The Amazon future works

The ABC’s Australia Talks program ran a show this week about the troubles of the Australian book industry. Its starting point was that the local bookselling and book publishing industry is in a heap of trouble. Not for the first time, the program did a deal of hand-wringing about the current state of affairs. On its bad days, at least, it really ought to be called Australia Frets.

Few could argue with this particular show’s basic premise.  Online book sales and e-publishing threaten book printing and book publishing. Like many people, I started buying books online in the 1990s – old books, niche books, cheap books. And like many people, I’ve now begun using Amazon’s Kindle e-book system. Amazon has 80 per cent of the e-book market. The Kindle format is annoyingly proprietary and rights-managed but incredibly convenient.

You can see where this is going, for me and others. I have a huge wall of books at home here which I rather like. It saddens me a little, but I will simply not be adding to my collection at such a rate in the future.

But then: so what? Saddle-makers aren’t doing as well as they used to, either. The Australia Talks discussion seemed to hint that the move to digital sales would rob authors of money, but never produced much evidence. Meanwhile, it gave very short shrift to the possibility that electronic publishing might help Australian authors get their ideas and creativity out to the rest of the world. It gave less attention still to the idea that cheaper books might help Australians compete in a global knowledge economy. It gave pretty much no time at all to the notion that an open society and digital technology allow ideas and creativity to flow more freely today than ever before.

This is the same lack of imagination and sheer spinelessness that bedevils the newspaper debate, and that Ian Rogers and I have opposed in our submission to the Independent Media Inquiry. It’s the foolish fear that the moment some familiar artefact disappears – printed book, printed newspaper – people will lose all desire to read, to think, to ask questions about their world. In my experience, people are better and more reliable than that.

The good news is that this as more people use the new technologies and channels, the success stories are piling up. The Australia Talks program’s comments section featured a telling story from an Australian author:

I am the author of 10 books. My books have sold to major foreign publishers and I was able to write full-time. But my disappointment was with the marketing of my work.  The covers too were terrible.

In the last year I have converted all my books into e-books and created my own covers that are a huge improvement on those supplied by the major publishers I was originally published by. I am also responsible for my own marketing and feel so much more in control of my own career. I don’t receive opaque royalty statements that even my agent admitted she couldn’t follow. So instead of relying on publishers who are always looking for the ‘next big thing’ instead of developing writers they already have, I can see with one click how my sales are going. – and I’m delighted to say that my career is flying again and I can access huge markets.

I can only say- thank you Amazon.

Update: Charlie Stross nicely describes Amazon’s strategy in book publishing. Summary: Jeff Bezos wants to crush competitors, and he has a strategy for doing it.

(Regardless of what Charlie says, we probably do need some sort of DRM system if authors are to publish ebooks and be paid for their work. As Charlie notes, there is ultimately no foolproof DRM system for books, or anything else. This is why thrillers are usually offered as e-books, while programming and IT titles frequently are not.)

About David Walker

David Walker runs publishing consultancy Shorewalker DMS (shorewalker.net) and is commissioning editor of Acuity magazine. David has previously edited the award-winning INTHEBLACK business magazine, been chief operating officer of online publisher WorkDay Media, held policy and communications roles at the Committee for Economic Development of Australia and the Business Council of Australia, and run the website for online finance start-up eChoice. He has written professionally on economics, business and public policy since 1987 and spent three years in the Canberra Press Gallery for News Limited and The Age.
This entry was posted in Economics and public policy, IT and Internet, Media, Print media. Bookmark the permalink.

52 Responses to The Amazon future works

  1. Don Arthur says:

    I love the convenience of the Kindle. But I can’t help thinking it’s an interim technology. Right now most of the books are written with paper editions in mind and adapted for Kindle. But e-texts could end up being quite different.

    Car repair manuals could have animated diagrams, math text books could be interactive.

    Books could take advantage of e-readers’ internet capabilities and bundle services with the product. For example, the quizzes in school and university text books could connect online and tell students how well they’ve done relative to other users (as well as allowing teachers to track student progress). Then when the course is over the book’s license could expire and the ‘book’ would disappear.

    It may well be possible to make good margins on e-texts but not in the same way as with paper books.

    I don’t know in which direction e-texts will go, but I’m sure there’s much more to come. Just as early cars looked like carriages without horses, today’s e-texts look like books without paper.

  2. Michael says:

    Interesting post. It’s hard to imagine that ebooks can be stopped or that other media won’t slowly wither regardless of unwarranted protection. It seems commercial free-to-air TV will be next. Likewise the writings on the wall for other gatekeepers that have kept Australia behind and isolated. I rediscovered my record collection which has about 2% of Australian music in it, yet 100% of the records were packaged for the Australian market thanks to legal arrangements. It’s hard to see what value they added since the covers were usually the same as the ones sold overseas. Although maybe they helped fund the 2% of Australian music I own, but then again, maybe it would have happened anyway.

  3. Nicholas Gruen says:

    I buy far more e-books than I ever did paper ones.

    It’s so convenient and cheap. And a lot more of my money goes to the producers of the content. What’s there not to like? Well the Kindle isn’t all that flash and ebooks re unnecessarily clunky and hard to get around. But that will change.

  4. conrad says:

    “It’s so convenient and cheap”

    Is it cheaper than buying books second hand on ebay? I find this pretty convenient and that postage is often more than the books now (and curiously, it’s another area where it seems cheaper to get stuff from the UK than here even though there are no other constraints). I presume this is another reason for some of the book industry’s woes, although it isn’t often mentioned.

  5. Pedro says:

    Don, that’s certainly seems the future at my son’s school. The integration of their tab-top computers with the classroom and the texts is fabulous and I think they are only a couple of years away from ditching text books for e-texts.

    As for the change to other formats, perhaps not, the graphic novel has not destroyed the novel because the magic is partly in your imagination. Texts will surely be different.

    I believe Santa is bringing me a kindle. Is that the best choice? I’m looking forward to not struggling with heavy books in bed or on the couch. My wife is reading on her ipad, but it seems a strain on the eye.

  6. JMB says:

    Don Arthur’s entry strikes a positive chord with me, but it leaves unsaid the pleasure to be found working along rows of books in a store or a library, where the unexpected will catch the eye and, often for unknowable reasons, titles which would not otherwise be of interest are perused, held and, occasionally, owned or loaned.

    There is much to recommend electronic searches, of course, but they tend towards following the typed input – too wide a range and thousands of nuisance hits flood the screen. Too narrow, and nothing unexpected yet enticing will come up.

    I expect that the experience of electronic searching will improve during the next decade or so, but at present it is inferior to the real thing.

  7. JMB says:

    Is anybody across the full story of comparative postal charges?

    As a kid, I used to take a billy-cart down to the post office and wheel books back home for my parents’ private lending libraries. Payment was the same as the British postage – typically about a penny per book. It cost as much to deliver the last half miole as for the first 12,000 miles by sea.

    Apparently, there are some strange international postal agreements out there which result in postage from overseas to Australia at a fraction of the cost of postage within Australia. If so, this could represent a huge advantage for American and British based suppliers of dead tree books over their Australian counterparts.

    Am I mistaken?

  8. Michael says:

    I’m not sure of the details of the arrangement but the postal rates from the UK are very cheap and the delivery is very quick, check out the book depository. The US however seems very expensive. I only buy from the US if it’s an expensive item relative to postage or I can’t get in anywhere else.

  9. Dan says:

    [email protected]: UK postage for export retail is heavily subsidised. Protectionism in reverse, but wonderful news for Book Depository addicts like myself.

  10. KB Keynes says:

    so a group of kindles would be Kindleing?
    That’s amazon.

    Real books are much better than e-books Nicholas wash your mouth out!!

  11. jtfsoon says:

    For once I agree with Homer.

  12. aidan says:

    Robert Llewellyn (Scrapheap Challenge, Kryten from Red Dwarf) has a web-based series called Carpool, he gives people a lift and interviews them.

    His interview with Cory Doctorow is relevant to this discussion, you can start the video here

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6AzIqsmOcRM&feature=player_profilepage#t=443s

    or watch the whole thing.

    He really embraced the possibilities of eBooks and has released all his books free electronically, as well as paid-for physical books. He has other models (pay-what-you-want) as well.

    Here is another article he has written

    http://www.guardian.co.uk/technology/2009/aug/18/free-ebooks-cory-doctorow

  13. Nicholas Gruen says:

    In the Australia Talks program that David mentions the compere said that they’d checked postage and that it was more expensive to send a book sized parcel within Australia than from London to Aust.

  14. Dan says:

    Homer, Jason: you’re right. I once tried to read Milton’s Paradise Lost on my iPhone, albeit as a challenge to myself. Sucks compared to the read thing.

  15. Laura says:

    Struggling [to hold] a book while sitting or lying down re-defines weak and lazy (unless the reader has an upper body disability). Really, the things some people complain about are amazing.

    E-books are still limited in availability and there is no option often but to purchase print copies of all sorts of books, including fiction as well as many non-fiction genres and specialties.

  16. Dan says:

    *real thing. Good typo though.

  17. hc says:

    I bought a Kindle though I eventually transferred all content to an iPad which is easier to use and read from.

    After much use I find the only stuff I can sustainably read on these media is light weight in character – biographies, humorous literature etc. The heavier stuff – that I am supposed to read for a living – requires a hard copy.

    Someone told me that the pixelation puts you to sleep! I really don’t know but anything that requires a bit of thinking sends me to sleep if I am reading it from an iPad or Kindle.

  18. Yobbo says:

    It would be great if they could put university textbooks in e-form rather than forcing students to spend $1200 a year on books.

  19. conrad says:

    Yobbo — many are. I use one with both forms in a subject I run and also tell publishers that I won’t set any book that is stupidly expensive (easy to do when there are multiple different books with relatively similar content).

  20. Dan says:

    Yobbo – amen. Even to someone with perfectly adequate cashflow those texts make a serious dent in a pay packet.

  21. JC says:

    Homer, Jason: you’re right. I once tried to read Milton’s Paradise Lost on my iPhone, albeit as a challenge to myself. Sucks compared to the read thing.

    Dude, are you serious?

  22. Dan says:

    lol, was expecting a few eyebrow raises from that one. It’s true; I got about halfway through but when I upgraded my hardware the e-reader software deleted it. Though not ordinarily superstitious, I took this to be a sign.

  23. Sally says:

    Dan, my Mum used to listen to the classics on her Walkman while jogging or cooking up a storm for the mob. Mind you a single work could run to 50 plus tapes, god love her. Think of the organisation required to keep tab of them all. Makes me feel faint.

  24. Mel says:

    I love the look, feel and smell of a new book. I can’t see myself ever adjusting to ebooks.

  25. Sally says:

    Half the joy of books is seeing them at home on the shelves or stacked up on all sorts of surfaces. Being filed away on an e-system is a great deprivation methinks of the visual pleasure of seeing them physically arrayed alongside each other waiting to be plucked for reference or loan or to invoke the memory of being submerged in their olfactory and tactile universe.

  26. rog says:

    You lost a paradise on yr iphone JC?

    No wonder Milton was cross; such an act is without rhyme (or reason).

  27. Don Arthur says:

    Half the joy of books is seeing them at home on the shelves or stacked up on all sorts of surfaces.

    Yes, but soon my shelves will be full and surfaces covered. The other day I cleared some space in the garage where I store books I don’t use very often. Then my parents came to visit. When they arrived I noticed Dad was smiling more than usual. My parents had packed the car with boxes full of books I’d left at their place years ago.

    If I don’t stop buying books my house will end up looking like Gould’s Book Arcade.

  28. KB Keynes says:

    does that mean a gould rush?

  29. Ken Parish says:

    Here’s a multiple part tweet I’ve just posted flowing from conrad’s comment at #19:

    1/6 Question for IP-oriented lawyers at end of multiple part tweet:

    2/6 Non-law academic says: “I tell publishers that I won’t set any book that is stupidly expensive”.

    3/6 I agree law cases & materials (C & M) texts are invariably stupidly expensive ($140 or more each).

    4/6 But providing parameters for extent of reading of non-central cases is necessary; cases & materials texts achieve that aim.

    5/6 Would I be breaching IP rights by: (a) merely prescribing cheaper straight text (e.g. Joseph & Castan in Con Law); and

    6/6 (b) listing necessary case readings by AustLII paras largely through listing paras reproduced in (no longer prescribed) C & M texts?

    Incidentally I strongly agree with Don at #1:

    Books could take advantage of e-readers’ internet capabilities and bundle services with the product. For example, the quizzes in school and university text books could connect online and tell students how well they’ve done relative to other users (as well as allowing teachers to track student progress). Then when the course is over the book’s license could expire and the ‘book’ would disappear.

    Pearson is currently just about the only educational publisher pursuing these sorts of concepts in an intelligent and serious way. The rest don’t seem to have a clue yet. I reckon the marketplace opportunities are massive.

  30. rog says:

    Storage is a major issue, we have bookcases, cupboards and built ins stacked high with books that are rarely if ever read. And in the nearby town there are numerous second hand book shops competing for the odd reader. Yet on my reader I can store and access enormous amounts of data.

  31. Pedro says:

    Why not just give a cheap text as you are and then a list of cases organised by topic? With the various online services students get through the library they would get a bit more practical training for being a lawyer and having to find stuff yourself.

  32. Jacques Chester says:

    I like physical books. I like how each is unique; it’s different colours, size and heftiness. The tactile elements, even the smell.

    What I hate is paying postage and then later having to haul the heavy bastards from place to place. And so these days I buy ebooks almost exclusively. I hold off buying physical books on the theory that what I haven’t bought will in due course be converted.

    When you’re a renter, having less stuff becomes attractive. I’ve brutally cut down my book collection down multiple times and it still weighs hundreds of bloody kilos.

  33. Jacques Chester says:

    s/it’s/its/

  34. Ken Parish says:

    “Why not just give a cheap text as you are and then a list of cases organised by topic?”

    It isn’t feasible for most students to read the whole of every judgment in every High Court case with which they need to have SOME familiarity. They certainly need to do that with key cases but most are not in that category. I’ll wager you didn’t read the whole of every case at law school. I know I didn’t. Cases and materials texts have the advantage that they extract key passages, allowing students to gain a greater grasp of judicial reasoning than they would from just reading the headnote, but without being forced to wade through the whole thing (which may run to a hundred pages or more for a single case).

  35. derrida derider says:

    Well I wouldn’t give up my kindle for anything. It is just wonderful to be able to carry a large library around (and yes, free up lots of space at home).

    True, Amazon’s Gates-like ambitions are a worry, though I have little sympathy for the publishers who have their own rich history of screwing authors and readers alike***. In the long term it is going to cost us, and in the short term it means I can’t conveniently get some of the books I want. Though Stross is right that it is usually only a matter of convenience – if people deliberately make it hard for me to buy their product then I do feel free to get hold of it by less – err – convenient means.

    I can’t understand Harry transferring stuff from Kindle to iPad – e-ink screens are so much easier to read for sustained periods than even the best backlit ones. Perhaps he just needed to get a Kindle DX with the bigger screen.

    *** At the height of the Napoleonic wars Coleridge once proposed an after-dinner toast which went “I give you Napoleon Buonaparte (gasps). Yes, he may be a tyrant, the enemy of mankind, and etcetera. But let us give our great foe his due – gentlemen, he once shot a publisher!”

  36. Richard Tsukamasa Green says:

    These printed books are so mass produced and cheap, removal type makes every letter look the same each time. Paper is flimsy and low quality, as we would expect from orientals. How can any person who truly appreciates knowledge and literature accept anything except manuscript.

    Seriously though, I worry about Amazon’s dominance, but I won’t reward the bloody minded intransigence of publishers. I do feel fortunate that Amazon, despite being a potentially dangerous monopoly at least provides a non irritating interface. With digital music the equivalent is iTunes, which is inexplicably bad and antagonistic to the user, not to mention expensive compared to CDs bought online.

  37. Andrae Muys says:

    “This is why thrillers are usually offered as e-books, while programming and IT titles frequently are not.”

    Exactly where did you get the impression that IT titles aren’t readily available as e-books? Quite the contrary, the vast majority of IT titles I buy are offered as e-books, the only difference being, the publishers of IT titles don’t bother with DRM.

    In my experience, the closest the IT publishers come to DRM is to embed my name in the e-book.

  38. JC says:

    Seriously though, I worry about Amazon’s dominance,

    Yep. Cheap books, innovative delivery systems (kindle) are a real bitch.

  39. Dan says:

    JC: “dangerous monopoly” is a real bitch.

  40. Pedro says:

    I agree about the case reading Ken, though I was a good skimmer. But I was actually thinking about the various text services like CCH so that you can hunt around easily and cheaply through a range of texts without needing to get your hands on the library’s actual copy of the thing. Perhaps the libraries have user log on limits anyway.

    Some aspects of the e-format are annoying. Perhaps it is just the learning curve for the publishers, but the on-line CCH services are not as easy to use as the old loose-leaf folders except for text searching functions. I missing being able to flip between 2 or 3 relevant sections.

  41. JC says:

    Dan

    Amazon’s market is contestable. You can contest it if you choose. If they no longer serve the public someone else will come in and rip the market away from them. They hold a dominant share of the market because they are great, truly great at what they do. If and when they lose this leadership they will end up in the bin like other firms that peak and then fail.

    Market leadership is not etched in stone provided the market is contestable by the state not impeding it.

    You think Google, Facebook, Ebay is not thinking about ways to take share away from them?

    In any event I hate the physical look of books and much prefer them in pixels. Rooms look far better as minimalist without cheap books haunting the layout… unless of course they are expensive books.

  42. Laura says:

    I suspect JC is the sort of guy who’d never read a book that wasn’t written by himself and likes a home with white walls and granite surfaces. Each to their own. A house without books is a tomb.

    Of course, it’s false that cheapish books look cheap. Folio Society books are magnificent in quality – paper, illustrations, binding etc., works of art in their physical form – yet often inexpensive compared to shoddy mass produced best sellers that are way overpriced in absolute terms.

    Corporations tend towards monopoly and that is inherently bad for the consumer and the employees.

  43. David Walker says:

    Exactly where did you get the impression that IT titles aren’t readily available as e-books?

    Andrae at #37, good question. I got this impression from a couple of authors of IT books. They face the simple but uncomfortable choice between no electronic edition and a much-pirated electronic edition, because IT-savvy users quickly hack the DRM on most IT titles.

    A quick check on Amazon confirms that popular thrillers are almost always available as Kindle editions, while IT title Kindle availability is about 60/40.

    One author was still mulling this over several weeks ago, but I suspect will delay publication of his e-book version by about a year so as to maximise his earnings.

    I don’t think this issue is going to slow the spread of e-books very much, but it is a problem. Information wants to be free; prospective authors sometimes want to be paid.

  44. Patrick says:

    Dan, what monopoly? Over what? Seriously, I’d need that fleshed out a bit for my slow thinking (also, please don’t overreact as po-facedly as you did to my free will comment!).

    I believe my American colleagues already consult their legislation online through their laptops and tablets, and (I believe) we intend to move to legislation on tablets. I think this is ok.

    I am not sure, however, about cases. I do always print out cases, contracts, etc that I need to read carefully.

    KP: I always tried to read the whole case. I hate casebooks unless they are really textbooks and hated the teacher who prescribed me one (his own, of course). I don’t think law schools make good lawyers without making them read the whole case – if nothing else a minimal ‘real life’ lawyer skill.

  45. Dan says:

    Re: monopoly; I was mostly stirring.

    I love books – old and new – but then again I love reading. There’s nothing better than visiting someone’s place and getting all hot under the collar over their book or record collection. Great conversation stoker as well.

    Needless to say, my books and records/CDs are displayed prominently to be explored (and borrowed) by visiting friends.

  46. Nicholas Gruen says:

    On Amazon’s dominance, I am finding plenty of books on the only just recently established Google Books site. And my inability to access the Google and Amazon book shops on their iPad and iPhone apps (a recent decision forced on them by Apple) has me determined to steer away from Apple as fast as possible. I do love my Android and particularly for the absence of this kind of nonsense.

  47. Patrick says:

    Amen to Nick’s sentiments immediately above.

  48. JC says:

    I used to read lots of books laura, but don’t have time as a read a lot of research crap these days and 4 to 5 hours a day of reading that stuff is enough, but don’t me stop you.

    Each to their own.

    Eggsactly.

    A house without books is a tomb.

    Or perhaps a house without architectural lines messed up. You don’t have to show them, as they can be easily hidden and soft cover books are awful on display (and they also collect dust).

    …compared to shoddy mass produced best sellers that are way overpriced in absolute terms.

    How are they overpriced if they’re best sellers as the two things don’t seem to go together? They must by definition be “well” priced otherwise they wouldn’t be purchased and become best sellers.

    Corporations tend towards monopoly and that is inherently bad for the consumer and the employees.

    Oh yea. I forgot.

  49. Sally says:

    Best sellers can be well marketed and critically acclaimed by msm reviewers but poorly received by buyers who cry foul upon parting with hard earned cash for what many perceive to be over-hyped dross. Jonathan Franzen’s novel “The Corrections” was a prime example of this.

    Dan got it. Checking out another person’s book collection is not only a blast, it’s key to how you view them, on first impressions at least. I’d say in some circumstances it’s a deal maker or breaker, depending on the collection overall.

    If there are no or few books, it’s definitely a huge turn-off.

  50. conrad says:

    It’s funny how people collect books that they’re never likely to read again (including myself). I wonder why?

  51. Pedro says:

    You don’t read good books twice? Second read is essential.

  52. conrad says:

    I have books I didn’t even enjoy much sitting in my bookshelf. Silly huh?

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