Why E-books Are Such a Big Deal

About two years ago, James Hoge, the editor of Foreign Affairs, and Mort Rosenblum, a former editor of the International Herald Tribune, called to say that two intrepid Russian reporters—Andrei Soldatov and Irina Borogan—wanted to write a book telling the full story of how the Soviet-era KGB had been replaced in power and significance over the past decade by the FSB, the Federal Security Service. Given the stature of these recommendations and a measure of our own due diligence, PublicAffairs contracted with the authors for a book that came to be called The New Nobility: The Restoration of Russia's Security State and the Enduring Legacy of the KGB. The authors both had worked for the respected Russian newspaper Novaya Gazeta and co-founded the website Agentura.ru, which the New York Times called "a web site that came in from the cold to unveil Russian secrets." Once we had a draft in hand, PublicAffairs recruited David Hoffman, a Pulitzer Prize-winning former Moscow correspondent for the Washington Post to work with the authors to assure that the book would have the context and fluency readers of our version of the book would expect.

The book was published in mid-September. The initial reviews have been stellar. "Few people are better placed than Mr. Soldatov and Ms. Borogan to write with authority on this subject," Edward Lucas, international editor of the Economist wrote in the Wall Street Journal, adding the book "should be essential reading for those who hold naïve hopes about Russia's development." In Britain, the Sunday Times called the book a must read, and the Guardian said "The New Nobility is not a work of Kremlinology. It is the product of two profoundly courageous Russian journalists who are meticulous about their reporting. . . . It is because they are Russian and superbly professional journalists that this book offers dozens of insights that no outsider could provide." Foreign Affairs excerpted the book in its current issue. Soldatov will visit the United States this month for sessions at the New American Foundation and the Committee to Protect Journalists, and we hope media appearances yet to be arranged.

So far, it is fair to say that the book is off to an excellent start, poised for success. But here is where the traditional method of publishing books, as it has long functioned, becomes so frustrating. PublicAffairs printed 8,010 copies of the book, and to date has shipped 4,964. The total sales in the first two weeks, according to our tracking report, are 304 copies. Most brick and mortar stores--the major chains and the independents—cannot possibly have more than two or three copies on hand, and these are unlikely to be displayed in any significant way. For all the whining about those numbers, however, the important fact to point out is that The New Nobility is available to anyone with interest in the subject, even if it admittedly is geared to an audience of finite size. Not only that, the consumer can choose from a variety of formats and price points in deciding where and how to make the purchase.

The surest way to get the book is from Amazon, where the hardcover is in stock at $17.79 (discounted from the retail price of $26.95) along with a Kindle e-book version at $14.82 and a downloadable audio from Amazon's Audible for $14.96. From Apple's iPad bookstore, you can have the e-book for $12.99. Barnes & Noble has the hardcover for sale, but not the e-book. The likelihood of The New Nobility becoming a bestseller is, let's face it, nil. But instead of being lost in the great mountain of new releases that are unloaded at stores each month and almost immediately returned as excess inventory, the book is, at most, a few clicks away from ownership—and that represents a heartening development for authors and publishers. Even more encouraging is the pace at which the digital marketplace is growing. According to Publishers Weekly, sales of e-books for the first seven months of 2010 are up 191 percent over the past year, and totaled $219.5 million in revenue. In a report last week, IMS Research predicted sales of 15.6 million iPads for 2010, and an astonishing 46 million in 2011. I've done my e-book reading on the iPad since it was released in April, not just because of the quality of the reading experience, but because my wife has taken full possession of the Kindle, on which she maintains a library of fiction that assures she is never without something worth reading.

Statistics seem to show that a growing number of e-book users are buying more books than they did before. "A study of 1200 e-reader owners by Marketing and Research Resources Inc.,"according to the Wall Street Journal, "found that 40 percent said they now read more than they did with print books." The Journal reported that Amazon "says its customers buy 3.3 times as many books after buying a Kindle, a figure that has accelerated in the past year as prices for the device fell."

What does the ready availability of books from online retailers and the e-book surge mean for The New Nobility and comparably sophisticated books? The books still will not sell themselves. Good reviews, media appearances, word-of-mouth, and the other time-honored methods of promoting and marketing books continue to be essential. Books in whatever format technology now permits need to be published well—that is, brought to the attention of their potential audience.

But the headline is that, if you want The New Nobility or any of the similarly specialized books released each year, you should now be able to get them without mounting a major exploratory exercise to find them. Bravo.