Visions of Publishing's e-Reader Future

iPad--savior of the book?

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Will the iPad kill the Kindle? Could competition among e-readers lift the book world, leading to better profit margins and better deals for authors? Media critic Ken Auletta tackles these questions and more in this week's New Yorker. The book industry, of course, is changing. Publishers may talk up hopes of the iPad as a savior of publishing, but Auletta notes that there are a lot of wrinkles yet to iron out regarding how Amazon, publishers, authors, brick-and-mortar bookstores, and customers interact.

  • Changing the Publishing World  Auletta writes that while the book industry regarded the iPad as a possible "savior," he points out that the problems facing publishing aren't going to evaporate overnight. Selling directly to readers through e-readers sounds appealing, but publishing companies lack experience in retail, and customers are attracted to books for the author, not publishing houses. So "to attract consumers, publishers would have to build a single, collaborative Web site to sell e-books ... such a site would face problems of protocol worthy of the U.N. Security Council--if Amazon didn’t accuse publishers of price-fixing first." That's not to say he doesn't appreciate publishers:
Good publishers find and cultivate writers, some of whom do not initially have much commercial promise. They also give advances on royalties, without which most writers of nonfiction could not afford to research new books ... Although critics argue that traditional book publishing takes too much money from authors, in reality the profits earned by the relatively small percentage of authors whose books make money essentially go to subsidizing less commercially successful writers. The system is inefficient, but it supports a class of professional writers, which might not otherwise exist.
  • e-Readers Could Lead to Rise of the Novella  Blogger Jason Kottke looks at Auletta's point that e-readers may not take off quite like iTunes: people buy individual songs in an album, but they don't usually buy individual chapters in a book. Responds Kottke: "while people may not want to buy single chapters of books, they do want to read things that aren't book length. I think we'll see more literature in the novella/short-story/long magazine article range as publishers and authors attempt to fill that gap."
  • Auletta Does Not Understand Arithmetic  "Auletta paints an unrealistically dismal vision of how little publishers make per book sale," says Erik Sherman at BNet. "He also bases everything on hardbacks, when paperbacks are a big part of the business." He goes through a lot of numbers. Why does it all matter?
Auletta's misinformed explanation shows the fundamental problem that book publishers face with e-books. Everyone assumes that higher prices of printed books are due to tangible costs of production. It's not. The real costs of publishing are the labor to create the intellectual property. But because so many consumers think that the physical object is the real cost, they assume that e-books should sell for next to nothing, because there are no printing or distribution costs.
  • He's Too Nice to Publishers, agrees Jim Naureckas at FAIR. "Author-oriented culture" or no, "they give themselves a much better deal than they give writers on e-book sales."
  • The Rise of the E-Textbook  Auletta makes this other prediction in a New Yorker live chat with readers. "Textbooks will move swiftly to e-book formats, I think. Cheaper. Lighter. Easier to mark up. In many parts of the developing world where people can't afford textbooks, they do have mobile phones and use Google search as their e-textbooks." He is afraid, though, of another possibility in the general book world: that e-books will kill off independent bookstores.
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.