End of hardcovers; end of printed books?

Change is good — if you aren’t financially and emotionally chained to the old book industry paradigm.

The old book industry is self-destructing. It is under pressure from its own internal inefficiency (over-printing and pushing copies as ‘returnable’) and from outside (new ways to distribute and promote — many using the Internet). Two stories in today’s newswires illustrate that so well …

The first is a story out of the UK about phasing out hardcovers. From the Guardian is this quote:

Picador, an imprint of Pan MacMillan, the 8th largest publisher in the UK, which has authors such as Helen Fielding, Don DeLillo and Cormac McCarthy on its books, has called time on what it describes as “a moribund market”. From next year it will launch almost every new novel as a £7.99 paperback, with other large publishers expected to follow.

You can read the whole story at this link:
http://books.guardian.co.uk/news/articles/0,,2212635,00.html

Buried in the story is the delightful news that Picador will actually still publish a [limited edition] hardback. Picador’s publisher, Andrew Kidd, is quoted in the Guardian article as saying, “Until now we have simply not given people what they want.” Wow — imagine that. Giving people what they want. And different people want books in different ways, such as affordable paperbacks or limited edition hardbacks, right? This is starting to sound a bit like multiple long tails, doesn’t it?

And while a publisher is getting excited about giving people what they want, how about a low-price eBook experience? That’s today’s other news story …

Amazon has finally announced its new eBook reader, the Kindle:
http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/B000FI73MA/ref=pd_sl_aw_manual-1_kindle1_40650458_3
I tried a prototype of the Kindle about two years ago (I was sworn to secrecy until the launch, but am okay to mention it now), and it was a rather under-impressive. Yes, the screen does look a lot like a piece of paper, but the type on that piece of paper was pretty crude — like it was printed at 150-dpi. Remember that the old Apple LaserWriter was 300-dpi, and most modern office laser printers are 600-dpi. Inkjets are up to 1400-dpi. I sure hope the screen resolution and refresh rate (s-l-o-w) have improved since that prototype.

It is impressive that Jeff Bezos has amassed so much content and has it hooked up to cell phone networks (brilliant idea), rather than wifi networks. Having newspapers is clever and steals some thunder from Phillips spin-off iRex’s iLiad e-ink reader. The daily newspaper is the market that iRex has been pilot-testing in Belgium. The economics are simple: it COSTS a newspaper a LOT to print papers and deliver them to the subscriber. If you are charged $350 per year for delivery of a printed newspaper, it likely costs the publisher that much — so the newspaper has to make all its money (to cover its editorial costs, admin overhead, ROI, etc.) from advertising. Unless you’ve been asleep for the last few years, you’ve heard that newspaper advertising is tanking. So: if the newspaper can tuck its ads into the Kindle edition and “print” on electrons instead, its ‘print-and-delivery’ expenses are close to zero, and the newspaper industry just might make it into the next decade. It would make sense for the New York Times to GIVE a Kindle to each subscriber who switches to a digital experience. If the NYT bought Kindles from Amazon at $300 each, the newspaper would have saved itself $50 per subscriber in the first year, and $350 in every following year!

Will the Kindle catch on in the same order of magnitude as the iPod did? It is easy to make a prediction. Hard to predict accurately, though! My hunch is that Kindle will only become a killer appliance if and when it starts taking calls over that Whispernet cell phone network (i.e. it becomes your cell phone) AND it takes advantage of the audio capabilities (it does have an earphone jack plus internal speakers) so it will replace your iPod. THEN it will be a wicked combo device. Hey, why not have it become your BlackBerry PDA as well?

By the way, while Amazon is heading for this all-in-one uber device from the book side, others are starting from the cell phone side. Check out a cell phone with a roll-out 5″ screen that has the same e-ink display technology as the Kindle. It’s the Readius from Polymer Vision, another spin-off from Phillips Electronics.

Here’s the Readius link:

http://crave.cnet.co.uk/gadgets/0,39029552,49287756,00.htm

As I wrote in Book Marketing DeMystified (page 52):

Eventually an affordable device will come out with a large enough color screen and sufficient resolution to display full-page, full-size book pages crisply. I’m convinced that when such a device launches – and if it also plays MP3s and games, and works as a mobile phone, video display and web browser – finally the long-anticipated massive public adoption of eBooks will happen. Essentially, people want not an ‘iPod for books’ but an ‘iPod or iPhone that also lets you read books’. It just may be Apple Inc. who creates such a breakthrough device. Or Philips Electronics, who is test marketing the Readius™ which has a clever rollable 5″ e-ink display.

So let’s review the impact of today’s news for indie authors. By their actions, even the biggest publishers are admitting that they cannot dictate how people read, and are expanding the distribution choices. A major fiction book now will come out simultaneously as a hardcover (limited edition POD), paperback, and eBook. Amazon (through its CreateSpace.com subsidiary), Lulu and others are making the cost almost zero for indie authors to participate shoulder-to-shoulder with the big boys. Promotions and publicity are already wide open on the Internet. Sounds like the playing field suddenly became more level, eh? Not great for the big guys, but delightful for the independents.

Where will anyone’s competitive advantage come from? Answer: the content. If you can create an awesome story, your prospects are looking rosier by the day.

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