The Future for Books

Slate has an interesting piece on the rise of Amazon’s Kindle (now on its second version). For those who don’t know, the Kindle is a competitor to the likes of the Sony eReader, offering the ability to read books, newspapers, blogs and other written material on a screen that is of a quality comparable to paper print. Aside from the screen, it has a long battery life, plus a wireless connection so you can buy new books on the move (in the US, anyway). That’s the key for Amazon, the link into their online store. Think of the machine as an iPod for books, and Amazon as the iTunes store.

It will read open formats, but the books you buy from Amazon use a proprietary format that very few other devices support (the iPhone and iPod Touch have applications to allow it, for example). So it’s very similar to the early days of iTunes, where users were locked in to a format only Apple’s device could play. Partly this is because publishers are still in the DRM stage of electronic media, as the music companies were until recently, when they decided to drop DRM and use open formats instead. Book publishers haven’t got that comfortable with the idea yet. It also enables Amazon to lock you into their format and hardware and make it the de facto standard, as iPods have become in music players (they hold a huge majority market share).

I’ve written about the Kindle before. The device isn’t perfect, but it’s interesting. It has limited appeal outside the US at the moment as the killer feature, mobile access, doesn’t use a technology widely employed outside the US. Up until now the book has survived because the format is cheap, convenient, requires no technology (you don’t run out of power) and alternatives have been inferior quality. It’s only a matter of time before this changes though. Screens are improving and the ability to carry a library of books on a device no bigger than one paperback will outweigh the tactile satisfaction of turning pages.

But the move to digital brings hitherto unknown problems for the publishing industry, mainly piracy. It is possible and there have been instances of piracy of books, you can scan all the pages in using optical character recognition (OCR) and then have an electronic copy to do with as you please, but it’s labour-intensive and the scanning usually involves plenty of checking to make sure the text is read correctly. If electronic copies become available it’ll make it very easy to distribute perfect copies to all your friends quickly and easily. It won’t just be a question of recommending a book to a friend, you can send it to them too. Hence the use of DRM in these initial stages of electronic book release, the industry fears it’ll harm the bottom line because you can give your friends copies for free.

Eventually they’ll learn that people can circumvent any DRM they choose anyway and people want the convenience of being able to open the file and read it anywhere. The industry may also see they are locking themselves into a single source: Amazon. This is dangerous and removes their negotiation power, in a similar way to how the supermarkets were able to dictate the price of books, Amazon will be able to dictate the market as the biggest marketplace, dwarfing supermarkets. Then DMR-free will get backing. I can see both sides of the argument. Yes, authors want to get paid for their work and reading a copy you didn’t pay for is the same as stealing money from the author’s pocket. On the other hand, Cory Doctorow, who has offered his books for free download for a long time, argues the biggest threat to authors is not piracy, it’s obscurity.

So what other challenges does the move to digital present? Music is still difficult to record and produce easily, at least, to do it professionally. Yes, you could record an album in your bedroom, or garage, or wherever, but it typically won’t have the same production value and you don’t hear of many mainstream bands who do it, or who release an album that way (though plenty have their own recording studios). That’s not true for the printed word. Getting a book typeset and into a format a digital reader can read is easy enough for anyone to do. Again, it might not be as good as a professional would do, but the difference between the two is much smaller when all you’re interested in is black words on a white page. Anyone can become a publisher and use exactly the same publishing channel as publishing houses will use: the web. In fact, I imagine Amazon will allow anyone to post books for sale in electronic form in a similar way to Apple’s App Store lets anyone write and sell apps for the iPhone. They take a percentage on every copy sold in the same way any other book is sold.

The power of this method is the long tail. Sure, the bestsellers will still rule the roost, established authors will sell more copies than unknowns, they’ll head the charts, but for people with secular interests, whether it be Christian literature or model railways or vampire stories there will also be books available to suit their tastes, they may not sell a lot, but they’ll still sell (in a similar way to music does now). The Da Vinci Code was one of the publishing phenomenon’s in recent years, selling over 60 million copies, matched only by the Harry Potter books. Those sort of hits come along very rarely, but selling 10 copies of 6 million books is a lot easier to achieve.

In a world where anyone can publish a novel and distribute it themselves, where is the need for publishing houses? At the moment it’s not a problem as the bulk of books sold are still physical, but when the balance shifts to electronic books, what then? The issue for readers won’t be finding new books to read, it will be finding books worth reading in the sea of books available. According to Wikipedia, 206,000 books were published in the UK alone in 2005. Now these all have to get past agents, picked up by publishing houses and actually make it to print. It’s a costly business so the industry does a lot of filtering. Around 90% of manuscripts get rejected, so, assuming no barriers to publishing, there could be over two million books published each year in the UK alone. How may books do you read a year, even a prolific reader wouldn’t make a dent in that, most people don’t get to double figures (my dad thinks he’s doing really well if he reads one a year and he brags if he gets to two). So publishing houses will still perform important functions in that they can back an author, thereby providing assurance to readers of the quality of the book, and also help promote the book, because getting seen and read is only going to get tougher when the marketplace grows exponentially. (It’s hard enough now, I’ve only discovered some mainstream books after the movie came out, for example) I think publishing houses will look to build other revenue streams too, turning their authors into brand names and parading them like a football team does it’s big names, expect big news transfers between labels.

The benefits for authors are simple too, if they can get an established readership they can start selling direct to their readers and cut out the distribution costs and fees taken by their agents and publishing houses (unless they provide some good reasons for staying). They’ll take home nearly 100% of the cost of the book, which means they can either drop the price or make more money. The problem, as with music, is that you’ll probably need to be an established name to get enough readers to be able to do this. Some people will probably gain the readership over time through word of mouth, completely separate to the publishing system. The only problem with this is that many authors need advances to enable them to do the research or take the time they need to write the book, another reason for the publishing houses to remain. Unless banks add this function to their lending arms, publishing houses will still need to dole out money to allow some books to be written.

As someone who runs a second-hand book selling site, allowing people to sell on their second-hand books, one question that comes to mind is if you will be able to sell on your books. Physical copies aren’t restricted by DRM which means they’re easy to pass on, while DRM may mean you aren’t able to. Physical copies are also hard to duplicate, meaning you are guaranteed to be selling on your copy, what would there be to stop someone duplicating the file multiple times and selling it over and over again? One of the big reasons for selling books is space, but if they’re electronic, they’ll take up nothing but a few bytes on your computer, easy to store without taking any space.

Obviously electronic books are a way off taking over at the moment, they’re still in their infancy and have yet to catch on with the public, there’s lessons to be learned from music’s move to electronic formats, but the change will come, this isn’t if, but when and the industry needs to start thinking about it soon if it doesn’t want to get lost in the same way the music industry did.