Old Media/New Media
Books, Bookstores and Ebooks
Print books are doomed. Print books will live forever. Independent bookstores, and all physical bookstores, are doomed, and that’s inherently bad for readers. Ebooks barely register as a rounding error, at $12 million worldwide in 2005 out of $80 billion or more in book revenue—less than one-fiftieth of one percent. Ebooks are a small but worthwhile market at $179 million U.S. in 2004—one-half of one percent of the $34 billion U.S. book market.
The first statement is obvious nonsense, even though you still read it from sloppy thinkers and overenthusiastic futurists. The second statement is too absolute even for my print-loving taste: Forever is a very long time. (My lifetime? Unquestionably, barring global disaster. Your lifetime? Probably. Forever? Nah…) The third statement is almost certainly false but involves a complex situation. Then there are the last two statements—both of which may be true, even though they appear contradictory. (The two statements appeared in different form in the May 2006 Cites & Insights; since then, I’ve found reasonable explanations for the contradiction.)
Ebooks and Etext dwindled away over the past couple of years. I now believe it makes sense to look at ebooks in the broader context of book-length text publishing and access, which fits under the new Old Media/New Media heading. What follows is a discussion of recent items I found interesting, loosely divided into the three categories in the title.
Begin with Stacy Perman’s May 2, 2006 BusinessWeek Online piece, “Small publishers book big rewards.” It tells an impressive story—but one that’s a little tricky. The impressive part is at the start of the tease; the tricky part follows. Impressive: “Nonmainstream presses generated $14 billion in 2005.” Tricky: “more than half of all book sales.”
Impressive: a three-year-old nonprofit publisher, Archipelago Books, puts out an English translation of Elias Khoury’s novel Gate of the Sun to considerable commercial and critical success. The number of small publishers keeps increasing. The Book Industry Study Group estimates some 63,000 “small presses” in 2005, generating $14.2 billion in sales. The article notes the extent to which these small presses (most of which don’t own a press, and thousands of which probably don’t produce books until they’re ordered) appeal to niche interests. The economic issues are different. It’s possible to succeed with books that sell only a few hundred copies. Archipelago publishes 8 to 10 titles a year; clearly, most of those 63,000 publishers operate on a much smaller scale, with most probably publishing less than one book per year.
Tricky: The article says “the book world continues to struggle, focusing mainly on bestsellers to remain profitable,” but that’s an odd definition of “the book world,” given 172,000 new editions in 2005, of which no more than a few hundred could be bestsellers. Also tricky: The stated overall book sales estimate for 2005 (from AAP) is $23.7 billion. That one’s very tricky: AAP’s website shows just over $25 billion—and the Book Industry Study Group’s own report shows $34.6 billion for 2005 U.S. book sales, of which just over $11 billion came from “smaller” publishers (those with less than $50 million sales). The $23.7 billion and $34.6 billion numbers are reconcilable by assuming that AAP includes only big publishers: Add $11 billion to the first number and you get the second number.
That raises a couple of issues: $11 billion isn’t $14 billion—and it’s slightly less than a third of overall book sales, not “more than half.” But it’s still a lot of books by any measure. BISG estimates that 3.1 billion books were sold in 2005 in the U.S., or a little over ten per capita—a startling number given claims that nobody reads books anymore. (That $34.6 billion figure is a substantial increase over 2004’s $28.6 billion, possibly partially accounted for by better reporting—but in any case it’s also lots more than sound recording revenue and more than direct motion picture revenue.)
Doom-and-gloomers are always with us. The Financial Express picked up this May story from the New York Times. A Random House executive is worried “there may be a tar pit in publishing for the likes of me.” Morgan Entrekin, 51-year-old founder of Grove/Atlantic. figures the publishing industry will see him into retirement, but he’s not sure he’d encourage his infant son to enter the business.
Will books as we know them survive for the youngest Entrekin? Will reading serious books go the way of, say, opera—a cultural endeavour to be marginalised by Desperate Housewives, iPods, instant messaging, cellphones and American Idol? Recent research is not promising.
What research? That dreary old 2004 NEH report, Reading at Risk, with its narrow definition of literature and wildly exaggerated conclusion that “literary reading as a leisure activity will virtually disappear in a half century.” I commented on that report, the questionable definitions involved, and the way the Chronicle of Higher Education manipulated statistics to make it sound even worse in Cites & Insights 4:10 (August 2004). As it happens, 2003 was a year in which reported book sales did fall slightly (about one percent)—but there were still 2.22 billion books sold. If you’re keeping track, people have abandoned book reading to such an extent that 2005 book sales are a mere 3.1 billion books: 40% higher. I believe the 2.22 billion figure is suspect, likely based on AAP-style large publisher reporting; it seems highly improbable that book sales have increased 40% in two years!
Some publishers note that sales continue to rise “slightly” (in the reporter’s words—the U.S. auto industry would love such “slight” increases as 4.4% cumulative annual growth in a mature industry). But good old Dana Gioia of the NEA won’t give up on the message: It’s just price increases, not the number of books actually sold. Gioia says “The report says a lot of things in an irrefutable, statistical way,” a combination of words that’s always suspect when related to survey instruments—but Gioia simply ignores statistics showing that actual book sales, whether counted by number of books or revenue, have increased in the years since the NEA report was issued.
The rest of the story notes that ebooks don’t seem to be “the answer,” whereas online booksellers provide access to niche markets for niche books in a way traditional publishers and bookstores find difficult to do. Note again that NEA disregards reading unless it’s literature as defined by NEA. The article cites multi-million-sales books that clearly qualify as literature.
I can pretty well guarantee that, when Entrekin’s son reaches adulthood, “books as we know them” will be more significant than Desperate Housewives and American Idol. Have iPods marginalized books? Only if you’re determined to believe they have.
This one’s from the AP wire, dated May 9, 2006, and it’s another odd one: “Faced with years of slow, and even declining sales, the publishing industry has finally responded in kind.” Fewer “new books” were published in 2005 than in 2004—that is, “new books” as defined by Bowker. Gary Aiello of Bowker said publishers “were more cautious and disciplined.”
How “disciplined”? 172,000 new books—that is, new ISBNs. That’s almost 10% fewer than the roughly 190,000 new ISBNs assigned in 2004. A Bowker consultant suggests that publishers are concluding “the market cannot handle 200,000 books each year.”
Sales aren’t declining. If there were actually 172,000 new titles published in 2005, it would be remarkable—but there weren’t. There were 172,000 ISBNs assigned. Assuming every ISBN was attached to something that actually reached the shelf (or the digital equivalent, since ebooks also get separate ISBNs), that’s 172,000 editions—a new book issued in hardback, trade paper, mass market paper, and ebook form will count as four editions. I cited Bob Nardini’s comment about the differences between ISBNs and actual titles in Cites & Insights 6:11, September 2006. If his correction for scholarly imprints holds true across the board, it would suggest that 172,000 ISBNs equates to about 122,000 titles—still an enormous range of new titles.
The National Center for Educational Statistics released the results of the 2003 NAAL this year. The summary and tables are available on the NAAL website. NAAL defines literacy a touch more broadly than NEA, and this broad survey (almost 20,000 adults) has been repeated over time.
The short version? Average quantitative literacy increased slightly between 1992 and 2003; average prose and document literacy was basically unchanged.
For the long version, go to the study itself. I interpret the summary as showing that nearly 60% of adults can understand all but the most elaborate English-language prose. There may not be lots of improvement (except in basic numeracy), but the handbasket’s not quite headed to Hades just yet.
An outfit called Freeload Press wants to reduce student cost for textbooks to $0—by putting ads in the books. Randall Stross doesn’t think it will work (in a New York Times article) because the textbook is part of the classroom. The itinerant librarian (in a September 1, 2006 post) isn’t so sure: Angel doesn’t see a bright line between corporate-endowed chairs and loading textbooks with ads.
It’s an interesting discussion. I don’t have a conclusion. To the extent that Freeload is looking to do e-textbooks, another problem arises: “people just want to read a book rather than sit at a computer screen.”
Peter Wayner contributed “Technology rewrites the book” on July 20, 2006 in the New York Times. It’s mostly a blurb for Blurb—a surprisingly expensive publish-on-demand operation—but mentions a number of related companies as well. The headline’s a little silly, since PoD certainly complements traditional book publishing rather than “rewriting” the field. If you can predict 1,000 or more sales over the first year, it’s cheaper to use traditional publishing technologies. PoD’s big win is in narrow niche markets, including many “markets of one.”
The story begins with Steve Mandel and his Light in the Sky, a book “filled with pictures he has taken of distant nebulae, star clusters and galaxies.” It’s a 119-page coated-paper hardcover with a dust jacket—and it costs $37.95 a copy. Blurb provides free book templates, but charges $30 for books of up to 40 pages and $80 for 301-400 page books. For photography portfolios, anniversary books, and other cases where a big handsome hardbound is needed that only a handful of people will want, that may make sense. For a text-only book, it’s very much at the high end.
The article notes competitors for bound photo albums, where prices depend heavily on book size and binding (from $4 for a 2.6x3.5" 20-page softbound from Apple to a $70-and-up hardbound from Kodak). Other sources for hardbound books, especially handmade books, are also on the high end: SharedInk charges $40 for a 20-page book.
I’m pretty sure all of the above are full-color books. Lulu, on the other hand, offers competitive pricing for more basic books. If you can put together your own PDF and don’t need color, a 6x9" 150-page softcover costs $7.53 a copy. That’s a price range that makes very small run text-only books reasonable. Café Press and other PoD competitors are comparable.
The September 1 Library Journal has a Michael Rogers piece, “InstaBook soliciting PLs,” that puts forward a very different kind of PoD with much lower costs—because those costs don’t include online ordering, fulfillment and shipping and because the trim size is reduced a crucial half inch in each direction from the typical 6x9 trade paperback. InstaBook wants public libraries to join its “Digital libraries initiative,” in association with Project Gutenberg and other public-domain sources. The idea is for the library to buy an InstaBook Maker Digital Library system—$18,000 for libraries and nonprofit associations, about half the usual price. Then the library sets it up so patrons can download a title and print it out, costing “generally under $1 per title.”
Remember Internet Archives’ asserted “$1 book”? The Rogers story—and material on InstaBook.net—show how you get that figure. The device is seven feet long, three feet tall, 2.5 feet deep; it combines a high-speed duplexing laser printer, color printer to prepare the cover, and collating and binding functions. Text prints at 72 “book pages” per minute—that is, 18 duplexed sheets per minute. Add a minute for the cover and “17 seconds” to bind and deliver.
Here’s how InstaBook estimates cost (ignoring electricity, service, and the initial cost of the unit):
• An eighth of a cent per book page for “bond paper” (assuming typical Office Depot prices of about $25 for a 10-ream case of decent-quality acid-free paper, noting that InstaBook requires a 5.5x8.5" page, yielding four book pages per sheet of paper).
• A quarter-cent per book page for toner. That may be the most optimistic figure.
• Ten cents for the cover (mostly printing costs, and assumes 5% coverage)
• Two cents for the glue.
That adds up to $0.75 for a 200-page book. Even if the covers are a little fancier, the average book would still cost less than $1.
The specs exaggerate a little when they say “bond paper of the best quality”; $2.50/ream paper is pretty much Office Depot’s cheapest, on sale. That’s still better quality than most mass-market paperbacks—as far as I know, office supply stores only sell reasonably bright acid-free copy paper these days. Of course, mass-market paperbacks cost a lot less than $1 to produce; most of the price goes to intermediaries, profit, editing, distribution, author royalties, and other costs in addition to actual printing.
Assuming the cover stock stands up well and the folding-and-gluing process works well, you should wind up with a book that’s substantially better than a typical mass-market fiction paperback (typically around 4¼ x6¾" on cheap acid-content paper), with wider margins and better paper—but not quite up to a quality trade paperback.
Does it make sense for a library to have an $18,000 book production system? That’s an interesting question now, and may be more so in the near future. You probably won’t be able to zip out a fresh copy of this year’s best-seller—but you may be able to print up most any public domain book for a relatively small price.
The story itself was sad but perhaps predictable: the flagship Cody’s Books, on Telegraph Avenue in Berkeley, went out of business. Not Cody’s—two other stores remain, and the owner’s now been bought out by a Japanese company that believes in independent bookstores.
You’ve probably heard about it. The closure got a lot of attention, maybe even more than the (prevented) shutdown of Kepler’s in Menlo Park. You could point fingers at lots of villains. Or you could go way overboard, as Anneli Rufus did in an East Bay Express screed, “Why booksellers are going belly up,” posted at AlterNet on August 19, 2006. The story prints out at 13 pages—and “way overboard” starts with that headline, turning the closure of one bookstore into a Trend.
What killed Cody’s? Chain stores, some said. Changing times, others surmised. Cultural illiteracy. Greed. The Internet. Panhandlers. That missing parking lot. George W. Bush.
The next paragraph almost gets it right, although leaving out one major factor that no alternative paper is likely to admit: Cody’s was an unpleasant place to shop unless you were the Right Kind of Customer. Lack of parking: A problem. Chain book stores: Maybe a problem. Telegraph Avenue as an increasingly unpleasant place to shop: Definitely a problem. “Transformations in Cal’s student body…and the ebbing of radical chic.” Maybe not. Then there’s this:
Perhaps the hardest cut to endure is that books as we know them are fading, bit by bit, from ubiquity. We can no longer presume they’ll always be here. Actual books, with covers and pages and bindings and type, are increasingly artifacts, relics—old school, silverfish food, without hyperlinks. How long before that $24.95 best-seller, bought on Amazon yesterday, is displayed in a museum alongside rotary phones, cyclamates, and bustles. That’s why the death of Cody’s hurts: For all those who used to sneak-read as children under the covers with flashlights and books, it presages our own obsolescence.
That’s nonsense—and a bit later in the article, Rufus provides data that proves it’s nonsense unless you’ve already chosen your message. Rufus cites retail bookstore sales figures—only about half of all book sales, but nonetheless double in 2005 ($16.3 billion) what they were in 1992. Independent bookstores and small chains have an increasing share of the retail market. “Only 50 percent of Americans” buy at least one book a year—but that percentage is stable, which means the number of book buyers is increasing.
“Yet all the favorable stats in the world can’t save a sinking ship.” Some other bookstores have closed in the Bay Area as well. I love this kind of journalism: “Here are those boring numbers, but the truth is not in them.” Why let facts get in the way of a good story?
There’s a lot more in this essay, and if you read it carefully, you’ll see a key reason that Cody’s went downhill. “If Berkeley is guilty of a certain clubbishness…then Cody’s was its Kingdom Hall.” Patronize a chain store? Berkeley’s mayor says you’re “hurting this community.” Go to a mall? You’re a “faceless drone” in a “Potemkin village.” Cody’s offered “something a little deeper.” Ross went so far as to say American cities are becoming “one big Walnut Creek”—which is only a bad thing if you’re a true Berkelian.
After some legitimate history of the decline of Telegraph Avenue, Rufus gets back to the predetermined Truth: “Books don’t mean what they once did.” That’s true. Books used to be relatively rare, with public library circulation and book sales both a fraction of what they are now. Andy Ross won’t blame the dangers of Telegraph: He sees a cultural shift.
Rufus decries Borders and Barnes & Noble: they “aren’t so much evil as simply aware they’re selling more than books…in effect, book-lined spas.” The last few paragraphs discuss a Walnut Creek Barnes & Noble, where a clerk “looks affronted” when told about Ross’s elitist attack on Walnut Creek. The store is popular—with lots of people looking at books while others use the café or relax. The store’s open until 11 p.m. The clerk says, “We get people who are absolutely obsessed with books.” People seem to like the air conditioning. How does Rufus take all this?
At first, this grates. It seems a sin after so long in Berkeley, where morality is applied to matters such as air-conditioning and what sort of coffee you serve, and where one learns to mistrust the reflex that says: This feels good.
“They like coming to a place,” Blumhorst [the clerk] concludes, “where they don’t have to do anything, or even look like they’re doing anything.”
Is this doomsday?
Huh? Rufus told us in the story’s title that this is doomsday—but it doesn’t ring true.
Cody’s was a Serious Bookstore for Serious Bookbuyers, and some of us found it unpleasant even back in the 1960s and 1970s. I used to love Telegraph back in the day, but I never much cared for Cody’s. Give me Moe’s. Give me the Northside bookstore whose name I’ve forgotten (and which is probably long gone). Give me the campus bookstore, for that matter. Cody’s? Maybe, in a pinch. If I’d heard a little more of Andy Ross’ thinking…maybe not.
Wendy at The misadventures of SuperLibrarian posted “There went my blood pressure” on August 17, 2006—not about Cody’s, but about another problem with some independent bookstores. The case was a small bookstore in Austin, catering to the black community and stocking “a range of fiction, history and children’s titles, but no African-American romance novels.” Why? The director: “I want the community to read, but we have to be real picky on what we as a people read.” As Wendy says, “OK, this shit just pisses me off.” She goes on to say why. “Basically you want to force-feed people not what they want to read, but what you think they should be reading.” There’s more, to be sure—and she extends this to “librarians who feel the need to ‘educate’ or ‘better’ their communities.” Her response? “If they want to read Danielle Steel (lord help them), it is not my job to berate them or tell them “Oh no, you can’t read that trash—you must read Barbara Kingsolver.” It’s her job to show them the Steel—and to get some if there’s none there. It’s a good rant (labeled as such), worth reading.
It reminds me of an editorial in Fantasy & Science Fiction (I believe), years ago, in which the editor noted why she didn’t bemoan the death of some independent booksellers. These folks not only didn’t stock science fiction or fantasy, they wouldn’t special order the books; instead, they’d try to guide you to “good literature.” Which is a good way to go out of business.
We start with an April 24, 2006 press release from Paradise Publishers, a Canadian publishing firm that claims it will create “the world’s largest free e-book online database.” Nicolas Gremion of Paradise isn’t humble: “We want to be people’s source of information.” How realistic is he about ebooks as compared to print books?
“Whether its fiction, guides, how-to manuals, references, all categories, people are increasingly deciding not to leave their homes to access books anymore” says Mr. Gremion. He adds “e-books have become mega-popular in the last few years, and as the trend in internet use continues to grow so shall our user base.” [“its” in the original!]
Why just last year, almost 1.7 million ebooks were sold, as compared to a measly 3.1 billion print books (and at least a couple billion library circulations): How mega-popular can you get?
The site calls itself “the Internet’s #1 Online source for free ebook downloads, ebook resources and ebook authors.” It claims an audience of “over 150,000 visitors each month!” The “top 10 free ebook downloads this month” start with Create Multiple Streams of Online Income, continue with Parma Endorion: Essays on Middle-earth, and go on to Fail As Fast As Possible—And Other Contrarian Business Success Secrets, touted as “90 Pages ($47 value) FREE Download.” I remember seeing that business booklet in the top 10 in April as well. For a free ebook site, the site has a lot about selling your ebook—including this claim: “We'll even make your book a #1 bestseller on Amazon.com!”
It’s hard to tell how many books are actually available, and I’m not willing to download a supposed ebook with a .exe extension to find out what they look like—I can’t imagine the circumstances under which free ebook downloads need to be direct executables! As for being the biggest…I may not be a great fan of Michael Hart, but Project Gutenberg claims that two million ebooks are downloaded each month, and I see no reason to doubt that claim. I’m guessing there are a lot more than 150,000 visitors each month.
Chris Armstrong asks those questions in a June 12, 2006 post at info NeoGnostic, playing off discussions at if:book. It’s a good compilation of definitions—e.g., UNESCO uses a lower page limit of 49 pages (clearly not applicable to some children’s books) for a book, and one definition of ebooks includes any piece of etext that is “recognisably ‘book-like’” regardless of size, as long as it’s not a journal and as long as it’s used on devices with screens. So short stories provided in etext form are ebooks despite being 1,000-10,000 words long: That’s consonant with some sales figures I’ve seen. Armstrong’s composite definition makes the screen the essential element, so as to rule out PoD and audiobooks. A good post, worth reading if you’re confused about what’s what.
That’s Jeff Barry’s question in a June 13, 2006 post at Endless hybrids. He cites interactivity as one of the claimed benefits of digital media—but, as he suggests, lots of authors finish a project then want to move on. Sure, many (Barry says “most”) scholarly books are rarely read—but if that’s true for print, “why would the number of readers of networked books be any higher?”—once such ebooks cease to be novelties?
If the author doesn’t participate in a networked-book dialog, can it still be called a networked book? On the other hand, what about cases where authors “get so carried away with the ongoing discourse…that they never get around to completing another”?
Networked books—“living books”—are a small and peculiar subset of ebooks, although some futurists believe all books should become conversations. The presumption that all authors want to engage in such conversations is an odd one; Barry properly questions it.
Scott W. Palmer wrote “If:book, then what?” on August 15, 2006 in Inside Higher Ed. He discusses the “soul-deadening jargon” at the if:book site (self-reflexivity, mediated environments, etc.), notes the hot if:book production (GAM3R 7H30RY) of a networked book, comments that responding to comments takes away from other scholarly pursuits—and questions whether that and other projects will really bring about a revolution in how scholars research, write and communicate. Palmer wonders about “transparency” in scholarship, noting the value of not releasing your ideas while they’re still half-baked. He says technology enthusiasts “tend to exaggerate a technology’s ultimate impact in transforming culture and society.” And he notes the remarkable resilience of the print book as a delivery system. Palmer, who teaches at Western Illinois University, is publishing his own monograph as part of the History E-book Project; he’s no Luddite, but he’s also not buying into if:book’s vision without reservations.
Michael Rogers reports on IDPF’s May 24 meeting in a June 15, 2006 Library Journal story. Rogers says speakers at the forum “claim” ebooks are still struggling for a foothold—a claim that seems warranted based on all known statistics. Why? Amazon says “lack of content.” Really? Certainly, the plethora of platforms doesn’t help. (As for “lack of content,” an August 17, 2006 Washington Times story says 50 to 60 percent of current best-sellers are available as ebooks, in the context of IDPF’s Michael Bogaty complaining about the other 40 to 50 percent.)
William Endhoven of iRex, maker of one of the new ebook readers, says most people still don’t read at length “on PCs” (that is, on screens). “Beyond three or four pages, people still print everything out.” His solution is that ebooks must be more than books, providing added features. Martin Gorner of Mobipocket calls PDAs and BlackBerrys “endangered species,” saying that smartphones will handle “everything” within the next five years or so. Elizabeth Mackey of ereader/motricity agrees—and throws in the KTD mantra: “If you’re not on their screen, you’re not in their world.” Mackey says every electronic device should come with free ebooks.
No further comment.
Simon Fodder posted a note from Annette Demers at slaw.ca on September 13, 2006: “An informal email survey of accessibility to ebook readers.” It’s not about “ebook readers” as you might think of them; it’s about online ebook systems and whether they work well with accessibility software such as JAWS.
VitalSource probably workd well. NetLibrary has been successfully tested with JAWS and similar screen-reading software, and the site was designed for accessibility. Online Books Page varies widely because it points to different sources. Safari supports screen readers. ebrary, on the other hand, is not compatible with JAWS and similar software.
Interesting results from a quick email survey.
Print books are doing just fine, with way too many titles being released by tens of thousands of publishers—a few huge companies and loads of tiny ones. Publish-on-demand services and systems help make that feasible and could make book-on-demand public domain provision in public libraries a reasonable proposition. Still, despite growing sales, some are convinced that books are dying and people are becoming aliterate.
Ebooks continue to be a tiny part of the publishing business. That doesn’t stop people from claiming that Kids These Days will read everything on the screen and that ebooks are “mega-popular.” In some areas, ebooks should and could provide features print books can’t—but the concept that “networked books” represent the future, or even a major future, of books seems both precious and improbable.
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