Books: The Next Chapter

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Wooden Kindle2.jpgFour summers ago, pondering a way to define how publishers could take advantage of emerging technologies for delivering information in a variety of formats, I came up with this slogan: Good Books. Any Way You Want Them. Now. The point was that books, basically unchanged in centuries as handheld objects composed of printed pages and covers, needed to adapt to the growing importance of screens, mobile devices, earphones, and the sense among readers that they should be able to get whatever they want on demand instead of searching for it.


Supported by the MacArthur and Carnegie foundations (and now housed at The Century Foundation), a small group of us conceived a project we called Caravan with the goal of enabling university and nonprofit publishers to offer e-books, audio books, and books on demand in addition to the hardcover and paperback versions they have always done. We also wanted to develop the means for these new fangled formats to be sold and used in libraries. I have periodically written about our efforts and these issues more broadly.


As attention has focused on the crisis faced by newspapers and magazines coping with the Internet in ways that undermine their heretofore lucrative business models, books are usually lumped with the rest of the information universe as struggling. And it is true that the recession has impacted book sales, just as it has everything else. But there is a fundamental difference between books and their information brethren: books don't have advertisers and they don't have subscribers. So the collapse of these revenue streams is not the real problem.

The problem for books, as I have argued to whoever would listen, is management of inventory: putting books in the right numbers wherever and in whatever way readers want them. And in that respect, technology is our friend, increasing the choice of formats by adding e-bBooks, print-on-demand, and audio downloadable as podcasts. As readers become increasingly familiar and comfortable with reading and listening devices and the machinery for producing books on what are essentially a new generation of copiers, books can be instantly available. If readers come to believe they can get Good Books. Any Way You Want Them. Now, and publishers can provide them without the waste, inefficiency, and consumer frustration that comes from scrambling to put out the right number of printed copies, I believe that books will hold their own--and maybe more so.

Without belaboring caveats that do apply, I think it is fair to proclaim that any book publisher with a mind to do so now can produce books in all the ways Caravan's 2005 prospectus envisioned. This brings me to the issue of distributing all these new formats. On that score, the challenges remain complicated. There are now hundreds of thousands of books that have been scanned into digital files and touted as such by retailers and libraries. The great majority of these are classics and out-of-copyright works, meaning that ownership of rights has passed into the public domain.

But new books, especially those likely to be read in any numbers, increasingly are being released as e-books when the print version appears or shortly thereafter. These are available on proprietary devices such as the Amazon Kindle and Sony Reader. You also can read the books on computers and some mobile phones with a variety of applications now on offer. But the marketplace for e-books is still inchoate (as in small and confused) for a number of reasons. First, the traditional bookseller, especially the beloved locally owned independents, have approached these new formats warily to the point of denial that they can ever be a factor in their businesses. Access to e-books on most store Web sites has been provided gradually, but with negligible results because, fundamentally, booksellers still don't market them with any confidence. The dominant player in e-books is the Kindle. I have had one from the moment it was put on sale and it is a staple item in our household for travel and portable convenience.

Amazon's rollout of the Kindle has been the reverse of the usual strategy for devices in which you, for instance, sell the printer cheap and run up the revenue on the ink cartridges. In this case the Kindle itself is expensive (the lowest price is now $299). But Amazon has been selling the majority of e-books for well below the price of the printed version, with most top sellers still going for $9.99. So far, Amazon has been absorbing the lost margin on these sales, but it is only a matter of time before it notifies publishers that customers have now become used to getting e-books at bargain prices and publishers will have to reduce their price to Amazon to stay on the Kindle.

Figuring out the right price points for e-books will be contentious, but is ultimately solvable. Making books affordable is bound to help sales. That is what happened in the mid-twentieth century, after all, as paperbacks expanded to include the lower price "pocket books" found on drug store racks and the "quality" paperbacks which sell for half to two-thirds of the hardcover price.

The challenge confronting the industry and consumers alike now is the profusion of e-book systems. A publishing colleague told me that she deals with twenty-one different vendors, juggling their respective technical requirements. So, from having too few formats, we may have too many.

One reason that the Kindle is the dominant reader is that the process of ordering books and reading them is so straightforward. Barnes & Noble just announced it is entering the fray, joining other proven innovators such as Google and Apple, who are launching their own e-book platforms soon. This is a very crowded arena.

I was impressed with an item last week on PC World that made a simple, persuasive case: "The success or failure of the eBook and eBook reader market is going to depend on establishing a standard format," wrote Tony Bradley, "then consumers can embrace the technology with some degree of confidence that their investment won't become obsolete." There is more to the debate than this single assertion. But that is a good place to start.

(Photo: Flickr User oskay)

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Peter Osnos is a contributing writer for The Atlantic. He is the founder and editor at large of PublicAffairs books and a media fellow at the Century Foundation.

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