What’s The Future of Books?

Discussion of the Week
Tower Records, which sold books at some of its retail locations, declared bankruptcy in 2006 and disappeared from the US retail landscape. Borders (BGP) declared bankruptcy earlier this month and began liquidating $350M of inventory Saturday at discounts of up to 40 percent as it embarks on closing a third of its stores. Barnes & Noble (BKS) is surviving as America’s largest bookseller, with 1,300 stores across the land, but its low margins combined with high fixed costs and inventory requirements make it look vulnerable to shifting consumer habits.

Those shifting habits include a declining interest in reading, a preference for interactive technology such as games and other portable electronic devices, and a growing belief that short online summaries of a subject are better than detailed explorations in print.

Another problem for booksellers both corporate and independent is that, like songs, most books are available as free downloads from the internet. It’s illegal, but goes on every day and is one reason that book sales are dropping. Scanning machines can turn any paper book into a digital version efficiently. Even that step is often unnecessary, however, because all current books begin as digital files and many of those late-stage files are leaked to the internet, beating the printed book to market and killing sales.

The e-book revolution will help in that department, and in several others. Led by the Amazon Kindle (AMZN), shown above, e-readers protect content in files that can be opened only on a device owned by their purchaser. It’s possible for somebody to hack into such files, but is probably not worth the effort for a product that costs less than $10, where most Kindle titles are priced. So-called digital rights management (DRM) techniques should dramatically reduce the level of theft in the book business.

In addition to forcing integrity on the book market, e-readers offer a convenient way to buy books instantly, carry thousands of titles on the go, and feel contemporary even while pursuing a pastime that’s been around for centuries. If you’ve ever purchased a Kindle book on Amazon with one click, then waited a few moments for it to appear magically on your device, you know firsthand the joy and fun the Kindle has sprinkled upon the book market.

Another benefit of the Kindle is the ease with which it enables anybody to self-publish. Publishing your own book used to involve expensive layouts, ISBN barcodes, very expensive printing, shipping, warehousing, shipping to bookstores, paying to ship unsold titles back to your warehouse from bookstores, and so on. It was a low-margin, risky proposition that saw most titles fail to benefit their authors in any way beyond personal satisfaction.

Not anymore. Publishing on the Kindle requires no complicated layout, no ISBN barcode, no printing, no shipping, and a generous profit-sharing structure. A first-time author completing a book on Friday can start selling it on Saturday and achieve greater profit per copy sold than if she’d gone through the lengthy, often heartbreaking process of querying agents and publishers, finally finding the book a home, waiting another year or more until it’s on shelves, and then waiting another six months for her first royalty payment. At the end of all that, the profit-per-copy for most authors is a tiny fraction of the price paid by readers, and the authors who ever get far enough to discover that are the lucky ones. Most wash out earlier in the process without seeing one dime of profit. They just collect rejection letters. On the Kindle, it goes like this: finish book, upload file, promote, sell, get paid ten times more per copy sold than you would be paid via traditional publishing. Time previously spent convincing publishers of a book’s worth can now be spent convincing readers. The market becomes the only judge.

Thus, not all is lost in the world of books. The trend away from printed books to e-books may create a trove of previously unavailable material, for sale to readers usually at a price lower than printed books cost, but in a structure that rewards authors more than they could earn in the printed-book system erected over centuries. The book market is trending toward serving just three parties: writer, seller, reader. The many other parties involved in the publisher-printer-shipper-bookstore keiretsu are in trouble, but writers and readers will be fine.

While Amazon and other e-book platform sellers should do well, their margins have thus far proved so thin that the long-term profitability of e-books to sellers isn’t yet known. Sellers are giving away a lot in an attempt to become the dominant platform. Once a winner emerges, that company should enjoy more pricing power.

The winner is shaping up to be Amazon with its Kindle. Last month, Amazon Vice President for Kindle Content Russ Grandinetti told a Digital Book World conference that, for Emma Donoghue’s bestselling novel, Room, “total Kindle sales are equal to 85 percent of Nielsen BookScan’s print sales number.” Overall, Kindle sales alone account for 40 percent of all sales across all formats for Room. Beyond that one title, Kindle editions of all books outsell their hardcover editions by a 3-to-1 margin, and Amazon sells 115 e-books for every 100 paperbacks it sells.

For this week’s discussion, please weigh in with your thoughts on the future of books. Will print survive? Will independent booksellers thrive now that their niche specializations look stronger than big box retailers unable to keep up with Amazon? Will a non-Kindle device such as the iPad (AAPL) take the field by storm, even though its backlit screen is hard on the eyes over long reading sessions and glares outdoors?

There are many ways forward in the book business. As an investor, author, and reader, I’d like to know your ideas. Click the comment link below to join in!

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45 Comments

  1. Jay
    Posted February 24, 2011 at 7:08 pm | Permalink

    I don’t have a Kindle or any e-book reading platform and don’t plan on buying one. When I’m out at a bookstore and see something I like, I take down the info (usually take a picture of it with my phone) and go home and buy the book on Amazon. I always go for the used copies first. I’ve spent as little as 17 cents (plus S&H) on books that I would have otherwise spent $20 or $25-plus on for a brand new copy at the bookstore. To date, I have not been disappointed in the condition of a book I’ve bought this way. I can’t remember that last time I spent retail on a book.

    For me, I’m sticking with the paper copies. There’s something about having a book to see, touch, hold, and put on the shelf when I’m done with it that I don’t want to give up.

  2. Posted February 24, 2011 at 11:47 am | Permalink

    Hi Jason,

    There is a point that I wanted to raise with regards to the economics around books. I am an avid reader and purchase most of the books I read used for a fraction of the price of a new book (either physical or electronic). I still haven’t found enough incentive to switch to e-books for that reason. I definitely agree that e-books will dominate (but still be completed by print) the market in the future, but the economic incentives both on the device side and book cost need to go down further in my opinion. Perhaps subscription, rental-based or transferable models might further help in that direction.

    Regards,
    Omar Halabieh

    • Posted February 24, 2011 at 9:58 pm | Permalink

      Thanks, Omar. How are you paying a fraction of the price of a new book? Waiting until it’s used, a discount outlet, something else? A rental e-book model would be interesting, similar to online video rentals where the file just disappears at the end of the rental period. As the seller, I’d probably slap on a message half a day before the rental book expires, asking if the renter would like to pay just $X more to own the book forever.

      • Posted February 25, 2011 at 12:21 pm | Permalink

        Hi Jason,

        Thanks for the reply. The rental model described above would work. The other could be that people can resell/transfer their e-book to others and recuperate part of the cost in case they are not interested in keeping it.

        As for the used books I usually wait on the book, and then buy it used on Amazon. I have been able to get numerous best selling books in the areas of economics/leadership/business for 1 cent + S&H of $3.99. The books are usually in great condition. That being said, sometimes I do have to settle for an older edition to get such a deal.

        Regards,
        Omar

  3. Posted February 24, 2011 at 4:29 am | Permalink

    Wow, a lot of great and thoughtful comments on here. My first thought is that I love having books on my bookshelf and hope that print editions never go away completely. In fact, I hope to one day build a nice sized “library” or reading room in my house with hundred or thousands of books. To me it just represents such a wealth of knowledge and for so little.

    People talk about the price of e-books vs print books, but the real problem is they just don’t want to sit down and read. You can buy a $9.00 paperback that provides you insight and knowledge or a $60.00 Xbox game that doesn’t teach you anything, but people still pick the Xbox game nowadays. They often play the game a few times and put it on the shelf to collect dust. To me (paperback) books always seemed like a bargain for what they give you. I hope that one chain like B&N will stick around so I can walk into the bookstore and just browse through all of the great knowledge shared there. Hopefully they can leverage other sales and technology to keep the doors open.

    We need to teach our kids to enjoy reading more and understand its value. I believe avid readers will embrace both formats (print and electronic) because of their value. I think that most people who read books only on a kindle are doing it more for the novelty of the new technology.

    • Posted February 24, 2011 at 10:02 am | Permalink

      Yes, games and video have greatly reduced the reading audience. From Susan Jacoby’s inestimable The Age of American Unreason, extensively highlighted on my Kindle, I offer the following observation:

      It is not that television, or any of its successors in the world of video, was designed as an enemy of active intellectual endeavor but that the media, while they may not actually be the message, inevitably reshape content to fit a form that subordinates both the spoken and the written word to visual images. In doing so, the media restrict their audience’s intellectual parameters not only by providing information in a highly condensed form but by filling time — a huge amount of time — that used to be occupied by engagement with the written word.

  4. Kent
    Posted February 23, 2011 at 8:36 pm | Permalink

    Dear Jason, What a wonderful world we live in where we are entertained, dazzled, and sometimes even impressed with the devices invented by creative minds of our former classmates. I have learned one thing about the future… it will take care of itself without me. I can watch the future unfold, I can guess at it twists and turns… but I cannot change its path any more than I could re-direct a river from its banks.

    I never run out and buy anything… always wait a year or more and save my money and really think about do I want to buy something. I am going to pass up on the Kindle for the simple reason that the down loads are the same price as the book, and sometimes more expensive. I would rather have the book, and until e-books are one-half the price of a new book delivered to my front door I will not buy a Kindle. I have decided to buy an Apple iPad, and this is a big decision for me…. as I dont spend a dime that I dont have to. Past experience has demonstrated to me, that when I buy something that is a sure sign it will be a mega hit… so for all you investors… find a way to get into Apple stock… if I am buying one of their overpriced toys it, and the company, are going to be winners.

    The only reason I will be buying an Apple Pad #2 is that I do my trading on Think or Swim and they have an application that will allow me to trade without carrying a laptop when I travel. I should be able to make the cost of the Pad back in the first trade. So I guess it will not be a toy, but a working tool, no different that a pen, paper, adding machine, paperclip, white out, scotch tape, stapler, eraser, highlighter, etc etc etc., all of which the iPad is supposed to replace. What great times we live in.

  5. Posted February 23, 2011 at 3:06 pm | Permalink

    I think it will be interesting and difficult to predict which printed book niches will survive. For example, the first that came to mind for me was coffee table books – you know, big pages, mostly pictures. Their function is to have something to page through with company to provide conversation fodder, or to look at while sipping coffee. I just don’t think you could get the same effect with a reader because the purpose is not primarily to read. However, whose to say some other digital media akin to digital picture frames might not replace them? On the other hand, you have classroom textbooks. Students would love to not have to pay so much and have them in searchable electronic form. But these are a lucrative niche for publishers because of their mandatory purchase profile – so I can see some maneuvering to keep them out of the e-book space. How will this affect audio books? Current tapes and CD’s work fine, and e-reader’s are not set up for audio playback. Synthetic voice generation just won’t ever measure up, and if they allow downloads of wave files, the audio publishers will be all the better off. It’s a completely different business model than print. Very exciting to see technology change our ways of living.

    • Posted February 23, 2011 at 10:53 pm | Permalink

      One category that will likely survive in print is cook books. I know a designer who specializes in them and he told me he’s relieved his category is going mostly untouched by the move to digital publishing.

  6. Posted February 23, 2011 at 12:37 pm | Permalink

    Hi Jason,

    Have you read many self published books? They’re almost always in desperate need of editing, both copy and substantive. I worked at a literary agency for several years, so I know a bit about this.

    Marketing e-books or paper books is an art that’s taken very seriously. A huge part of the budget for a publishing house is dedicated to this. Books aren’t published unless the marketing department agrees. It is a rare individual, indeed, who can write, self edit, self market, and have a product worth reading.

    I’m not against self-publishing, but I think it works best for esoteric topics like family memoirs, ghost towns, or local history.

    I’m especially intolerant of self publishing because it’s so often used by egocentric people unable to accept feedback from editors who are merely trying to make sense of their text. I find the whole business generally amounts to reader torture. By contrast, the art of editing is all about respect for the reader.

    Regards,
    Barb

    • Posted February 23, 2011 at 10:49 pm | Permalink

      Good points, Barb, and I know a lot of people who are braced for a flood of garbage once the doors are thrown wide open to self-publishing. Geoffrey’s comment directly above yours mentioned this issue, too.

      No matter how books are published, most will be unworthy. As long as an easy system exists to sort through them and find the few deserving of our time, I’ll be happy. I agree with your assessment of almost all self-published material. One can’t help but conclude that there’s a reason the author was unable to find the book a home via the traditional route.

      Lately, however, I’ve heard a lot from a different crowd of writers altogether. These aren’t the ones who failed to get published in New York. On the contrary, they’re ones who did get published and have become so fed up with the inefficiencies of traditional publishing that they’re now going directly to readers via the Kindle. One I know said he tried putting some of his older work rejected by his current editor on the Kindle just for fun and because he had no other plans for it, and reports making more per month off that material on Amazon than he does from his printed books out of New York. He may be the exception, in fact I’m sure he is, but he’s a compelling example nonetheless.

      I wonder if that infamous slushpile at every publisher is going to stop growing pretty soon as submissions drop off? Publishers will not miss the majority of contributions to the pile, but they may miss submissions from their tried-and-true authors who stop sending new work because they’re good enough to go it alone via the Kindle.

      • Posted February 24, 2011 at 1:24 am | Permalink

        Yes, the older work of a successful writer can sell well in the self publishing e-book platform in part because of the initial marketing of the traditional publishing house. The writer is essentially piggy backing on the original marketing of the publishing house. What will be interesting with self published work in the future is how the work of an unknown writer, not yet vetted by the establishment, will rise above the noise to find readers.

        • Posted February 24, 2011 at 9:52 am | Permalink

          I agree.

          This stage of e-books is parasitic in that way and another, as well. I’ve seen people browse the aisles of a bookstore with their Kindle in hand, peruse print editions of books for free, then buy the ones they want on their Kindle right there in the store wirelessly. I thought it was sad to see and wondered if printed bookstores could survive the trend. That was a couple of years ago, and the answer is now becoming clear.

          The suffering in that situation is shared by publishers. Few people know that almost every book in a new-book store is there on consignment. Publishers or distributors pay to ship the books to the store and then have to pay to ship them back when they don’t sell. They get paid only for books that actually sell. The cost of printing and roundtrip shipping of the book that was perused but not bought probably outweighs the profit of the digital version that sold.

          Both the bookseller and publisher lost out. That’s why both are changing in a hurry. The stores are adapting or disappearing, and the publishers are migrating to digital platforms. As successful authors piggyback on the marketing efforts of their publishers, so readers piggyback on the display efforts of publishers and stores.

          The marketing prowess of big publishers might one day turn the digital landscape into roughly the same market share percentages as the print landscape. If so, then now is the sweet spot for digital self-publishers because the technology is mature enough to make it feasible but the field is not yet dominated by corporations.

  7. geoffrey
    Posted February 23, 2011 at 11:18 am | Permalink

    E-books have evolved immensely in the last 2 years, much to my amazement. Amazon’s Kindle is to the e-book revolution as the iPod was to digital music. Couple the Kindle with the significant $139 price point and you have vertical growth in the making.

    E-books, while fantastic and convenient, may not be able to totally replace all forms of printed material. My wife has a Kindle (I’m still a holdout, but will get one sooner or later). I’ve found that there are some things that work well in digital format, and other things that do not. Books largely sequential in nature (novels, most non-fiction) do well in digital, but other things that you may not read cover-to-cover (textbooks, cookbooks, research books, highly technical or scientific books, or computer programming books) really do not do well in this format. It’s nice to be able to quickly browse for material and flip pages back and forth and I’ve found that e-Books struggle in this regard. Books with a lot of graphics or charts really struggle in this format.

    Nonetheless, for 75% of material out there, the digital format will continue to grow and do well. I do find it somewhat disappointing that e-books cannot be shared between two people (understood due to piracy, but this is a major advantage of print). Once you read a trashy novel you own it forever… there is no giving it away or selling it.

    As for the decline in books, in some ways it’s more a reflection of our society. Studies vary, but it’s widely accepted that kids, teens, and young adults ready significantly less than those from a generation or two ago. Most people I know in the 13-25 age group consider reading a week’s worth of Facebook posts the equivalent of reading a novel. A Kindle or an iPad won’t change this mentality.

    Many here have observed that digital print will make it easier for aspiring writers to become published. True. It will also make it exponentially easier for the market to become over-saturated with garbage. Sure, some writers will get their much-deserved “big break” that they otherwise would never have gotten, but by-and-large I think you’ll see an influx of junk flood the market.

  8. Luigi
    Posted February 23, 2011 at 9:30 am | Permalink

    Jason,

    Just today, while having coffee at Barnes and Noble, I picked up the ONLY copy left of your book and enjoyed reading it and reminiscing about having read its great-great-great(!!) grandfather many years ago and started getting to know you and the beginning of a friendship.

    Couldn’t have done that with a Nook.

    BTW, the line of people, especially around Xmas time, around the Nook stand was impressive.
    They sold like hotcakes … not many young (<30 yrs old) buyers. I would say that middle age and beyond formed the bulk.

    We go there daily and I see people buying books all the time. Haven't noticed a shift in pattern over the years that we've been going.

    BTW, it is funny to see people sit in the coffee shop reading out of Nook or Kindle when there are thousands of printed books around …..

    The fact that Amazon sells 1.15 e-books per print book does not indicate that the sale of printed books has necessarily gone down enough to beg the question whether printed books are going the way of the dinosaurs.

    TV didn't kill the movie industry and the question of e-books wiping out printed books is in the same category. Think of e-books as "in addition to" rather than "instead of".

    Luigi

    • Posted February 23, 2011 at 10:38 pm | Permalink

      That’s probably right, Luigi. As I mentioned in an earlier comment above, many readers are using the e-book edition to test a work and then “upgrading” to the print edition if they like it. That makes sense because physical shelf space is limited. Might as well field test material on an e-reader where it’s cheap and easily disposed if it doesn’t pass muster.

      I, too, saw the lines forming for e-readers at Christmastime, and had to buy the last carrying case on the stand at a big box electronics shop for my Kindle because the rest had sold out, I assumed. I asked the clerk if they’d been popular and she raised her eyebrows and said, “Oh, yeah. Flying out the door.”

  9. Posted February 23, 2011 at 8:18 am | Permalink

    like most things, the death of the hardcopy book is much exaggerated, as is the idea that it will survive forever. I bought my wife a Kindle when it first came out, and she loved it, buying literally scores of books and enjoying them very much. I just got her the new Kindle for her recent birthday, and she’s loving that one, too.

    Yes, there will be a pricing shakeout in the industry, but I predicted that about eight years ago… see the bottom of http://www.plusaf.com/lessons/dearriaa.htm for reference. All of the Digital Rights business evaporated when downloaded music found the right price/performance level, almost exactly as I predicted in my writings back then.

    I trust that the same will happen with the “written word,” too, and it won’t be anywhere near the current cost per page to deliver a book to a reader’s hands, either.

    On the other hand, the lower market-clearing price, I predict, will bring out and make available to much larger markets the talent of many writers who would never be able to jump all of the hurdles between the kernel of their idea and the finished product of a hard-cover book.

    People will collect books probably forever; that theme has been seen in the Star Trek Second Generation series, as a version of the prediction. Commander Picard loves the feel of a real book, yet few are in general use in that future history.

    And just as a side note, who will publish Large Print Editions when our failing eyesight can be compensated for with the press of a “larger type, please” button?

    Now, would anyone like to buy my Star Trek softcover collection?

  10. Matt Allin
    Posted February 23, 2011 at 8:00 am | Permalink

    I bought my first E-Book about ten years ago. I have also purchased several “print” books since. If I am reading fiction or text that I will read only once, the E-Book is preferred. A feature I like is I can change font size or look up a definition with the built in dictionary. For a reference book that I consult frequently or a “Coffee Table” type with color illustration I will buy a print. I do not have a IPad, but when I read an E-Book on my laptop I change the width to a size similar to a paperback. That is why I believe a dedicated E-Reader vs. an IPad makes sense for E-Books. I think there is a future for both print and E-Books.

    • Posted February 23, 2011 at 10:30 pm | Permalink

      Probably so. I find that my Kindle is best for novels, which I read from beginning to end and don’t need to reference again. For serious study books, like financial how-to guides or travel planners, I prefer print because it’s a lot faster to flip to a specific page. Current e-readers, even with their bookmark capabilities, are just not as efficient as holding a physical book and opening directly to the page you’ve tabbed with a sticky note.

      My own stock book, for instance, is a lot better in print. The charts, tables, and such don’t work as well on an e-reader and are not as easily photocopied for personal use. I discovered that on my own and also have heard it many times from readers.

  11. Barbara
    Posted February 23, 2011 at 7:03 am | Permalink

    I believe that eBooks are the future, although we will always have printed books. I personally haven’t bought an eReader because I check out most of my books from the library. I know, very old-fashioned, but I seldom want to read the same book more than once, so even with the lower prices of eBooks, they are not worth it to me. Nevertheless, I don’t represent the majority. There are many benefits to eBooks, and I predict that eBook technology will improve rapidly and will sell quite well.

  12. Tim
    Posted February 23, 2011 at 6:57 am | Permalink

    As a very heavy business traveler, I have found the Kindle to be a truly enjoyable and convenient way to read, and I am reading now more than ever. I am also spending a lot more money on books as a result.

    I believe paper books will always have a market – for those 10% of the books you want to own for your bookshelf, and/or have signed, or write in (textbooks). E-reader technology is excellent, easy on the eyes, and will ony improve with time, and will command a growing slice of the market as the technology becomes more affordable and accessible to more people.

  13. dave T
    Posted February 23, 2011 at 6:56 am | Permalink

    I think the publishing world is changing in a big way. People may still like to hold and touch books but once you own an e-reader, you will find you are reading more and the portability cannot be beat. The publishers know that the model that exists today with printing, storing and shipping and returns and more returns does not work.

  14. nancy "W"
    Posted February 23, 2011 at 5:15 am | Permalink

    Kindle and I-Pad are just recent fads for the gadget crazy population. Eventually this phase will die when they are bored with this toy and a new one comes along. What satisfaction can you derive from Kindle where your eyes play a number on you concentrating on the screen. To me there is nothing like a solid book in my hands where I can touch the hard cover and see the beautiful pictures. I am an avid reader and it gives me great pleasure in feeling the pages and then when I am finished reading I can then place it on my book-shelf in my own library of unique books. Can you imagine reading Rubaiyat of Omar Khyam on a kindle? Well as far as I am concerned “what a joy it is ” to read a book held in my hands.

    • Posted February 23, 2011 at 10:26 pm | Permalink

      Hear, hear, Nancy! The world needs more readers like you. Though I don’t think e-readers are passing fads, I respect anybody who loves books as much as I can tell you do.

  15. Norm Harrison
    Posted February 23, 2011 at 4:32 am | Permalink

    I’ve been wondering what will happen to libraries. I usually check out three to five books per week. The out of pocket cost (zero) is pretty appealing, although of course there is a cost to taxpayers including myself. Perhaps we will only go to the library for older books, and reference material.

    • Matt Allin
      Posted February 23, 2011 at 7:30 am | Permalink

      Norm Mentioned
      “I’ve been wondering what will happen to libraries.”
      Libraries have E-Books for download now. I use a Sony Reader for Epub format.
      When you download a book it is available for 2 weeks, and then is locked.
      Libraries are adopting technology and will survive just fine.

      • Posted February 23, 2011 at 10:25 pm | Permalink

        I didn’t know that, Matt. Thanks for mentioning it. I suppose e-books are a good way for a library to save money because they’re cheaper to acquire and don’t wear out.

  16. James Emmer
    Posted February 23, 2011 at 4:23 am | Permalink

    I also am an avid reader and love the feel and smell of a book. I collect books when I can, however with the acquisition of a Kindle 3G for my birthday the end of December, I have found myself more and more using the electronic version of books. The portability is a key factor along with the ability to download thousands of books for free. I just purchased an IPAD this past Sunday and also found an app containing thousands of books for free, which I installed.
    I was slow moving into utilization of technology for books, not because of any lack of technical ability, but have found I merely enjoyed a “real book”, however, I have now found that it isn’t as painful as I anticipated. I have a local paper, USA Today, Wall Street Journal, The Economist, all installed for free on my IPAD.
    I feel badly about Borders as it was my choice of stores to shop at and feel I’ve also contributed to their reduction in sales. “Times they are a changin.”

    • Posted February 23, 2011 at 10:23 pm | Permalink

      Good to see you here, James! I went through a similar transformation from paper-book reading to my Kindle. I love the smell of books. Ever since I was a kid the first thing I’d do when receiving a new book is open it to the middle and bury my nose deep in the pages. I hesitated moving to e-books where that would be lost, and the tactile experience would change dramatically.

      Then, like you, I found unexpected benefits on the Kindle. I can read it while eating a bowl of cereal and don’t have to hold open its pages with salt and pepper shakers, then move them to turn a page and replace them again. Now I just push a button and the page changes. I can share excerpts online directly from the Kindle, with my own comments included and they appear with the book’s cover — slick! I find that I read more quickly on the Kindle, maybe because I’m not distracted by the pages or wanting to put sticky notes in the margin.

      I’ll always love printed books, but I’ve come to love the Kindle as well. That’s a testament to Amazon’s approach. I heard Jeff Bezos say once that he wasn’t so arrogant as to believe his company could replace an object that had stood the test of hundreds of years. Instead, he just wanted find ways to make it better, to offer ways of experiencing an author’s work that had not been possible prior to new technologies like e-ink. I like that approach, because it respects paper books even as it brings reading into a modern age.

      As an aside, is the Longmont Borders on Hover closing?

  17. Posted February 23, 2011 at 3:14 am | Permalink

    I’m a long-time software developer, keen early-adopter and think about this kind of stuff a lot.

    First, as I thought was generally accepted by now, DRM doesn’t stop piracy. Many/most of the ebooks available on torrent sites have had their DRM stripped off by some determined individual. It doesn’t stop the pirates, it merely irritates the regular consumer. It only takes a single person to get around the DRM and create a torrent before everyone has access to the DRM-free version.

    Second, when you ask if the iPad will “take the field by storm” you are overlooking the fact that a large amount of people reading ebooks on their iPad are using the *Kindle* app. The Kindle hardware device is not where Amazon is making their ebook-related money. They are making it with selling ebooks. Amazon has Kindle apps for iPhone/iPad, Android, OS X, Windows etc etc.

    Third, the Kindle’s success, in my mind, (and by Kindle I mean all Kindle apps, not just the physical device), is the absolute ease of use when buying a book. Last night I was reading twitter in bed and someone linked to an article about meditation. I found the article very compelling and quickly loaded up the KindleApp, clicked ‘Get Books’, typed the name of the recommended book from the article, clicked “Buy with one click” and was done. The whole process took less than a minute.

    Fourth, one major complaint about ebooks was their inability to be loaned out to friends. Yes, people could just go pirate the book, and they definitely did, but Amazon has fortunately exposed a lending capability and sites like Lendle have sprung up to take advantage of. And the great thing is you can lend and borrow from people you don’t even know.

    I currently do 100% of my book reading via the Kindle app on my iPhone 4. I’ve purchased around 30 ebooks via Amazon in the past year or so. I personally think the ebook usage will continue to grow and become the dominant medium for books. Physical books won’t go away for a long time (if ever) but I do think publishers are going to need to find compelling reasons for someone to buy a certain book physically rather than digitally — just like the movie studios are excessively using 3D to try and get you out of your living room.

    • Posted February 25, 2011 at 1:51 pm | Permalink

      Great points, Dylan.

      It’s true that no DRM is unbreakable, but having some kind of DRM is enough to keep most sales honest. I think one reason e-books aren’t going to be a hot target for mass piracy is that they’re so cheaply acquired honestly. Music, on the other hand, was being sold for outrageously high prices when free file sharing cut it off at the knees. I think the extra effort to get a DRM-free file combined with the cheap price of the easily-acquired legitimate file will keep piracy to a low annoyance rather than an industry-debilitating disease.

      You’re right about the iPad using the Kindle app for reading. Amazon’s many platform reading apps for Kindle content is helping to solidify its standing as the one-stop publishing shop for new books. Setting themselves as the format standard was very smart.

      I, too, am still in awe of the convenience of buying books on the Kindle. It goes to my point of piracy not posing much of a threat. In your example, you didn’t leave Twitter to find a torrent search engine to see if the book you wanted was available for free off a server in Russia. You just wanted it right now with one click and a small amount of money paid, and it happened. That’s what I mean about the ease of acquiring books honestly outweighing the appeal (and extra work) of acquiring them dishonestly. Not always, of course. There will always be somebody who gets such a bang out of stealing material that it’ll be worth it to them to scour the internet for freebies, but I think they’ll be the exception.

      Finally, that convenience is another reason I think the Kindle is a boon to self-publishers doing their own promotions. That Twitter link you saw, or a radio mention somebody hears, can be acted upon right here right now almost without thinking. Compared to a reader or listener needing to write down a book’s info and then remember to buy it the next time they’re online or at a physical store, the ability to get it right now for a few bucks makes do-it-yourself promotions very effective. Mentioning a compelling Kindle book in a tweet to the right list could one day move more copies than a review in the New York Times.

  18. Gregory Iwan
    Posted February 23, 2011 at 3:11 am | Permalink

    Here’s one for the author in each of us: how do you have a “book signing” if you only have “e-” books? Meeting the customer seems quite important, in my antiquated way of looking at things.

    • Posted February 23, 2011 at 10:15 pm | Permalink

      One way is to have an event organized online but held at a physical meeting space such as a coffee shop, town hall, or other location. The author would read from the book or speak, or both, and could then sign postcards of the book’s cover if everybody owns the e-book. The postcard could commemorate the event, tie it to the book, and maybe a headshot of the author somewhere on it would help promote the author as a brand.

  19. Andy
    Posted February 23, 2011 at 3:00 am | Permalink

    I’ve long been a fan of Amazon, but just recently made a purchase of the company’s stock, spurred by utilizing the Kindle app on my iPad. The ease with which I was able purchase and view ebooks across multiple devices (iPad, iPhone, etc.) made me realize that Amazon’s ebook market goes well beyond its own native device (Kindle). Some Apple users may find the iBooks app to be a “cooler” e-reader interface, but Amazon is king of content for e-readers and the Kindle app is easy to use and has excellent features.

  20. Mike
    Posted February 23, 2011 at 2:54 am | Permalink

    Amazon has themselves set up nicely with the Kindle because not only can it be used on the Kindle Reading device, it can also be used on an iPad, an iPhone, or an Android smartphone. Heck, if I leave my Kindle at home and want to read, I just start up the app on my smartphone and the book begins on the last page I read. The Kindle reading device is much easier on the eyes than an iPad too.

    Amazon is also opening up their market to small authors seeking to publish their materials online. This is a nice niche for those interested in discovering new writers.

    I don’t see print books going completely away; however, I bet the will become much less common over the next few years with Amazon leading the way.

  21. Vince
    Posted February 23, 2011 at 2:27 am | Permalink

    I am an avid reader, and always will be…and I regret that real books will become more and more difficult to come by. E books are great in their own way, but I have thus far seen no reason to buy them since the prices are typically not appreciably lower than the cost of a real book.

    I enjoy having books on my bookshelf, and prefer reading a real book in my hands over reading it on the screen…much the way I prefer listening to music via a vinyl record on my turntable over a CD or MP3. I assume that real books will end up a bit like vinyl records have. There are those who prefer them, and will continue to buy them. There will be shops that specialize in them as well, but eventually you will pay more for a real book (as you now do for a vinyl record), and they will be harder to come by. Currently, the pricing makes little sense, with real books often costing the same or less than an ebook. But this will change, as it obviously costs more to produce and ship a real book.

    In the end, I will purchase certain ebooks when they are significantly less expensive to purchase than the real thing. Price and convenience usually win out. But I don’t see real books going away, or at least I hope they don’t. In a way, it can be more difficult to retain digital data over the years (can you imagine someone passing along their ebook collection to their kids or grandchildren in the same way that a bookshelf full of classics could be passed along?), and I fear that fewer real books being published over the years will be seen eventually as a shame.

    Look at the vinyl analogy, which I think fits nicely. Years ago, when CDs arrived, I stopped playing my records. In fact, I nearly tossed them out several times. Now, I have started enjoying them again, they have increased in value, and I have remembered how much better they sound than digital music. Not as convenient, and more effort to use, but infinitely better in many ways. In the future, real paper books will be seen in this way by many once they become less available and more expensive to own. But, they will be a niche market, and no longer a mass media product. This will take years to play out, but it will happen.

    • Posted February 23, 2011 at 10:12 pm | Permalink

      I think you’re right, Vince, about books going the way of vinyl records. I even discussed with my sister, manager of our coffee shop in Colorado, that we should open an adjacent shop that specializes in printed books and vinyl music because both will become cherished parts of history that people will love again as they get rarer and rarer. It’s already happening with vinyl, but combining the two in the same nostalgic category isn’t widespread yet.

      At least print-on-demand should keep printed books around for a long time, if not forever. I’ll miss the days of walking through a store filled with books, though. It’s the decline of reading that’s done this, ultimately, and that trend will only accelerate when people don’t even see printed books in the course of a day. Something will have been lost in society.

    • Bob
      Posted February 25, 2011 at 5:41 am | Permalink

      Vince,

      Durability, preservation, archiving, however you want to say it, is something I forgot about. Digital data is notoriously hard to preserve over the long haul. This is because of (at least) three things:

      1. Durability of the media. Perhaps this is improving, but we of course have no examples of centuries-old USB sticks to give us confidence!

      2. Changing technology. Who has a seven-track 1961 IBM tape reader?

      3. Proprietary formats. This leads to a multitude of different and abandoned formats. There are old Microsoft Word documents that can’t be read by today’s version of Word. There are probably more people that can read ancient Sumerian than there are working computer systems that can read some of the popular data formats of the 1960’s, or even the 1980’s.

      (Worse comes to worst, someone will always be able to drag a sharp instrument across a vinyl LP!)

      • Bob
        Posted February 25, 2011 at 5:44 am | Permalink

        I should have given this example — Remember Iomega Zip drives from the 1990’s? Some of those could not be read even 5 minutes after writing them!

  22. Bob
    Posted February 23, 2011 at 2:27 am | Permalink

    Books are beautiful things to look at and hold. This is something that eBooks can’t deliver.

    But, I must admit that much, probably over 75%, of my reading is one-time reads of books I would take to the beach or read on the airplane and gladly pass on to someone else. That is they have no lasting value to me, once read.

    So, maybe the “book” market will break into several categories, perhaps including:

    1. eBooks for leisure reading.
    2. Physical text books (or similar) where the ability to write in the margins is important.
    3. Traditional books where high-quality, well-crafted, physical books can command a premium.

    From an investing perspective, the first category is probably where the money is. I have already found that browsing at Amazon is more rewarding than browsing at a book store. I wouldn’t buy B&N stock!

    Perhaps advances in eBook technology can make inroads on the second category.

    The third category may become a niche market. Maybe “niche” is a little too extreme a term.

    • Posted February 23, 2011 at 10:44 am | Permalink

      You’re probably right, Bob. People in publishing have told me that readers are viewing e-books as samples for which they pay only a little. If they finish the book and want more of a keepsake than the file on their device, they can “upgrade” to the print edition.

      If this trend persists, it would favor print-on-demand companies because they would benefit when people love a book and want it for their shelf. It won’t be worth printing a big inventory for that market, but making the product available as a premium aftermarket item could work. It would be similar to how the New York Times sells framed prints of its historical front pages.

      For instance, I carry The Stranger and The Catcher in the Rye on my Kindle so I can pull up old friends when I’m on the road, but I also have dog-eared paperbacks of each on my office bookshelf and I sometimes pull them down for a lunchtime read. E-books are so cheap, buying one of them doesn’t preclude buying a printed version of the same title. In a way, e-books can be considered profitable sales tools to promote print-book sales!

  23. Gregory Iwan
    Posted February 23, 2011 at 2:09 am | Permalink

    The “promote” part gives me some pause. While I don’t mind talking about my work, I am wary of the hype environment, where you have to “get in someone’s face” or radically “push the envelope” (whichever one that is) to get any attention. The attention span of the general public seems woefully diminished, which follows the “dumbing down” I’ve been watching. Yet, according to my lead editor, there appears to be “a lot” of work being published that, according to her, “. . . should never see the light of day.” The publishers, when they die, will have no one but themselves to blame, for they choose the path of least resistance, eschewing “risk.” They, like institutional “investors,” tend to watch one another instead of “the MARKET.” Monkey see, . . . . It would be a shame to see hard-copy books bite the dust. Jefferson said he could not live without books. What durability is there to electrons? I’m puzzled, miffed, concerned, and frustrated that “simplifying” life only leads to complications. Call it the law of unintended consequences. For example, what if Dr. Josef Goebbels had had an “Internet,” or e-readers had been available in 1933? I shudder to think. THINK? Oh-oh; there I go again! Get the “Fahrenheit 451” crew!

    • Posted February 23, 2011 at 10:37 am | Permalink

      Actually, I think the steadily dropping bar of quality in New York and other traditional publishing centers is what makes this a ripe time for an e-book revolution that provides writers with direct access to readers.

      Most people don’t understand that the days of in-depth, quality editing are long gone for all but a publisher’s celebrity authors, whose names are managed brands and whose books are new products treated precisely as brand and their products at a consumer goods corporation like Pepsi. Below that echelon, unknown writers and their books are published en mass and the publisher just watches sales figures to decide which books to further push. Why pay an editor for judgment when the market will tell you for free which books sell and which don’t? Thus, editors have morphed into product managers. I’ve worked with excellent editors who’ve provided good input, but most writers will tell you that the editing is done mostly by the writer these days. So, nothing will be lost on that front by self-publishing on the Kindle.

      As for promotion, this is also left to writers these days. Most people think that authors go on several-city book tours to dine with TV personalities and their agent before showing up in a limousine at a bookstore packed with adoring fans awaiting signatures. Anybody living that way has a name known to you. The other 99.9 percent of authors never see anything like that, but are instead left to arrange their own book signings in a quiet corner of a local bookstore where they spend most of their time talking to the manager.

      Anyway, book signings don’t work anymore. There aren’t enough readers involved. To really move the needle on a book’s sales an author needs to reach a mass audience, and that’s best done online and on radio, both of which can be handled efficiently from the author’s home. Even if an author is published at a major house, he or she still needs to do most of the publicity work alone. Note that not all publicity has to be the “in your face” variety you mentioned. Doing it yourself allows you to tailor your events to your style, your audience. You don’t have to become a celebrity sell-out just to announce a book.

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