The Readers are the Gatekeepers Now

Friday, April 13, 2012

Status of the blog

This blog is going on hiatus. Increasingly, my thinking tends toward viewing text-based fiction as either artifacts of an earlier technological age, or light entertainment read on the iPhone while waiting for something more important to do. I don't see the fiction-book-publishing industry surviving in its current form for any great length of time. Those publishers will find something else to do, or they'll lose their separate identities within their "conglomerates." (Not a word of my choosing, but the major commentators in the ebook world seem to like it...) As I'm primarily interested in text-based fiction, I'll be on the prowl for any new iterations. Already, in the observations of self-publishing gurus like Dean Wesley Smith, we're seeing encouragement for the "unwashed masses" of ebook authors to right-size their texts to their stories. I suspect this is the tip of the iceberg, where exciting forms of text-base fiction will originate. Already, I'm finding the linear thinking necessary to read (or create) the dead-tree book dated. If someone in my age group -- the demographic for ereaders -- can find it so, what must younger people be thinking? (We know: many of them don't read. The educational brainwashing which has convinced generations of students that to read fiction is to be cultured may slowly die away. ) I'm going to be concentrating on new permutations in storytelling, in all its non-mass media splendour. You know ... the type of stuff the interwebs were supposed to enable in the first place, back when they were shiny and new. When I find something, I'll report back.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Bundling ebooks with hardcover

Canadian Tech Forum Wrestles with The Challenges of E: " Schnittman argued that the idea is a win for consumers, who get to have both the convenience of an e-book and the object of the book to keep, and for authors, who would get higher royalties. Retailers would get a 25% increase in price without any additional use of shelf space..."

Does it ever occur to these people that, in the eyes of most readers, an ebook has zero cost to deliver? We know it doesn't, but if a self-published author can deliver an ebook for a couple of hundred dollars in fixed/sunk costs, readers in the know aren't going to be willing to tolerate paying an extra $7-10 for an ebook version of the hardcover they're purchasing. If these people were thinking, they'd give away the ebook version with the hardcover copy. That would be a truly reader-friendly gesture.

Perhaps some high-minded (snobbish) readers are happy to pay $35-40 for a hardcover, as a status symbol of their consumption habits. However, the rest of us are looking for bargains.

We know the extra 25% tacked onto the price is going to net maybe 17.5% of 50% (or less, i.e. discount off cover price offered to the retailer/wholesaler) of that 25% to the author, if he/she is lucky. We've heard there are situations where the author doesn't get anywhere near that, because of the newer punitive contracts and the publishers' definitions of "net sales of ebooks," which are far short of the standard 40-50% of cover price the retailer pays to the publisher.

Precisely because there's no additional shelf space cost, we don't see the justification for giving an extra 25% of cover price to retailers, who'd presumably keep 40-50% of it, depending on the discount structure. Schnittman is advocating for this as a sweetener to retailers, with whom publishers have always had a closer relationship than with readers. If retailers were smart, and wanted to keep the goodwill of book buying customers, they'd mark the 25% down significantly. We're hoping this is what any publisher offering this kind of deal would be anticipating.

We think the idea of rewarding retailers in this manner has probably arisen out of the misguided notion that retail hand-selling of books is more valuable than offering the consumer a great price and free shipping. Surveys of book purchasers do indicate some buy based on hand selling by a book retailer salesperson, but the quantity of such sales is miniscule. In our opinion, discussion of hand selling is a feel-good mechanism for people who work in, and run, bookstores to boost their own morale in a time of bricks-and-mortar retail contraction.

Friday, March 9, 2012

Walled Gardens in the Ebook Ecology

Recently, the "walled garden" aspect of ebooks is in the news again.

Over the last twelve months, libraries have made headlines both in publishing and media oriented news organs and in the broader media such as the New York Times. First, it was the circulation limit imposed by certain publishers on ebooks, later the logistical challenge of offering an ebook borrowing facility in an ebook marketplace fragmented by competing digital file formats. Now libraries are drawing attention to the selectivity prevalent among Big Six publishers when offering their ebook products for sale to libraries. Some offer only backlist (Penguin), some none at all. (For a good overview of library related issues, have a look at Digital Book World, and search on the term "library" or "libraries.") Publishers' terms for making ebooks available to libraries are increasingly onerous, costly, restrictive, or a combination of the three.

In a blog post entitled Ebooks and Libraries: Is it Worth the Effort? | Guy LeCharles Gonzalez is one of those arguing libraries ought to abandon efforts to make meaningful catalogues of ebooks available to their patrons, instead devoting scare resources to innovative progects which will enhance their communities. Publishers don't publicly acknowledge the library as a place to get shelf space for dead-tree books as major physical bookstore chains devote less space to books, and other physical retail outlets abandon or reduce stocks of DTBs. Rather, they negotiate from their position of power, knowing libraries are beholden to them and forced to root under the table for any crumbs the publishers care to drop.

With the latest Apple announcement about the new iPad, we learn an enhanced ebook, to take advantage of all features, would have to be exclusive to Apple Store, digitized via iBooks Author. This would mean publishers and self-publishing authors would have to offer two completely different versions of the same book, in order to escape Apple's restriction on publishing the same ebook created via iBooks Author on any other platform – if such a book could even be made to function on another platform (e.g. non-Apple tablet).

Anyone owning a non-Amazon ereader must occasionally wonder what they would do if their device "went under" – were to be abandoned by its manufacturer, either purposely or as a by-product of business failure. While Barnes & Noble limps on, American readers have to be concerned soon the major bookstore chain in the U.S. may fade away entirely, or at least grow unrecognizable, a shadow of its former bookselling glory. This possibility is eerily reminiscent of the vinyl-CD-MP3 evolution. Want to pay for all your ebooks over again (if you happen to be a collector, rather than one who reads on your ereader solely for transient entertainment)?

People who think about the issue sometimes come up with novel solutions. For example, Gluejar allows a copyright holder to set a price at which they will license their work for availability under a Creative Commons license. This is meant to encourage writers to freely distribute their work once a minimum payment for labour (as decided by the writer) has been realized. A great idea, but antithetical to the commercial foundations of publishing dating back to the time of Dickens, or before.

Another example of culture clash, though not between the "free" (software, etc.) movement and the traditional capitalists: The U.S. gov't announced latecomers to the Trans Pacific Partnership trade negotiations (e.g. Japan, Canada, Mexico) will not be permitted to negotiate the deal, but rather will have to accept it as drafted by the initial participants in the drafting process – including requiring the extension of copyright term and harmonization of certain other copyright provisions currently encoded in their domestic legislation, but not in accordance with the agreed TPP framework. The latter, presumably overwhelmingly influenced by U.S. interests and legislative environment, and protective of U.S. economic interests, is resented and seen as unduly restrictive to intellectual freedom and broad economic development around the world. Perhaps countries like Japan, Canada, and Mexico need this kind of wake-up call to help them relate to how impoverished countries view the hegemony of U.S. market dominance of world trade.

As readers, we think of books as ours. The idea of a license to read a book seems contradictory to the understanding of acquistion of knowledge through reading which has been imparted to us since grade school.

Perhaps it would be helpful to think of reading rather as of two kinds: reading pursued primarily for entertainment (in competition with movies, video games, "going out," physical pursuits, etc.), and reading pursued primarily for intellectual enlightenment. There are some grey areas, and an argument could be made, and often is, that any particular book enlightens. The author would certainly like to think it's so, in most cases.

However, I think there are parallels between the struggle of the developing world and the walled gardens of advanced economies, and the individual struggle to attain and hole (organize and catalogue?) intellectual and creative ideas which one perceives to be precious or valuable. World trade negotiations often give the appearance of a grudging acknowledgement of poorer nations' need to advance, but not at the expense of our privilege! So, too, we see powerful lobbying groups (e.g. copyright collectives disproportionately influenced by the huge powerful corporations who are the major owners of intellectual property) seeking to lock down their rights to profit from their work in expanding realms and for increasing time periods. The TPP negotiations are just an example. The argument always becomes one of fairness for those privileged to have an advantage in the marketplace, at the expense of the availability of knowledge to all.