Ebooks: The Prophecy That Never Came True

The timeline of the emergence of ebooks is a source of endless debate. However, Project Gutenberg’s title as the first digital library is not contended. By 1999, Simon & Schuster had become the first trade publisher to publish in both digital and print formats. In the following decade, the market for ebooks expanded exponentially, thereby enticing every major publisher to pursue that course. With the advent of the digital product came new avenues for selling it. Since conventional sales channels were not a conducive option, publishers had to switch to a different medium. The period between 2004 and 2010 witnessed a rapid evolution in the market for ebooks, as well as in their reach in the consumer space. During the same period, Google, Amazon, Sony, and Apple entered this sector, launching their own ebook stores and ereading platforms. With consumer patterns changing at an unprecedented rate, publishers started tailoring their pricing strategies to make the best of this transformation.

Nearly a decade ago, ebooks were on the rise, and it was believed that this would lead to the imminent death of the print book. Some experts went as far as stating that the market for print books would plunge into oblivion. These prophecies turned out to be both true and false to some extent. While the market for ebooks soared at an unprecedented rate, the print book still holds its place with its head held high. In fact, the fulcrum appears to be at a tipping point right now, which is contrary to the predicted demise of print books. The fact that most publishing houses now produce both print and digital versions of books, rather than completely switching to the digital space, is proof of this.

While digital reading devices like the Kindle, the iPad, and the NOOK have made it easier to carry hundreds of books around, they don’t come close to providing the warm feeling associated with the smell and texture of a print book. The technology of ebook production hasn’t undergone a great evolution since its inception, but interactive ebooks are reflecting new, innovative ideas. Interactive and educational ebooks can be a great medium for teaching children. They have the power of transforming something dull and intimidating into something fun and exciting.

When it comes to the distribution of books, publishers have always followed the wholesale model—providing books to retailers at a discount on the selling price—which allows the retailer to set the price at which they want to sell the book to customers. The distribution of ebooks, however, became a little murky, with no clear guidelines and no precedent. The significant drop in production costs for ebooks was also a crucial factor in determining the retail price of ebooks. Unlike with print books, the cost of producing an ebook is fixed and doesn’t significantly vary with the number of ebooks being produced. With the right promotion, this can be a great opportunity for breaking even on the cost of producing print books.

Shatzkin Keeps His Eye on Amazon

Every day there’s another story about how Amazon is changing the marketplace, and not just for books. Because I think we ignore Amazon (and others) at our peril, I turn to “The Shatzkin Files” to stay informed.

Mike Shatzkin’s twice-monthly column is recommended reading for anyone in the publishing field. With a long career in the industry, he specializes in change, particularly as it relates to digital strategy and the publishing supply chain.

Here’s a quick rundown of three recent columns. If it isn’t immediately clear how the first one relates to Amazon, read on.

Authors need help with their digital presence that they’re not getting

April 12, 2017

Shatzkin examines how authors today must market themselves and their books. Most publishers won’t do it; they have a “book-by-book” relationship with the author, not a long-term investment in an author’s platform. Consultants can coach authors through the marketing and social media hoops, for a fee. Literary agents are in a position to help, but many aren’t able, or they don’t have time. Authors seek out other authors to trade branding tips and social media strategies, with mixed results.

Shatzkin makes the point that publishers are missing a valuable opportunity to support their authors.

“Setting up a blog an author could then use themselves could take somebody young and cheap with the right skills an hour or two, or less,” Shatzkin says. “Even creating a pretty full-functioned website would take much less than a day.”

Is anyone doing it right? Of course, yes: Amazon, who a decade ago “built their publishing operations with an extremely author-friendly strategy,” Shatzkin says. As a former Amazon employee told him, “Amazon saw the author relationship as a ‘white space’—a meaningful opportunity to provide something missing from the current ecosystem. . . . They saw an area where they could gain competitive advantage.”

Read the full column here.

Amazon could become our leading physical retailer before very long

March 21, 2017

The retail scene in midtown Manhattan is changing, says Shatzkin, who’s lived there for forty-five years. “The number of empty storefronts in my neighborhood is staggering; there are one or two or more on just about every block.” What’s also staggering is the number of packages piling up on people’s doorsteps, most of which carry that ubiquitous Amazon logo.

But Amazon isn’t content to sell you the goods online. They want you to shop at their brick-and-mortar bookstores and at temporary pop-up stores, now springing up in malls to sell you Amazon-branded hardware. They’re also experimenting with Amazon Go, a fully-automated grocery store.

“Amazon brings an unprecedented set of capabilities to build out store-level retail at exactly the time that their brick-and-mortar competitors are all challenged,” Shatzkin says. “What could they do next, or try to do next? Just about anything you can imagine.”

Read the full column here.

Agency pricing didn’t restrain Amazon; it strengthened them

February 1, 2017

Shatzkin discusses “Data Guy’s” keynote presentation at the Digital Book World 2017 conference, which gave a comprehensive look at book sales from 2015 to 2016 across all formats. The not-too surprising result: Amazon came out on top.

Maybe it’s not surprising for the general observer, who sees Amazon taking over the world, but more so for industry insiders who read the weekly trade news. “There seems to be a strong consensus that the ebook share is leveling off or diminishing as opposed to print,” Shatzkin says. “And there is an enthusiasm about what is characterized as a vibrant and growing independent sector.”

However, there’s more to the story, and Data Guy has done independent research into the numbers beyond BookScan and PubTrack, the book sales tracking services owned by Nielsen. Data Guy came to a sobering conclusion: the strategy of forcing Amazon to stop deeply discounting their ebooks and accept agency pricing isn’t working. “In fact,” Shatzkin says, “it is making it more difficult for them.”

Read the full column here, and consider adding The Shatzkin Files to your inbox.

Ebook or Not eBook? That is the Question

As the annual year-end holiday season draws near, gift givers everywhere are faced with the inevitable dilemma: what gifts to give the loved ones in their lives. Books, of course, have long stood as a gift giver’s go-to choice. What better way to curl up by the fireplace, chestnuts a-roasting, than with your new festive jammies on and freshly cracked tome in hand? And has there ever been a more perfectly shaped object for gift wrapping than the book?

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It’s Just a Phase: The Myth of the Superior eBook

“It’s not just a phase, Mom!” says the child growing up in the digital age. Under her arm she holds her Kindle, loaded with all her favorite stories. Before, there used to be people on the bus reading well-loved books. Now people look down at their tablet or phone, reading those same stories on pixelated screens. This is why the digital-age child believes printed books to be a fashion statement gone out of style. But her mother knows—knows that at the end of the day, printed books will never go out of fashion.

In the last decade or so, the digital age has become a problem to the publishing business. With the rise of ebooks, many bookstores saw closures and financial issues. Among the victims was the Borders Group, who had failed to keep up with the rise of digital media. Meanwhile, Barnes & Noble suffered minimal losses since it jumped on the digital train and developed its very own ebook reader, the Nook. When a bookstore’s only hope of survival is to turn to digital books, printed books seemed to become obsolete. What role did they play in this new era of technology designed to make reading more convenient? The heated debate continues to this day.

On one hand, the ebook is extremely convenient in a fast-paced society. It’s new, it’s shiny, it’s glamorous. Meanwhile, the printed book? Not so stylish, bulkier to carry around, and inconvenient to go out and buy. It’s easy to see the appeal of ebooks when compared to printed text. The lack of desire for printed books is the reason for the disappearing bookstores, and that vanishing distribution of text becomes a problem for the publishing business. After all, why produce books when there’s no place for them to go? Especially when it costs so much to publish a book that may never be sold. It’s a concern that has been mulled over as ebook sales rise in comparison to their hardcover counterparts. Luckily for publishers, some book retailers have managed to hang on throughout the digital boom and are slowly but surely making their comeback.

In an article by The Washington Post, it is revealed that used bookstores that were once declining are now on the rise. Even with the easy access ebooks provide, people still want actual bookstores. This is likely due to the fact that

  1. reading off a page is supposed to be better for your health,
  2. used bookstores often provide cheaper prices, and
  3. there’s nothing quite like getting lost in the shelves.

The appeal of a hardcover book is something that will never go away and neither will the joy of browsing the bookstore to find your next favorite book. Buying and reading a book is a unique experience all on its own, and one we all learn to appreciate. From the initial excitement of seeing the cover art to reading the inner jacket, the feeling of crisp pages under one’s fingertips is irreplaceable.

So sure, the ebook can have its glory days. As long as we live in a digital age, it will be here to stay. But printed books have not become obsolete—no matter what anyone says. They aren’t some trend that will be thrown away for a newer one. Printed books are an experience that everyone enjoys and everyone seeks out. If there is one truth I know, being a child of the digital age but part of a generation yearning for the past, it is this: Forget convenience; forget ease. There is a special connection when holding a book in your hands. All you need to do is open one page, and you’re in love. Printed books are here to stay.

The Post-Production Push

With the books printed and event dates confirmed, it might be tempting to think that the work for a specific project is nearly done.
Tempting, sure, but also misleading and inaccurate.
At this point, the Ninth Day team is still knee-deep—or possibly even waist-deep—in the middle of our marketing and sales push. We are in the process of confirming new readings and events for Ruth (more details coming soon!), and we have started planning out games and activities for the launch. Since any event with Ruth tends to involve interactive presentations and exciting costume changes, we want to capitalize on that and host something a little more than your average launch.
In addition to continuing outreach efforts with the identified audience for the book, the team and I are busy creating brand new spreadsheets full of reviewers and other contacts we might have missed the first time around. We are incredibly fortunate that John Hartman’s Transmedia Marketing class has taken on The Ninth Day and corresponding Blue Thread universe for their final project assignment, which means that we have an entire extra classroom worth of marketing-minded Ooligan students thinking about the most effective ways to engage Ruth’s audience with her book. This week, I have the pleasure of sitting in on that class with Ruth and brainstorming new strategies for the books.  Stay tuned for all the details on this meeting and more later on this week!

The First Print Run

Last week I wrote that we were just getting back into the swing of things with the new school term beginning and all of our students returning to campus. And we’ve certainly had to dive right in at Ooligan in order to get ready for what feels like a dozen literary festivals and trade shows this week.
Wordstock, Day One took place today, including a reading and Q&A by Ruth in the morning. Sharing the McMenamin’s main event stage at 11 a.m. with Francesca Lia Block, Ruth surprised the audience by appearing in a tie-dye ensemble reminiscent of 1960s fashion. If you missed the chance to pick up her brand new book today, be sure to stop by the Ooligan table tomorrow and get your copy.
The initial print run of the books was delivered to Ooligan just yesterday—perfect timing for Wordstock and PNBA. Also right on time for these events, we have brand new TND bookmarks designed by Robyn Best, the Ooligan staffer who completed the interior design for the book. In addition to the new collateral, we are in the process of completing the final proofs to ensure that the ebook will be ready to go by the launch date.
Check back next week for updates about the official launch in November.