The Book Publicity Blog

News, Tips, Trends and Miscellany for Book Publicists

The ebook question

As a book publicist, I spend a fair amount of time pondering ebooks.  Will ebooks really catch on?  (For all the talk about ebooks, anecdotally, I’d say pretty much, well, no one actually owns an ereader.)  How much should publishers charge for them?  Will the “iTunes of ebooks” emerge or will we still be reading ebooks in half a dozen formats?  Will publishers continue to struggle with DRM (Digital Rights Management) to protect files from being pirated or will we throw caution to the wind?  When will book publicists be able to promote upcoming titles with egalleys and ebooks?  How do booksellers feel about ebooks?  Why can you preorder thousands of (tree) books on Amazon, but when it comes to Kindle books — which would seem like natural candidates for preorders — only 118 not-yet-published titles are available?  These are the issues that keep me up at night.  (Actually, nothing keeps me up at night as my college roommate will attest, but that line sounded good.)

At any rate, these are the issues that are keeping a lot of people up during the day.  Last week on Talk of the Nation, Slate’s Jacob Weisberg debated the cultural effect of the Kindle.  And All Things Considered considered DRM.  On Monday, Oxford University Press executive Evan Schnittman (quoted in the ATC story) posted about the economics of ebook publishing on his new blog Black Plastic Glasses and tackled a question oft bandied about by ebook fanatics: why aren’t ebooks free?  The piece was picked up in short order by Teleread and GalleyCat and garnered dozens of comments.

Meanwhile, as publishers and readers work through the thorny issues that have hamstrung digital publishing — and while we all await Apple’s rumored ereader — don’t forget your Smell of Books.  (And no, this is not an April’s Fools Joke.  Or is it.)


April 1, 2009 - Posted by | ebooks, Trends | , ,


  1. This looks like more than just the one question your Title alludes to. But every question you raise is a valid one. As a reader and reviewer I share them all, but probably with a different priority. My biggest question right now is, which e-reader will come out on top? Kindle, Sony, Plastic Logic, or some mythical beast yet created? Then the price of the e-reader becomes a hurdle. DRM isn’t a big deal to me as I’m not willing to share the book with anyone (except maybe my wife, but her tastes tend to differ from mine). But the format could be the big decider if I choose soon. I want PDF support since I have a number of free books in PDF. And many publishers are using free PDF books as a lure for readers.

    So it doesn’t keep me up at night, but the fear making choosing the wrong e-reader does stop me from buying heavily into the e-book market.

    Comment by TK42ONE | April 1, 2009 | Reply

  2. One quibble I have with the Kindle is that as it is essentially a tool for shopping at Amazon almost exclusively (yes you can pay a nominal fee to have your files be converted to the Kindle format) I feel that it should be subsidized akin to a cell phone under contract to a single provider. They could discount it heavily and then offer X number of free books. The current model relies on the consumer paying close to the full cost and publishers subsidizing the program by a) creating the content at some expense for use only at one retail outlet and b) aggressively discounting so that Amazon can argue that the lower price for Kindle books is an argument for paying for the hardware.

    I think that cell phone carriers are actually considering an option similar to that by the rumors of Verizon considering a subsidized netbook.

    If I were to buy an e-book reader today, it would be the Sony. It is elegant and functional. But the cost is still steep for a single use device. People are right to be on the fence.

    Comment by Jean | April 1, 2009 | Reply

  3. I think the future of books will be digital publishing in some form, but I’m not sure the Kindle/Sony Reader format is the way it’s going to play out. My guess is it’ll be some app for phones (iPhone’s Kindle app is a start) as phones get more storage, power, and sophistication. When people can easily buy and read ebooks from a device they already own, I think the digital publishing market will really take off.

    Of course, there’s always just writing the first draft of a novel on Twitter (shameless self-promotion!). 🙂

    Comment by Tweet_Book | April 1, 2009 | Reply

  4. Like most new things, Ebooks will be old hat when we finally realize that EBooks were the future. Haven’t you ever noticed that when the future arrives we look at it as something or some thought we’ve just always had.

    Comment by Jim | April 1, 2009 | Reply

  5. As I noted in today’s post, I don’t think the question is “if” as much as “how”. While the industry was focused on an ebook tipping point, what we’re really seeing is slow and steady adoption (and for all the hype about ereaders, there is a large population that still read digital books on their desktops, laptops, other handheld device). But, as you seen in the comments above, uncertainty is a huge issue for readers. While actual sales of digital books remain marginal (but growing) for most publishers, it is this uncertainty that remains a challenge.

    I think the challenges you outline have to be resolved while sales remain in the 1% range. While the alphabet soup of formats is the wrong path for books (see: music industry), you don’t want an iTunes model (you=publisher) because it will dilute your power. This is why I advocate for single format that works on wide range of devices — let the consumer choose hardware and let the books purchased work on that device.

    Now for smarter minds than mine to weigh in!

    Comment by Kassia Krozser | April 1, 2009 | Reply

  6. My girlfriend recently bought one of thoes devices that you can download books and newspapers on. While I was looking at it
    I nearly erased the New York Times and other material that she
    had downloaded. That’s enough for me. Give me the book. Give me the
    newspaper. No need to worry about accidentally erasing anything. I know it’s
    the wave of the future but I’m not into waiting for information to be downloaded, especially if it’s “old” news 24 hours later.

    Comment by Jerode King | April 1, 2009 | Reply

  7. There are a number of factors that will determine the future of the ‘eBook’ Of these the aesthetics, ergonomics, technology and distribution have been discussed to death. All are barriers but all will be engineered away eventually.

    The real battle is our culture of ownership. A book is a ‘good’. I sell it and in doing so transfer full rights and utility of the object to my customer. They can resell it, keep it, or burn it as they see fit. Of course as a publisher / author I retain ownership of the content through copyright. But there is still a greater sense of rights with the buyer as it is difficult to follow them home to check they don’t actually copy some of it.

    The eBook restricts ownership to the device. The publisher can retain full rights of disposal and ownership of the book. Effectively its a rental agreement or lease. The eBook is a service.

    That requires our culture to re-value books. Not de-value, but rather change the way we want books and why we would want to own one.

    It is happening. And I am not sure it’s a good thing. But eventually no one will think twice about not actually owning a novel any more than they would consider not owning a television show to be an impediment to its enjoyment. (DVDs notwithstanding.)

    Comment by Ric | April 1, 2009 | Reply

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