What a field day for the heat
A thousand people in the street
Singing songs and carrying signs
Mostly saying, "hooray for our side"

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

It's Tuesday, so it must be a Kindle

Well, I'm willing to be corrected, but there's a little hijinkery going on here. I'm talking about the news today of e-books out selling hardbacks at the Amazon store. Yes, expect to have the "Publishing is Dead, All Hail the New Format" folks doing happy dances all over the internets. Unfortunately, the news isn't all that good. First of all, this is just Amazon (and while Amazon is big, it's not that big). Next, it's just hardbacks, and if you read the whole thing, paperbacks are still the biggest sellers. Thirdly, for the past three years Amazon has had the Kindle at the top of it's home page. Also, there is no breakdown of if the books sold were new releases, or the $0.99 books. Or even the free ones offered by some self publishers.

As a secondary note, please see the whole, "When the iPad came out, Amazon slashed Kindle prices, which increased sales." Amazon also offers free Kindle readers for the iPhone and iPad. However, they aren't releasing numbers for their Kindle sales.

So good news for e-books. But not the world shattering news they want you to believe it is.

edited 7-20- 2:30pm Speaking of Amazon, here's an interesting look at the e-book kerfluffle of this past year. Not so good for the Amazon side. Warning, it's a long article (heck, I haven't finished it yet, but then I'm at work). The arguments about choice and "perspective" though are very informative. Also, lots of publishing as a business napery. Very good article.


Eric said...

I said at the time of the Amazon/Macmillan kerfluffle that there was no sympathetic side and I stand by it. I don't have a problem with the writer at The Nation cataloging how evil Amazon is. (And yet, of course, I do most of my bookbuying there--low prices, man.) But the publishing industry's focus on lead books was already the case even before Amazon had any significance at all, with publishers succumbing to a temptation similar to that which had afflicted television: "nonfiction" (quotes not optional) such as the quickly-ghostwritten celebrity memoir, the literary equivalent of a reality TV show.

The truth is that publishers are facing the same problems as other old media companies like record labels and movie studios: technology is removing the barriers to entry and thereby eliminating old media's gatekeeping and distribution functions, and without the gate/dist functions they can no longer justify the kinds of business practices (including price) that can make their newly-inefficient business models profitable. ("Newly-inefficient" because their inefficiency is relative and novel: the ginormous printing press was the most efficient means of mass-producing text in the 20th Century, but now it's a colossal waste of resources and slow; which I sort of hate to say, because I'd rather hold a book than an e-reader, but then I'm so last-25-years-of-the-previous-millennium in my tastes.)

Like the music industry, publishers' main tactic right now is to blame everybody else for being so modern. The customers are self-sabotaging, don't they know they're tolerating having too many choices? The new media channels are cheating, don't they know that's not how books are sold? Pirates are stealing books! Too many writers are now producing too much crap and nobody can process it all! Ad nauseum.

As you can guess, I'm not really buying it.

Lest one get the wrong idea, I have some ambivalence. As I become more confident in my own writing, I'd like to have the chance to publish through traditional channels. As a reader who learned to love books in the 1970s, I miss the old split-level bookstore in the mall that reeked of pulped wood and ink and fret that future generations won't experience the joy I experienced whenever my grandparents made room on their shelves by foisting off boxloads of old paperbacks to their kids and grandkids. But I'm not going to whine about it and insist everybody's doing it wrong just because I'm tied to expiring paradigms. Or I'll try not to, anyway.

Dr. Phil (Physics) said...

Writer Beware on Facebook talked about this and at one point said:
"Hardcover means hardcover. However, you have to look a bit closer at Amazon's numbers. Many of the ebooks it sells were never issued as hardcovers in the first place, and many come from Kindle self-publishers who never published in print at all. So it's kind of like comparing apples to oranges, and is far from the last word on whether consumers prefer ebooks to hardcovers, or ebooks to print."

Of course, a Kindle ad is on the Food Network RIGHT NOW THIS SECOND. When was the last time you saw a TV commercial for a hardcover book?

Dr. Phil

Steve Buchheit said...

Eric, well having talked with many editors, and can tell you that many of them are very enthusiastic about changing the business status quo. And much of what people point toward publishers as being the problem is really a distribution issue. Which many publishers hate the current paradigm - but they don't have the clout to force the distribution changes. Which, BTW, were put in place by the retail stores (starting with the rise of multi-state chain grocery stores).

As to the "death" of printing, I have to disagree, but then I have a dog in the fight.

As to the "abundance of choice" arguments, those are being made by economists, not the publishing industry. If the industry was only interested in publishing "best sellers", that's all they would publish (especially if they were as all controlling as the arguments make them out to be). Thing is, they're not really that interested in cutting back. Right now it's the economics of the market forcing them to cut mid-list (being driven by the retail store and distributors).

As to how the business models of print media/entertainment aren't exactly equal to audio or visual media (based on mode of consumption), I think I've already addressed that (a decade down the line after the Naspter revolution, 66% of music unit sales were still by physical media, not through file transfer). E-readers may "mimic" the consumption of printed material, but our brain interacts with it differently (see studies on consumption speed and retention). So while for audio and visual entertainment you're still consuming the product the same way (speakers/earphones or video), with e-books you have a different mode of consumption (which how your brain processes the material).

Obviously we have a lot to say about this. But it's late, and I'm tired. The light makes it hard to see the page and the cold hurts my hands. This scriptorium needs a better HVAC and lighting system.

Steve Buchheit said...

Actually, Dr. Phil, I've been hearing them on the radio lately (mostly after 9pm).

Eric said...

I'm glad to hear editors are flexible, because I agree that what a lot of people misunderstand about what's happening with e-books is just how important editors are and should continue to be. (I.e. the idea that "self-publication" will be the new paradigm misses some of the necessary things that publishing houses do offer,* such as editing and layout.

I realize, too, that it's economists presenting the "overabundance of choice" analyses.

But the thing about that and about the continued prevalence of physical media and the ways information is processed is this: we're clearly in a transitional state, and while nobody can say what the new models will be, it's clear that the old models are inadequate and failing. (Yes, I'm influenced by Clay Shirky on this sort of thing.)

In particular, the fact our brain interacts with a screen differently than a page does may be true, but I'm not sure it's here or there. Until the printing press made mass production of text possible, the primary means of "reading" a book was to hear it read aloud; even for those who were literate and able to afford their own libraries, reading was primarily a social, audial activity (since those who could afford and read their own libraries consisted of nobility and high-ranked clergy, having an author read a manuscript from your library wasn't necessarily unusual or out-of-the-question). (Terry Jones and his collaborators have a lot of wonderful material about this in Who Murdered Chaucer?)

Gutenberg made private ownership of relatively cheap copies of text possible, which in turn led to the invention of "reading" as an activity as we commonly understand it: that is, whereas once-upon-a-time sitting by oneself and quietly looking at text was once an unusual (if not aberrant) activity, now quietly-looking-at-text is a norm and reading aloud in public relatively rare if not discouraged.

The point I'm getting at with this is that "reading" may be changing again (possibly--as Shirky says, nobody knows they're in a revolution while they're in it), and if it is, there's not a lot we can do about it. Something may be lost in the process, perhaps something will be gained. But one can't really say that the transformation itself is suspect--well, one can, but it's a bit like some fellow in the 16th Century complaining that nobody listens to books anymore, how can they understand abstract symbols on a page without hearing the cadences and emphasis and tone the author intended when he's not there to read it aloud?

Or not. I'm possibly completely full of shit. By which I mean "probably." :D


*Of course, as soon as I typed that, I immediately flashbacked to a quickly-published memoir I read for beer last year, published by a major company and ostensibly written by a well-known political figure, which was full of problems that should've been caught by editors, not to mention problems that could have been caught by fact-checkers, too (I mean mis-attributed quotes, not lies the political figure might've told). It was obvious the book was rushed through to meet an advanced publication schedule. But the point is that if a publishing house isn't even going to do the things they hold out as an advantage of publishing through a publishing house, well....