E-book Scenarios That Probably Won’t Happen
by Curt Matthews
•Authors will succeed in selling their books directly to readers without any need for publishers, booksellers, wholesalers, or distributors.
Not very often. All the traditional players in the book business will continue to perform essential functions for e-books just as they have for print books. Why? All of them deal primarily with content and try to match it with the right audiences. A good book is hard to write, hard to acquire, hard to design, hard to publicize, hard to market. There is no such thing as a book that sells itself.
•If you make it, they will come.
The many digital vanity presses out there intentionally confuse availability with marketing. Sure, many companies can turn a Word file into something that looks like a book and put it up on the Internet so that a reader could download it.
But how meaningful is this availability in a world where there will be a million new titles produced each year? Yes, a title or two will sell a bunch of copies, but the odds of having that sort of success are about the same as the odds of winning the lottery.
Here is a parallel example from the world of apps that was discussed at the recent Tools of Change conference: When there were just a few thousand Apple apps, a new one could get some attention. But very soon there will be 500,000 apps to choose from. If you are going to get your new one noticed, you are going to have to find a way to do effective marketing.
•E-books will quickly make printed books obsolete.
My company’s current experience is that e-book sales are about 5 percent of total sales—still a small, if fast-growing, percentage. The titles that sell best in the e-book format are the same ones that sell best in print editions: bestsellers and very active backlist titles.
Also, genre fiction—detective, romance, spy thrillers—really stands out in the world of e-books. One IPG client publisher who has many historical romances on his list was startled to discover recently that over one third of his sales were suddenly e-books. It may be that readers especially value price and convenience when buying books they devour like popcorn.
But there are still titles, especially niche titles, that readers want to own by keeping a copy on their bookshelf. Books have always been powerful symbols or markers of personality and lifestyle choices. Many of us still judge people by the books they keep.
How big will the e-book market finally be? In the music business, half of sales are still CDs. I think it will be some years before e-editions of books command half the market, if they ever do. But however this issue evolves, publishers should be in the business of marketing high-quality book content to consumers through every sort of sales channel and in every kind of edition.
•There will no longer be a need to do print editions.
At this stage in the game it is clearly print editions that drive e-book sales rather than the reverse. Reviewers, even most Web-based reviewers, still want to see a printed copy.
But here is an aspect of e-books that I, at least, did not anticipate, but now welcome with open arms: My company recently had experience with a number of titles that advanced well as print editions into the bookstores—say 3,000 to 5,000 copies—and subsequently received very strong, very concentrated review attention.
These good reviews quickly wiped out all the stock on the bookstore shelves. Then, during the time it took us to restock the stores, sales of the e-book edition skyrocketed. Thousands of copies. The attention span of most Americans being what it is, those sales would have been lost if the e-book had not been available.
This is a very important development for independent presses and their distributors. It has almost never been realistic or prudent for us to flood the market with copies in hopes of creating a sudden bestseller. But an e-book, in addition to being a viable product in its own right, can keep a title alive and profitable during periods when the stores are out of stock or when the publisher is waiting for a reprint. The very modest investment necessary to make an e-edition can buy a terrific insurance policy.
•Converting print files into e-books will continue to be slow and expensive.
Publishers are now insisting that their typesetters produce e-book files as an intrinsic part of composing book pages. The newest version of InDesign allows direct output into the EPUB format, and similar features are now available for the Quark typesetting program. There is a learning curve for the typographers, but those who do not adapt will soon be out of business. Conversion is on its way to becoming a routine part of book production.
•It will be all about the device, stupid.
The new e-book readers are wonderful examples of clever technology; but compared to the content of a book, they are a rather straightforward solution to a simple problem: how to put text or images on a contrasting background, and then add a bunch of bells and whistles.
By contrast, the content of a book, at least a good one, can gather up any amount of personal or cultural history, can register every level of emotional intensity and nuance, can trace every point on the long line between hope and despair. Book content is really hard to create. The device makers may think otherwise, but content will remain king.
Curt Matthews is the founder and CEO of Chicago Review Press, Incorporated, which is the parent company of Chicago Review Press and of Independent Publishers Group, the first independent press distributor and now the second largest.