e-book developments at amazon, google (and rambly thoughts thereon)

The NY Times reported yesterday that the Kindle, Amazon’s much speculated-about e-book reading device, is due out next month. No one’s seen it yet and Amazon has been tight-lipped about specs, but it presumably has an e-ink screen, a small keyboard and scroll wheel, and most significantly, wireless connectivity. This of course means that Amazon will have a direct pipeline between its store and its device, giving readers access an electronic library (and the Web) while on the go. If they’d just come down a bit on the price (the Times says it’ll run between four and five hundred bucks), I can actually see this gaining more traction than past e-book devices, though I’m still not convinced by the idea of a dedicated book reader, especially when smart phones are edging ever closer toward being a credible reading environment. A big part of the problem with e-readers to date has been the missing internet connection and the lack of a good store. The wireless capability of the Kindle, coupled with a greater range of digital titles (not to mention news and blog feeds and other Web content) and the sophisticated browsing mechanisms of the Amazon library could add up to the first more-than-abortive entry into the e-book business. But it still strikes me as transitional – ?a red herring in the larger plot.
A big minus is that the Kindle uses a proprietary file format (based on Mobipocket), meaning that readers get locked into the Amazon system, much as iPod users got shackled to iTunes (before they started moving away from DRM). Of course this means that folks who bought the cheaper (and from what I can tell, inferior) Sony Reader won’t be able to read Amazon e-books.
But blech… enough about ebook readers. The Times also reports (though does little to differentiate between the two rather dissimilar bits of news) on Google’s plans to begin selling full online access to certain titles in Book Search. Works scanned from library collections, still the bone of contention in two major lawsuits, won’t be included here. Only titles formally sanctioned through publisher deals. The implications here are rather different from the Amazon news since Google has no disclosed plans for developing its own reading hardware. The online access model seems to be geared more as a reference and research tool -? a powerful supplement to print reading.
But project forward a few years… this could develop into a huge money-maker for Google: paid access (licensed through publishers) not only on a per-title basis, but to the whole collection – ?all the world’s books. Royalties could be distributed from subscription revenues in proportion to access. Each time a book is opened, a penny could drop in the cup of that publisher or author. By then a good reading device will almost certainly exist (more likely a next generation iPhone than a Kindle) and people may actually be reading books through this system, directly on the network. Google and Amazon will then in effect be the digital infrastructure for the publishing industry, perhaps even taking on what remains of the print market through on-demand services purveyed through their digital stores. What will publishers then be? Disembodied imprints, free-floating editorial organs, publicity directors…?
Recent attempts to develop their identities online through their own websites seem hopelessly misguided. A publisher’s website is like their office building. Unless you have some direct stake in the industry, there’s little reason to bother know where it is. Readers are interested in books not publishers. They go to a bookseller, on foot or online, and they certainly don’t browse by publisher. Who really pays attention to who publishes the books they read anyway, especially in this corporatized era where the difference between imprints is increasingly cosmetic, like the range of brands, from dish soap to potato chips, under Proctor & Gamble’s aegis? The digital storefront model needs serious rethinking.
The future of distribution channels (Googlezon) is ultimately less interesting than this last question of identity. How will today’s publishers establish and maintain their authority as filterers and curators of the electronic word? Will they learn how to develop and nurture literate communities on the social Web? Will they be able to carry their distinguished imprints into a new terrain that operates under entirely different rules? So far, the legacy publishers have proved unable to grasp the way these things work in the new network culture and in the long run this could mean their downfall as nascent online communities (blog networks, webzines, political groups, activist networks, research portals, social media sites, list-servers, libraries, art collectives) emerge as the new imprints: publishing, filtering and linking in various forms and time signatures (books being only one) to highly activated, focused readerships.
The prospect of atomization here (a million publishing tribes and sub-tribes) is no doubt troubling, but the thought of renewed diversity in publishing after decades of shrinking horizons through corporate consolidation is just as, if not more, exciting. But the question of a mass audience does linger, and perhaps this is how certain of today’s publishers will survive, as the purveyors of mass market fare. But with digital distribution and print on demand, the economies of scale rationale for big publishers’ existence takes a big hit, and with self-publishing services like Amazon CreateSpace and Lulu.com, and the emergence of more accessible authoring tools like Sophie (still a ways away, but coming along), traditional publishers’ services (designing, packaging, distributing) are suddenly less special. What will really be important in a chaotic jumble of niche publishers are the critics, filterers and the context-generating communities that reliably draw attention to the things of value and link them meaningfully to the rest of the network. These can be big companies or light-weight garage operations that work on the back of third-party infrastructure like Google, Amazon, YouTube or whatever else. These will be the new publishers, or perhaps its more accurate to say, since publishing is now so trivial an act, the new editors.
Of course social filtering and tastemaking is what’s been happening on the Web for years, but over time it could actually supplant the publishing establishment as we currently know it, and not just the distribution channels, but the real heart of things: the imprimaturs, the filtering, the building of community. And I would guess that even as the digital business models sort themselves out (and it’s worth keeping an eye on interesting experiments like Content Syndicate, covered here yesterday, and on subscription and ad-based models), that there will be a great deal of free content flying around, publishers having finally come to realize (or having gone extinct with their old conceits) that controlling content is a lost cause and out of synch with the way info naturally circulates on the net. Increasingly it will be the filtering, curating, archiving, linking, commenting and community-building -? in other words, the network around the content -? that will be the thing of value. Expect Amazon and Google (Google, btw, having recently rolled out a bunch of impressive new social tools for Book Search, about which more soon) to move into this area in a big way.

17 thoughts on “e-book developments at amazon, google (and rambly thoughts thereon)

  1. Barbara Fister

    It seems to me that getting books into the hands of readers in some form in which it can be read is not the publisher’s primary role. That they leave to printers and to Ingram and other distributors, no? If those functions are fulfilled elsewhere, publishers can continue to do what they primarily do – identify books they believe people want to read, refine them, design an attractive package to hold them, and market them (though that’s an area they don’t do very well).
    Trade publishers don’t have an identity now, in the eyes of most readers. People don’t say “I feel like reading a Knopf book today.” They choose an author, or they seek out a book they’ve been hearing about. Who published it is of no interest to most readers, and when authors move from one publisher to another, their readers follow.
    It’s also fair to say that even before electronic books there was a lot of free content around. People shared books, checked them out of the library (that purchased them), got them cheap at used book sales, swapped them. The early attempts at e-books failed to realize how important that circulation of material is to the development of book culture.
    I think people will be willing to continue to pay for the value added by a good publisher – wise editing and nurturing of talented authors. (You could argue they don’t do that now, but they do more to improve books than you might think; lots of self-published books show the difference when it’s missing.) But readers will also want to share those books, and so far making that difficult is what has stymied adoption.
    The filtering and tastemaking that has always belonged to readers is growing more effective on the Web (as is book swapping and other ways of sharing books). I get most of my recommendations from readers I connect with online. But the behind-the-scenes editorial work of publishers – which includes deciding which books they will spend time on – is going to remain important.
    We live in interesting times.

  2. Alain Pierrot

    “[…]third-party infrastructure like Google, Amazon, YouTube or whatever else. These will be the new publishers, or perhaps its more accurate to say, since publishing is now so trivial an act, the new editors.”
    Will they really edit texts or simply promote selected titles?
    Why would they spend any efforts helping authors reaching a higher level of ‘readability’ (which is probably the main purpose of “editing”) if they control the whole market through universal distribution in an interoperable access to ebooks?
    This would make sense if they competed to capture the best titles against competitors -? most probably through proprietary formats…
    As a customer of books, I would resent having to invest in different readers (hardware or software) to read books according to the place I buy them from.

  3. Gary Frost

    One unmentioned option is production to paper as if it is a new product. The next generation hand held devices will test prospects for such a scenario. My guess is that they will become every more capable pointers to paper books.
    The way it works is that hand held readers will become ever more connected, especially delivering place or time tagged information. They will have the legacy texts as back end, but the reading behavior will approximate blogging more than print tracking. In such an eye-phone communication environment there will be a new role for the print book to stand as islands in the ocean. The digital sweep will gather all published materials but the researcher, reader and author will still need to evaluate the prospects for unwritten books which can be positioned between other fixed books. Paper books play a copy positioning role as physical libraries have demonstrated.
    And Amazon still has some momentum with the paper book product as an on-line retail product. Amazon doesn’t need to set up the print book as a straw-man for its ebook to knock down. Unlike other agencies of advocacy for screen reading, Amazon may keep its grip on thing based delivery. Google may take credit for reinvention of the reseach library, but Amazon could take credit for reinvention of the paper book.

  4. bowerbird

    yet another blog announcing the kindle as fact,
    and about to be released “next month”. just like
    last year. and earlier this year. what a yawn…
    do you always believe the n.y. times? i pity you.
    really, are we supposed to believe amazon.com
    — the world’s biggest bookstore, right? —
    doesn’t have a p.r. department to announce this?
    apple is a “tight-lipped” company, usually
    announcing products only when they’re in stores,
    but they announced the iphone 6 months in advance.
    and were well-rewarded with a massive load of hype.
    amazon would do the same thing, if they are smart.
    and you know what? i don’t think amazon is stupid.
    i’m not saying the kindle won’t be here next month
    — i honestly don’t know, but _neither_do_you_ —
    but i _am_ saying that if it doesn’t show up,
    i will mock you for “passing on” this rumor…

  5. Monica McCormick

    If we can extrapolate from the NY Times Magazine’s recent article on Rick Rubin (the record producer/guru hired by Columbia Records to “save the music business”) then the new business model may rely on getting the best content.
    Readers may not distinguish among publishers, but authors certainly do. Publishers compete fiercely for the best (or best-selling) authors, often on the basis of the value of good editing. Author/editor relationships can be powerful.
    How the content will be packaged and sold are surely open questions. But if publishers keep finding and shaping the best content, they’ll have something of value to sell.

  6. Barbara Fister

    Good point, Monica. Of course in trade publishing, they tend to compete by jacking up the size of advances, and authors (and their agents) will take that into consideration and often sacrifice a good relationship with an editor for the bigger bucks. And weirdness, like the impact of sales through Walmart, tend to infect publishers with a very strange bestseller fever. But the common notion that editors don’t edit anymore is a canard. And I find it unlikely that Amazon, Google, or YouTube will edit anything. It’s a hell of a lot of work for too little financial return.

  7. Alain Pierrot

    I think Ben’s “Readers are interested in books not publishers” and Barbara’s “Trade publishers don’t have an identity now, in the eyes of most readers” remarks should be considered:
    Of course, fiction or essays belong to the “non-substitutable” books category, because each title is an original, individual work both from the author’s point of view and from the actual reader’s. Author’s name and title provide enough information to differentiate the book.
    Now there is a whole range of cases or situations where books can be considered as “weakly-” to “strongly-substitutable”. Most practical books (cooking, travel guides, how-to books, manuals, …) do not differentiate easily, and buyers won’t usually spend a lot of time discriminating one from another. This is where publishers’ branding -? usually collection or series’ branding -? comes in handy. If the editors are consistent in their choices, style, they implicitly qualify the book as having such and such features, quality…
    The same goes with new authors, when they haven’t yet been widely promoted: the first readers (or buyers in a hurry because they have to catch a train, a plane, …) seldom pick their books randomly; usually they pick them on the mixed criteria of title, summary and publisher’s name.
    In these situations, it is faster and easier to choose from one’s experience of a publisher’s brand than to identify the relevant social-filtering community which will match the specific need for advice.
    Consequently, if Amazon and Google continue to claim a global universal offer, they will need to provide mechanisms that help buyers discriminate equivalent ‘hits’ to their queries.
    They could (will) probably:
    make use of publishers and collection names as search criteria,
    try and qualify social-filters
    qualify books themselves, creating their own brands and collections.
    But the last position would mean they loose their image of neutral global offerers.

  8. bowerbird

    > if publishers keep
    > finding and shaping the best content,
    > they’ll have something of value to sell.
    that hasn’t been what publishers do for a long time,
    since the bean-counters ousted the book-lovers.
    now, they publish any swill that they think will sell.
    just like their fellow capitalists in the music biz.
    but the audience is smarter now. we realize we don’t
    have to swallow whatever they try to spoon-feed us,
    and we use our new many-to-many communication tool
    to _tell_the_truth_to_each_other_about_what’s_good,_
    rather than listening to their hype machine.
    and once we tune into user-run collaborative filtering,
    we’ll be even _less_ willing to get corporate guidance.
    writers still need editors. and we always will.
    but we don’t need to sell our soul to the devil
    (in the form of a publisher) to get one, thank you.
    we can just hire one. one we found in cyberspace.

  9. Alain Pierrot

    aggreed on most points,
    but allow for some exceptions:
    Manfred Eicher (ECM), for instance, is indeed in the music biz.
    Still, most of the time, I can identify most of what he publishes when I hear a few measures, before accessing any credit about the piece.
    And I have seldom been disappointed when I tried and listen to any artist he had decided to promote.
    This type of publisher is worth considering, don’t you think?

  10. Adam Hodgkin

    In total agreement with Ben’s comments on the rumoured Kindle and on the ‘real heart of things’ (the publisher’s role in selecting, improving, editing, designing, promoting and positioning for individual books), but find it very puzzling that this is discussed as though books were not already being read and accessed through the web. The web library function is already well established and passed its foundational stages. From this point of view the absence of conventional book publishers (and the non-existence of digital editions of trade titles) from the story so far is almost incredible….more on this here

  11. sol gaitan

    The argument doesn’t seem to be that paper books won’t have a role in the future, or that Kindle is a fact, but what is the future of book publishing in a digital world in which just a few giants have ultimate control.
    And, yes, there are some who trust certain publishing houses (Gallimard, Penguin, Gredos, Fondo de Cultura Económica.) What is missing is the e-book publisher with the same credibility, able to profit from the use of authoring tools, reading environments, and social filtering beyond mere marketing concerns.

  12. Clayton Black

    Who browses by publisher? I do. In fact, I got to this site by “shopping” the site of the New York Review of Books Classics. Of course I take tips from friends and follow up on them, but I’m also always in the market for interesting authors and titles, and knowing which publishers tend to produce the kinds of books that interest me helps a lot. So when I’m scanning the fiction sections of book stores, my eyes are drawn to the patterns on spines in familiar publisher series–like Penguin, Vintage International, NYRB, and Quartet Encounters. Good publishers and editors do make a difference, and it’s why I feel comfortable taking a leap of faith with a new and unknown-to-me book on the basis of knowing the publisher. For my own tastes, I feel far more secure making decisions that way than by the popularity contest of bestseller lists. But I suppose I’m an oddity in that regard.

  13. bowerbird

    the collaborative filtering of the future will
    make you “far more secure” about the books
    (and other content) that it recommends to you
    — and deliver a _ton_ of material you _love_ —
    to the extent that “publisher reputation” and
    “material selection” and “positioning” and
    “marketing clout” and all those other factors
    will fade away to almost complete nothingness.
    you don’t know how much _brilliant_stuff_ you
    are now missing, simply because the rest of the
    people in the world don’t agree with you that it
    _is_ brilliant. (because you are _idiosyncratic._
    we’re all idiosyncratic. and the mass-media will
    never be able to take each of us into account.)

  14. Sylvia Hubbard

    when i began to serious read at twelve, no i really never paid attention to who published the books. i had just stepped into the realm of adult romances, but i did know the difference between a harlequin and any other book. because they stuck to one format – no sleeping with the guy until after marriage. they became cookie cutters and i progressed to other books and didn’t look back until recently when a friend of mine was picked up by harlequin and i knew her books weren’t cookie cutting harlequin old style. but as years have progressed big publishers aren’t sticking to their own style anymore and I guess that’s why readers don’t pay attention anymore.
    now I would say right now, anyone with their own style would be the successful Triple Crown and the reader loyalty is top notch. These readers order books before they are even sent to press and she’s printing a second run by the time the first one comes out.
    TC is now borderline big time but still with the small time feel beause you can still contact CEO by phone easily when you call the company and she’s very well involved in decisions made within her company and not by 100’s of acquisition editors.
    Anyhoo, i just think if publishers want to stand out they need to create a standard again. An identity. Something that you know you’re going to get every time you read one of their books. even if its their authors they stand behind.

  15. Martyn

    Google’s deal to charge for access to digitised books was a predictable development, and fair enough if the book actually is in copyright. The problem is, however, that many books on Google’s Book Search site are not available, and carry a statement saying that they are not available as they may still be in copyright. This is happening when some of the books are out of copyright. One example is provided by 19th century books by the garden writer and friend of Nathaniel Hawthorne, Henry Arthur Bright who died in 1884 – clearly now out of copyright.
    Restricting access to publications which are in the public domain is a worrying development, effectively redefining copyright. Many major libraries already charge extortionate “reproduction fees” for illustrations that are in the public domain – using their monopoly on supply to increase their income, to the detriment of small publishers – how long before they begin to use their privileged control over the text as another way of increasing their income?

  16. Alain Pierrot

    Martyn is raising an interesting and important point about the availability of public domain works, somewhat bluntly, in my opinion, about undue extortion -? if I decide to forgive quite a few personal unfortunate experiences, which make me sympathise.
    My view is that many works, “fallen” into public domain, are worth being made available, but there is a cost involved, from mere printed material preservation to “annotated critical edition” (please forgive my poor command of English if this is Frenglish).
    Given these (contestable) premises, how can we move forward?
    How can we develop a fair retribution of the work involved?
    How can we convince national budget allowance deciders to fund libraries and digitisation programs to do a reasonable job?
    PS: with the risk of ratiocinating, I would advise anybody to read Diderot’s “Lettre sur le commerce de la librairie” about this issue, where he discussed in detail how to mitigate enterprernarial initiative and public interest to make available useful books.

  17. bowerbird

    well, it’s monday, october 15th.
    so, do we have the kindle?
    or do we have rumors and speculation?


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