years ago when I lived in a three bedroom home with a very large living room (which was converted to the library). I’m not getting any younger and it seems I’ll never again live in a place larger than what I’m currently living in, so I’m in the process of liquidating as much of those two tons of books as I can bear to part with, replacing things with ebooks where I can’t bear to part with it but the deal is that computer storage is much more compact than physical storage. If converted to ePub I could store every book that I own on the hard drive of my laptop computer without it even straining. Sounds better than hauling 2 tons of books around as an anchor, right?Report

      • Mike Schilling in reply to Just Me says:

        Jim Baen was the only publisher who saw something in Lois Bujold’s first book, so absolutely, yay for him.Report