E-books—Not So Fast!
by Bryan Rosner
I’m on record for thinking that e-books may eventually replace printed books (see “We Get Letters,” December 2008), but let me tell you why I plan to cling to printed books as a core business for as long as possible.
First, an important note for any of you who are tempted to shrug me off as a stodgy old publisher who shrinks from changing times and shudders at the thought of new technology:
My publishing company is on the cutting edge with many new technologies. At least 75 percent of its revenue is generated from “techie” activities such as search-engine optimization, blogging, Google AdWords, an online store, an online affiliate program, a YouTube video blog (or “vlog”), and the list goes on. The company began on the Web and thrives on the Web. I obsessively check the PageRank of most Web sites I visit; I am addicted to technology blogs like TechCrunch; and I recommend reading O’Reilly Media’s Tools for Change in Publishing blog for the latest techie news.
It is important for me to brag about my affinity for adopting new technologies to set the stage for what I’m about to say.
The Things We Have to Fear
I am not at all excited about e-books. I believe they pose threats to profitability for most book publishers. Here are a few that face publishers who adopt e-books as their primary format.
Weaker attraction for authors. The reason you make money as a publisher is that authors believe your participation adds value. Although editing and graphic design are important, the major area in which you add value involves your knowledge of, and access to, printing and distribution resources. If you’re publishing e-books, authors may decide they don’t need you.
The process of converting a Microsoft Word document into a PDF file for download is much simpler (or at least, perceived to be much simpler) than the process of engaging the services of an offset printer and dealing with all those thousands of books that come off the press. If e-books are sold more than printed books, the publishers’ added value may seem irrelevant.
Fewer promotion possibilities. One of the most interesting marketing concepts I’ve encountered lately is that your book itself is the best marketing tool you have. A book acts as its own ambassador. As physical objects, books end up on coffee tables, front seats of cars, backpacks, and kitchen counters, all of which are easy places for friends and family to see them, remember them, pick them up, read them, discuss them, borrow them, and essentially provide free, ongoing publicity and exposure.
Downloaded files, on the other hand, are briefly read (or merely scanned because the reading experience created by keyboards, screens, and itsy-bitsy scroll bars is so cumbersome), and then eternally lost in an invisible sea of ones and zeros. Digital files can’t be held, touched, carried, or otherwise seen by guests or passersby.
What were the last three books you purchased and read? I bet you can remember. What were the last three files you downloaded? You probably have no idea.
Retail repercussions. If the industry switches to e-books, we’ll lose an enormous amount of distribution and retail muscle, especially with regard to bookstores, specialty shops, seminars, conferences, and many more venues. Not to mention book signings (“Here, let me sign your . . . PDF file”?).
Theft. The whopper threat, which bears repeating, is piracy. Look at what happened to the music industry—millions of songs are illegally copied each day and transferred from iPod to iPod. And a slew of new “torrent” file-sharing Web sites illegally distribute copyrighted content. Will this happen in the book industry if e-books are the norm? You better believe it.
And once a book has gone into the abyss as a PDF file, there is no way to put that cat back in the bag.
In theory, piracy can be curbed by digital rights–management solutions, which are essentially nothing more than fancy software programs that make it really difficult for people to copy content illegally. Unfortunately, most effective DRM programs are highly restrictive, cumbersome, and expensive, with the result that they irritate customers and degrade the reading experience.
Models to Avoid
Digitization of content has created chaos in the music industry, and many record labels are struggling simply because recording artists no longer need big-name labels to reach audiences. They can use YouTube instead, and become their own labels.
Yes, many industry experts insist that technology will open exciting new business opportunities, and they are probably right. But the devil is in the details.
The questions I’m thinking about include:
Who will profit from these new opportunities? Will it be small companies like yours and mine, or monsters like Google, which rely primarily on new technology?
Will you and I and most other small publishers be able to survive a violent transition to a new business model?
Will our books be devalued if they blend into an endless digital realm of Web sites, PDF files, and on-screen reading opportunities that compete for our customers’ attention?
And finally, Could I be wrong in my conclusions?
I could, of course, and I am hopeful that we, as a publishing community, will find our way out of the labyrinth created by new technology. The views I express in this article are hotly contested—in fact, a friend of mine, Morris Rosenthal of Foner Books (fonerbooks.com), is currently adopting an e-book sales platform that he credits for building his business in a positive direction.
By no means do I claim to have the last word in this debate. However, my plan is to hold on to the printed book as long as possible, so as not to be one of the first guinea pigs in the maze. I’d rather sit back and learn from those who charge in early.
I know I may be missing “ground floor” opportunities, but I’ve learned one thing about them: Thousands usually scramble to get in on the latest ground floor, and when the dust settles, you have a few lucky winners and countless losers staring at the red ink on their financial statements.
Bryan Rosner is the owner of BioMed Publishing Group, founded in 2004. The company focuses on Lyme disease educational resources. Contact Bryan at firstname.lastname@example.org, or visit lymebook.com.