Monday, February 01, 2010

Ebook Thoughts.

I’m just thinking about this; throwing a few ideas about. I don’t know, so don’t assume I really know what I’m talking about, though I’m pretty sure that many in the industry don’t know what’s going to happen either.

I’ve been reading up on this row between Macmillan and Amazon about ebooks, but now want to step back and consider what it all means. The ebook market is going to grow, every time someone buys a Kindle or an Ipad or any other the other readers out there, that’s a dead tree customer gone. This is not like the fight between Betamax and VHS, since with them the information, the entertainment, was a physical product that wasn’t interchangeable. The makers of these readers will try (using stuff like DRM), initially, to corner the market for their e-reader, but it is a losing battle. The more restrictions put on ebooks sold or what e-readers will accept, the more piracy and the more likely people will buy product with less restrictions. By making restrictions publishers and e-book manufacturers will lose market share. The eventual winners will be the e-readers that will accept any ebook and the ebooks that can be loaded to any e-reader. Piracy will be easy and rife. Publishers will have to accept that to sell ebooks they’ll need to reduce the price, because high prices will push customers towards piracy. So what does all this mean to me, the writer?

Things are going to change, and drastically. The market for paper books will continue to survive, hopefully until I’ve shuffled off my mortal coil, but it’s going to get smaller and smaller. Hopefully people will still want to read my books. This is what I must think. Books as we know them are just the medium through which the story I tell goes from my mind to yours. Even if that medium changes, I have to presume that you still want that story.

I wonder about the shape of a future market. Maybe the book publisher as we know it is going to die. Maybe a writer will publish his book on the Internet, without much in the way of middlemen, incidentally taking a larger cut of the cover price than present paltry royalties, which will be necessary to cover the losses through piracy. After a book has sold well on the Internet, has been proven as a product, that’s where the dead tree publishers step in. People will read many ebooks, and some they will decide are keepers.


Another scenario I see is the end of writers being able to make a living through writing books. If the main source of books is the Internet, without the middle men, where is the guarantee of quality? How is anyone going to be able to sort the wheat from the truckloads of chaff? A dead tree book you pick up in a bookshop has gone through a process, the first part being people in the publishing industry looking at the typescript and deciding they are prepared to risk spending thousands of pounds to get that book into print. (For those who say that publishers produce a lot of crap, let me give you a wake-up call: for every Daniel Steel or Jeffrey Archer book you sneer at, please remember that the publisher has rejected skiploads of the most appalling drivel you can imagine.) There’s your guarantee.

Perhaps the guarantee will be simply through sales, electronic bestseller lists, trusted reviewing. Even publishers admit that word-of-mouth is the best advertising available and, once the middlemen are out of the way, this would be the ultimate in word-of-mouth. Let’s face it, despite the ‘is this going to make us money guarantee’ publishers still quite often get it very wrong. How many publishers rejected the Harry Potter books?

What do you think?


Unknown said...

Like i said this is what happened in the music industry when everyone went digital. All the small independent labels and record shops disappeared with huge debts giving the few that were left more power and more money. I would be gutted if they started to release digital before paper books, maybe iam an old school reader that puts value in that book sitting proudly on my bookshelf but i will never change to digital, next it will be subliminal you just turn on the cd and go to sleep and you wake up in the morning having read your favourite authors book humn or could we get Gridlinked and read them that way ? maybe one day but not yet

Unknown said...

Social recommndations. Every single new author I've "discovered" for years now has been because someone told me "Hey. This is really good" either on message forums or for the most part on blogs like or Scalzi's Whatever (to name but two).

Let's face it. The sci-fi reader doesn't get advertised at in the traditional way. I read my first Neal Asher book after a review of one of your newer books on io9.

I've also jumped feet first into the ebook market. I have too many books and no more room to store them. Imagine how frustrating it is for someone like me to see the publishers dragging their heels or actively trying to kill the ebook market at birth.

I notice your books are very reasonably priced in ebook format at Neal. Shame about the DRM but like DRM for music I expect that to vanish with time. Still no sign of your stuff in the UK Kindle store though.

Gordon Copestake said...

Charlie Stross is having similar thoughts Neal. Have you read his comments on

Richard Fletcher said...

If the question is "How does an author get sales in the ebook age" I suppose it's through very similar processes as now, in short, get known. I think there are fewer and fewer readers who go to the bookshop and buy based on the blurb and the cover. More and more people go to amazon and it's ilk, and read the reviews. The new author would have to make a splash somewhere and quickly build up a head of steam and hopefully for him, that will give the momentum to continue for years.

Perhaps they will have to fund that online profile building themselves. Perhaps the publishers will be replaced by promoters. Perhaps we will end up with star reviewers, like in the wine industry. Perhaps (insert your favourite author here) will tell sf fandom what they should be reading?

However it works, I think quality writing and storytelling will be essential for success.

I'm sure along with the mountains of rubbish that is tossed into slosh pile there is plenty of gold that goes undetected, so the changes may not affect how much good stuff becomes well known, but which good stuff becomes well known. And by extension, sold.

Reading and Writing are not going to disappear I'm sure, and eBooks will never make a good present.

Boiledfrog said...

Like John Scalzi indicates on whatever, I believe the model is almost bound to follow the music industry - start with DRM until everyone gets fed up with it, then move to an open format.

I have not bought a Kindle for one reason (the 1984 debacle - I can't think of anything more apposite!) and haven't bought any e-reader yet as (IMO) the screen technology still has 18mo to go before they go mainstream (wait for 2nd/3rd gen iPad with reflective screens - who is going to carry both a Kindle and a multi-purpose device?).

I hope the publishers hang on in there - I agree there's piles of tripe that need to get sorted through to reach the fillet and most of us just don't have the time to browse specialist websites or publications to get that special nugget of a recommendation. Publishers fill a special role in ensuring that it's prime cuts, not offal we are offered for consumption.

So what does this mean for an author? I think there's going to be a time of much confusion until the new models get sorted out and everyone is likely to be short-term losers as publishers mistakenly tie themselves into deals with distributors that limit the audience (E.g. Apple and the ipod), meaning less books are sold to fewer people. In the long run though I believe that (especially for existing published talent) the death of 2nd hand books by ubiquity of readily commercially available digital content will benefit all.

Where this leaves new, unpublished, talent or 2nd hand booksellers is another question...

Frederick Paul Kiesche III said...

"...that’s a dead tree customer gone..."

I'd disagree with that. Me, I buy almost as many "deadtrees" as eBooks over the past few years. What I have done is to pretty much stop buying paperbacks, and concentrate on hardcovers, small presses and the like.

In many cases I buy both the hardcover AND the eBook equivalent. And instead of paperbacks, I'm trying to buy the eBook version.

I prefer multiple formats, low price point (hence the pb vs. eBook tradeoff) and no Baen Books.

And, Neal, I've seen only one or two of your books in my local bookstores. If all of your titles were available as eBooks, I'd buy them all. You pretty much **don't** have me as a deadtree customer, but you would have me as a eBook customer.

Rob said...

I think there are so many things that the publishers could be doing. Firstly they should be giving away a copy of the ebook with every hardback sold, since hardbacks still have a future (paperbacks probably don't) all your doing there is making hardbacks better and giving your customers another reason to keep paying full whack for the hardback because hey I get to read the book the moment I purchase it but I can have the real deal sitting up on my bookshelf.

Secondly if the publishers had any real testicles they would start selling their own books directly to their consumers, they could put up a site, put a 30% (or whatever) commission on each book sold and watch as a hundred thousand niche review sites/blogs sprang up to start selling their product. It's going to happen this way anyway only at the moment Amazon is doing all the middle man killing and presenting itself as that single killer platform. And as we've seen Amazon sees the publishers as just another middle man.

Richard Fletcher said...

Robert says that publishers need to build their own stores to sell their books. I would just point out that if I am buying a book from publisher A B and C it would be much easier to do this from a stockist who sold books from A B and C. If the physical books themselves came from the same warehouse, (if talking about real books) then the postage would be cheaper. These hurdles would have to be overcome in order to make Robert's idea work. Not that these hurdles are very high.

Also, it makes me wonder about what else benefits the publisher from the current arrangement, as compared to if they sold only directly. Extra sales staff? Extra promotions?

One things for sure, the transition to such a scheme seems decidedly tricky.

Rob said...

Richard I think your right about the physical distribution. But I think that's largely irrelevant, the publishers never wanted to be in the physical book selling business they were seemingly content to let book stores and then amazon take care of that because physical books can't be delivered direct over the net. eBooks obviously can and the same rules that apply to all digital items applies to them as well, people will want them cheap, unencumbered and now. The publishers have the opportunity to make sure that it's them selling the ebooks and not amazon or anyone else all they have to do is come up with a common api for selling books and attributing commission and we could be buying books off Neal's blog the next time he does a review. Neal gets 30% of what we buy through his site and the publishers sells a book without any other intermediaries taking a cut, publisher happy, Neal happy, and presumably author happy since there are less people cutting up the pie.

Boiledfrog said...

There are some interesting parallels being discussed here with what is happening in the videogames industry.

Last year (in the UK) Game(tm) stores struggled, Zavvi and Woolworths shut-down their high-street retail operations. All these are/were traditional physical media outlets for game software.

In the same time, Steam, EA-Online, Sony/PSN and Microsoft/Live all enjoyed amazing growth in revenues. All of these are digital distribution networks.

I can see Amazon/Sony/Apple looking at this distribution model and hoping to emulate/expand the walled garden content models, tie-ing devices into specific distribution networks - however, if the Steam/EA model is followed, a much larger and more general hardware market becomes available ('PCs' as a broad catgory) as opposed to Xboxes or Playstations via Live/PSN (Kindle vs iPad anyone?)

Whoever manages to catch the most publishers with the largest general hardware market ('ereaders' as a broad category) will have the biggest success, IMO simply because they're simple for us all to operate.

The simpler this all is, for me (the consumer) to hit the 'buy' button and know the stuff will *just work* on whatever device I have, the less worried I'll be, the more stuff I'll buy and the more Neal and other authors get paid.

ILTYT_Adventure said...

I've been looking at readers, but haven't found one that will do all formats. Without this ability to cross platforms you're in a sticky position with publishers picking different formats. Also there isn't the range of books available, some of the technology is wafty to say the least (who needs eye strain before you even get to work)?

I want an ebook/reader, I want it no bigger than the paperback version of Prador Moon. I want it to weigh no more than afformentioned paperback, have a simple page flicking button top right of screen, without a touch screen over the top that makes it shiny, or as if the text is beneath glass and I want a hardcover just like a small hardback book, and I want it waterproof without having an extra cover.

Then I want to use a bog standard USB lead to connect it to my PC to download direct from "who ever" is selling the title I want Amazon, Waterstones (don't care).

I'm not interested in mobile computing, 3G, Bluetooth, MP3 or any of that extraneous crud, I want what it says on the tin a "Reader" a fecking book. And I don't want some fucking wafty geek adding in gallons of flower, fuss and fucking nonsense so he can charge me a quintillion New Carth Shilling in used Prador Diamond slate (small denominations only) for the privilige of being able to read portrait or landscape, impress my friends with pathetic size holiday snaps, or text drawings of tits and bums...


I just needed to get that off my chest.

Format wars eh... the only bar to progress is the bottom line and nerd egos.

Mark T Croucher said...

This is a real hard one, not just from the economic point of view but also the saving the planet issue. I get depressed at the deforestation but I do like my paper books. I also like technology but I still enjoy owning a cd and a physical copy of a book. Piracy is so candid now that the computer industry should be investing all its time into a prevention method, although I understand that it is impossible because anything can be hacked.

Enertia is what will win through, the masses will decide, but, there will always be the type of person like me who will hunt around and take chances on things just to be surprised every once in a while. If thats on a pc or in a book shop then so be it. Sorry if this was all bollocks but I know what I mean even if I have not expressed it clearly.

Neal Asher said...

There's no connection between deforestation and paper books, Mark. Paper pulp is made from farmed trees, in fact those who produce paper and most of our wood are responsible for reforestation.

Want to blame someone for deforestation then blame the twits growing biofuel crops and soya.

Taking in all the comments here and also reading stuff about this elsewhere on the Internet. To be honest I still have no idea what shape the publishing industry is going to be in when the dust settles. Certainly its shape will be different.

vaudeviewgalor raandisisraisins said...

'Social recommndations. Every single new author I've "discovered" for years now has been because someone told me "Hey. This is really good" either on message forums or for the most part on blogs like or Scalzi's Whatever (to name but two).'

bingo. thanks for the Ted Chaing online read "Understand" and all that Cory Doctorow. im stuck in a rut of getting burned with new shitty authors (China Melville recommended by everyone at bookstores, but he's completely 'eh') reading em online first or at the library which i haunt for dvds is the best way to keep from getting cut to shreds by baby fingers at the typewriter.

there is a limit of vision here. mac computers do this fancy marketing for a semi-shitty one trick computer that has to be tossed every few years. if these publishers wanted to go nuts with making some manufactured obsolescence lenticular led-lit book with original artwork drawn on every 50 pages or 'buy our entire catalogue with this cheap screen pc'-- they could push out any amount from the public's wallet. add some limits, flash and...hype will sell anything. except to this guy:

if i ever do a book each one will have a time capsule/page of crap taken directly off the street. giving it a gritty feeling and possible street cred. it will include all the new garbage that the computer industry put out from 4 years ago that might end up in Guiyu China, now in your home and hands.

this could be a really exciting time to be putting out books with the hand-made, straight to bookstore signing stack before the mass market publisher gets a hold of em.


Martin Sommerfeld said...

Interesting topic.
I have to admit that I changed my mind about ebooks in the last couple of weeks. I was quite impressed reading some articles about e-ink a couple of years back, but I really didn't like what they did so far with e-readers like kindle. And I will never believe that you can actually enjoy reading a book on an iphone (too small) or netbook (just not right). BUT - having now seen the ipad, I have for the first time the feeling again that it actually COULD work. Sure, I didn't still see it first hand and there certainly will be flaws, but having such a device in my backpack with my complete personal library stored on it and journals and newspapers as well now again does make sense when I try to imagine the future. I guess it's like this: The tech is there, now they have to get the feeling right. Yeah, it will never be like a real book, but then again there are other things to compensate for that. And reading the first and last 100 pages of Pandora's Star (the paperback has around 1150 pages) I really would have liked something "lighter". ;-)

There are some differences for books compared to news, movies and music. News I actually think we will be able to reach some standard via blogs similar to the one now provided by professional news agencies, so I don't care if they all go bankrupt. Movies first have the possibility of ads and second are some kind of "hype" thing that generate a lot of money in the first weeks, so while they surely will go on to suffer losses by piracy, I think that business will prevail. Music has imho already found the clever loophole of concerts (and ringtones). Ok, the beatles were happy to stop touring and just recording records, but that is just an inconvenience.
Books and the authors that write them however... I don't know. Already now I can live with reading the newest book a year or two after it was released, afair Harry Potter were the only books I really NEEDED to read straight away. So, a year or two after release you definitly can get everything pirated. Where does that leave the authors, that sometimes spend years preparing and writing those books... Right now I see no ultimate solution on the horizon, everything that is being tried has very strong flaws, like DRM (nobody likes that) or the "cultural flatrate" that some people over here in Germany talk about (sounds utterly socialist to me).

Xanares said...

Spending most of my days working on my computer, I love the standard good old books of wood.

I can't stop comparing this situation with e-books and standard books to the situation of the independent game makers, as I follow that closely and might soon belong to it.

A number of indies sell their games on Steam, Xbox live and the like but a few also live exclusively of donations. That sounds a bit beggary but it isn't. If people like a game they donate in order to enjoy updates of that game and new games from the "author". It can work and the piracy problem is solved.

I'm not saying this is a solution to books and to the master of the hive here, but it's worth keeping in mind I think. Where there is quality people will flock to. So if all else fails, there is a viable business model out there.

Anonymous said...

Small scale printing is a possibility or printing on demand. Independent publishing if you will.

There's the possibility it will follow the current trend of music. The guy at home writes a book, gets a few copies printed, puts up a web sight and moves some books, prints some more. Granted, the price will go up as sales go down.

E-book prices bother me. $20+ for for a pdf doesn't seem right. There's no printing, no shipping, no shelf space, server space and bandwidth are cheap. What are you paying for? Seems a large investment for not need a bookmark and always having a backup book read. Love the concept, just not the price.

LarryS said...

I think with these kind of virtual products,e-books, mp3s etc there needs to be something that the legit buyer gets that some piratical toerag's customer doesn't get,something pysical. 'Sure you can get the latest Neal Asher e-book for next to nothing but I went thru the proper channels, put my mponey on the counter, and not only did I get the ebook but look,something tangible that you didn't get!

Mitch b said...

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Sparks said...

I'll admit, I already posted this comment over on Charles Stross' blog, but as you two are both talking about the same thing right now, I wouldn't mind asking you the same question Neal--

I'd find the high eBook price a lot easier to pay if I knew more of it was going to support the author, to be honest. And I know you could technically self-publish by eBook a lot more easily than on paper, but there's a degree of filtering we normally expect to be put in place by the publishers so that a published book is of at least a minimum standard of quality.

Of course, when booker prize-winning manuscripts are sent to publishers as a test and only one even bothers with the rejection note and the rest go unresponded-to; and simultaneously chick-lit actually exists, let alone makes it into print: well, at that point, you do have to wonder if the publisher's earning their cut...

All of which leads to the question for Neal with regard to eBooks and distribution models - do you think we could eventually see a different distribution model based on a social-networking-like system with freelance editors and authors producing their own eBooks for commercial distribution through generic channels like some mutated literary version of the reddit software? Or does the whole "wisdom of crowds" paradigm break down badly when it comes to editing?

And just as a side comment on the ebook thing, speaking as someone who earns his living with these lovely boxes, who loves gadgets, and who reads like some people drink, I'm not going to be buying an ebook (and never have bought one), not until someone brings out an ebook reader that makes sense. The iPad isn't a bad idea - but to me, it's not an ebook reader, not with a bright, eye-tiring backlit display (I will probably buy the generic version of one or the iPad 3.0 version, whichever comes first, but it won't be for books). The kindle is more in the right direction, but it just looks so ugly, and I'm one of those people who thinks that a nice, leather-bound tome has a beauty that's intrinsic and seperate from the content, so that does matter. And these ebook readers from CES'10 that have lovely floppy eInk screens surrounded by hard, inflexible bezels? Argh. Talk about missing the point.

Look, you're putting all (bar the few leather-bound tomes) of my library on a device? Make it (a) very very usable and easy on the eyes when reading; and (b) easy on the eyes to look at as well.

The iPad is almost in the right direction there. I'd get one for my mother, for example, because she's not computer-literate, but that's Apple's target audience really. And I wouldn't mind one for using on the train for a half-hour or so, for browsing the web or watching videos, but I wouldn't curl up with a mug of tea to read the latest Polity book on an iPad, and until someone invents the eBook reader I want, I'll stick to hardbacks. At least for the few writers whose work I want to keep on going anyway :)

Martin Sommerfeld said...

Sparks, I think you are right with your negative points about the ipad. I think it has two huge advantages over every other device even remotely suitable for ebook-reading though: First the design looks like something I could get used to on a daily basis. Second it can do so much MORE than just display simple text or grey images. That's important in a world where you already carry a shitload of gadgets around. So it can develop into something that displays EVERYTHING that you want to read. I was a 100% sure I would always prefer paper, until I saw this:

Neal Asher said...

There's those that claim that the production cost of an ebook is the same as that of a dead tree book, so the price should reflect that. A lot of bollocks is being said in this respect. Yes you have the initial costs but, everyone knows that you don't have the production and shipping costs. I also wonder if the retailer can get away with demanding the usual 30 to 50% off of the cover price from the publisher (I also wonder if Amazon, not actually having a high street store, gets paper books at that price, and whether it should).

However, that initial outlay has to be covered, and I wonder if the pricing reflects that - the possibility that maybe, in the future, the dead tree sales won't cover it. And maybe, the sales window is going to be a short one before piracy kicks in.

Anyway, I'm of two minds. As a reader (and because I'm tight) there's no way I'd first shell out hundreds of pounds on an e-reader then spend the same amount of money on e-books as I do on paper ones. Having a second home I have to get to by air I did consider it (only so many books you can get in a suitcase before you hit the 20 kilo limit) but with its free shipping The Book Depository has solved that one. As a writer (and remember this when you read writer's blogs on this subject), I'm with the publisher on this: I want as much money as the market can stand. Simples.

Sparks, of course I don't think I'm getting a big enough cut of the ebook 'cover price'. When I signed up addendums to my contracts I was a bit disappointed but, because this is new territory, I went with it. The same war goes on between writer and publisher as goes on between publisher and retailer. At every stage in the game all the parties concerned want the biggest cut possible, whilst the customer wants to pay as little as possible. It's a balancing act. It's capitalism and it works, well, better than anything else that's been tried.

Yes, maybe there will be a different distribution model, as you suggest, for ebooks, though it will have a struggle against the big monopolies of the Internet.

Good link, themute. I read about bubble metal or foamed metals many many years ago. They're best made in zero gee because you can get an even distribution of bubbles there.

Owen Roberts said...

The iPad is really going to shake this issue up this year.
iTunes sells 80% of online music and I think iBooks could follow in that trend, but perhaps not to the same degree.
Distributers - music and books: We need them, or at least someone like them to pick the gems from the coal and polish the results till they gleam.

Brian said...

I've made my thoughts on this subject as well. Knowing quite a lot of IT stuff, it's really hard to predict the future of Ebooks.

In one senario, It's now possible for an author to write, get it privately grammar checked and sold through his own (or portal) site at a lower price than book form, though giving a higer income per sold book to the writer.

Being not-English but reading tons of English books, everything has to be sent to me at costs sometimes exceding the book price! Now imagine my delight at the thought of buying e-books on the net and printing them out myselves or even better; reading on a colour e-pad that can be taken with me as i travel to work, vacation or summer house. At possible faster write-to-print time, at possible lower price (cutting the middel men), with the option to buy books on-the-go as i travel about - YES, for me, the future is looking better an' better.

Hey, my thoughts of becoming a writer, as my night shift job is slowy dragging me down, will eventually let me become a writer, as the option to publish on the net in ebook form at low entry cost, as i'm new will be somthing to think about ( - not working, front page bought at low cost, just needs novels and other stuff in ebook format coupled with ap payment processing unit).

Neal Asher said...

Brian, try since it is does free shipping.

Brian said...

Ahh good suggestion, tho here's the reply i got when i shot off a q as yo why Denbmark was not on the list of countries:

Dear Brian,

I’m afraid our website’s nominated delivery network can no longer support delivery to Denmark.

Kind Regards,


Stephen Kidd
Customer Advisor
The Book Depository Ltd

Bummer, it's like a good sci-fi novel, just when you thought all was going accorindig to plan, something goes wrong...

Neal Asher said...

Mmm, I've emailed them to find out why.

Unknown said...

E-books are funny things. I've read many books AS ebooks, and prefer 2dead tree" from the point of view of having a real book in your hands. But, it has to be said, when I get sent abroad for a couple of weeks, bunging several dozen books on my smartphone to read wins hands-down over lugging an inadequate number with me and getting a hernia lifting my case!

The Baen free library has shown that, properly used, free ebooks can act as a loss leader to get people reading a specific author's works (or not - it DOES help you avoid stuff you don't like), and the free ebook disks with the hardback novels gives an excellent way of having a book in both dead tree AND e-format.

The costs are the main stumbling block now - it costs next-to-nothing to ship an ebook, so all one should be paying for is the author's and publisher's effort in getting it to published standard. The tiny disparity between ebook and real book certainly doesn't reflect even just the shipping costs, let alone production costs. And until it DOES more accurately reflect that disparity, there lies the niche for the ebook pirate - which is why so many publishers and authors try to tie down the books with DRM. It didn't work for music, and I'm sure it won't for ebooks.

Oh, and since starting to read ebooks, including some from less-than-legitimate sources, I've discovered many new authors - including one Neal Asher :) And the reading DOES then inspire me to go out and buy "proper" copies - real books STILL win!