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Don't Stomp on the Bookworms, E-Publishers

Don't Stomp on the Bookworms, E-Publishers

Publishers have every right to get the most money they can out of the e-book versions of their popular titles, but readers are loud and clear about what they want: a reasonable price and instantaneous gratification. Book publishers may not be under the exact same piracy gun as music labels, but failure to listen to the desires of e-bookworms will ultimately alienate their best customers.

By Renay San Miguel
02/05/10 5:00 AM PT

Apple's new iPad is apparently going to let me download The DaVinci Code -- either in book or movie form. I like that. If you're going to release a new device and charge me a lot of money for it -- not to mention the costs of using a network of some kind to facilitate all that downloading and streaming -- then please don't get between me and my instant media gratification.

However, I'm a little wary about all the deals being made between book publishers and Apple, not to mention the negotiations that continue between Amazon and those who supply the e-books for its Kindle, which used to be the hot new device in town before the iPad swaggered through the online saloon doors. Steve Jobs hit the stage last week with publisher agreements in hand for his new Apple iBook Store, and all the bold-faced names were represented: HarperCollins, Simon & Shuster, Penguin, Macmillan and Hachette. The largest publisher in the world, Random House, is still in talks with Apple, but I suspect it's only a matter of time before Jobs -- one of the shrewdest and dogged negotiators in techland -- will line up that e-book domino as well.

Jobs is allowing the publishers more freedom for price-setting than Amazon has with its Kindle, and the result is some recent brinksmanship between Jeff Bezos' company and Macmillan. Apple's e-books on its iBook Store can run up to US$15, and apparently Macmillan wanted the same kind of deal with Amazon. The Seattle-based company balked, so for about two days, Macmillan's books disappeared from Amazon's Web site. They reappeared last week, along with a note saying Amazon was giving in but disagreeing with the idea of charging more for e-books than the previous $9 price tag.

All of this is well and good for publishers, who have every right to protect their intellectual property and get the most they can for it in these digital times. Yet while Amazon continues to crow about Kindle versions of books selling better than physical copies during the holiday season, I'm wondering how long those trends will continue as prices start to creep back up. Apple's iPad lands in consumer hands in March; how forthcoming will Jobs be in announcing its e-book sales figures in the quarterly earnings that will follow?

More to the point for bookworms like me, who can't seem to part with every single hardcover and paperback he's bought since his teenage years: If I'm going to shell out $200 for a Kindle or $499 for an iPad, will I be able to download all the books I want, when I want? Or are you going to make me wait a month or two to get the e-book version of the latest James Patterson, Anne Tyler, John Grisham, and Don DeLillo?

The E-Book Consumer Vote

It might be as dangerous messing with Lee Child's literary hero-for-hire Jack Reacher as it can be for publishers to piss off e-reader fans. Two examples are worth mentioning:

  • Last April, Wired magazine wrote about readers who were using Amazon's own book-tagging feature against the company any time a Kindle version was priced more than $10. That was the ceiling that about 250 Kindle users had decided was the highest they would pay for e-books that can't be borrowed, resold, donated or traded. If they broached that price barrier, the tag "9.99 boycott" was applied. Amazon's recent experience with Macmillan would seem to indicate that Amazon execs heard this particular consumer message loud and clear and did the best they could, but the ground beneath their feet is shifting with the digital tides of commerce.
  • Just last month, political junkies who saw all the headlines being generated from the new political tell-all Game Change had been teased enough and decided they wanted to read the gossip for themselves on their Kindles. But awaiting them on the book's Amazon page was a little box right underneath a picture of the cover saying, "Tell the Publisher! I'd like to read this book on Kindle." That wasn't good enough for many customers, who decided to use the "reviews" section to give Game Change the lowest one-star rating for no other reason than its non-availability in digital format. The book was released on Jan. 11. On Jan. 12, I noticed all the one-star complaints. On the 13th, I checked the page, and sure enough, a Kindle version was available -- rather, it was promised ... on Feb. 23, more than a month after its initial release. Many were still upset about that delay and continued to hammer the book with one-star reviews.

I know the publishers are trying to keep from cannibalizing hardcover sales, but don't they stand a chance to make even more sales via instant, anywhere downloads?

"The book industry is trying to feel its way in this new media environment, and what we're ultimately probably going to have is the hardback release, and some relatively limited window of time before an e-book version comes out," said Greg Sterling, founder of Sterling Market Intelligence. It's akin, he told me, to the situation now roiling the movie industry, with DVD releases coming much faster on the heels of theatrical releases, not to mention the growing impact of on-demand films and Netflix. There's some experimentation with simultaneous theatrical/on-demand releases for independent movies via providers like Comcast, and this may indeed be the future if studios can be convinced they won't leave money on the table.

As for publishers, "they may be ultimately able to sell more books eventually. They're going to be able to say that they can sell a number of hardcovers that won't be cannibalized, and now they have this direct distribution channel to potentially millions of people, and they may be able to sell more books. They don't have the costs -- maybe production or front-end, but no distribution costs, no display or marketing costs.

"In the end, they've got to say, 'This is a real opportunity and not something we have to be afraid of.'"

The New Stephen King - The Director's Cut

Might the same kind of media consumer who buys Criterion Collection DVDs of films loaded with special features, commentaries and the like also purchase a "director's cut" version of an e-book? Could publishers experiment with multimedia presentations, including author interviews and other rich content -- all the while charging more for these editions, which might appeal to high-end bookworms (mediaworms?).

"Maybe within the book itself you'll have multimedia aspects, interviews, added historical information," Sterling suggested. "It's actually going to be interesting to see how all this evolves. I like reading physical books, but I think it's far from a 'sky is falling' feeling here. It's a real opportunity to do some interesting and engaging things."

Publishers might also have the winds at their backs when it comes to threats of digital rights management hacks. Not being a hacker, I wouldn't know for sure, but it can't be as easy -- or as sexy -- to upload a bestselling novel for piracy reasons as it is to send a song via peer-to-peer networks, or even to seed a screener copy of "Avatar" on a BitTorrent client. In fact, just reading the phrase "pirating e-books" sounds downright silly, like something from a Robin Williams routine: "Pssst, hey buddy -- I got new Maeve Binchy, fresh, uncut. You want harder stuff? I got Palahniuk, Ellroy ..."

So perhaps the only real downside for publishers as they get into e-book beds with Apple and Amazon is writing a chapter that ultimately alienates the end user -- those people formerly known as "readers," the aforementioned bookworms. Again, don't get between us and our instant gratification. You might not like the twist at the end of the story.


TechNewsWorld columnist Renay San Miguel started his journalism career with his hometown newspaper in Texas in 1979. He moved to television in 1985, anchoring, producing and reporting in Austin, Dallas and San Francisco before joining CNBC as a technology correspondent from 1997 to 2000. Following a stint with CBS MarketWatch, which included filing tech stories for the CBS Early Show, San Miguel joined CNN Headline News in 2001 as an anchor/tech reporter. He also contributed digital content for CNN.com. After his 2007 departure from CNN, San Miguel founded Primo Media and now freelances in television/online reporting and media consultation.


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