Tag Archives: ebooks

How to Keep Your Local Bookseller in Business

How to Keep Your Local Bookseller in Business: By Buying Ebooks from Vendors that Support Bookstores
In my blog post “3 Big Takeaways from Book Expo America”, I mentioned that “a startup called Zola Books has developed a user-friendly way to deal with the issue of ‘showrooming’—the term we use to describe what happens when a customer at a bricks-and-mortar bookstore looks over the titles on display and then orders a print or e-book copy from a web retailer, often for a lower price. Zola Books gives a bookseller a well-earned piece of the action for its part in making such sales.”  Here is an explanation from their website that explains how their plan is coming along:

Support independent booksellers!  We’re happy to announce the Indie Pledge – the opportunity for readers to buy eBooks on Zola while supporting their favorite independent bookseller – is now live on Zola Books.  It’s still a work in progress, and at the moment our eBooks are readable only on iPads/iPhones, but we encourage readers to try it out by pledging to one of our test stores:

BayShore Books LLC, Oconto, WI
Book Passage, Corte Madera and San Francisco, CA
The Book Cellar, Chicago, IL
The Bookies, Denver, CO
BookPeople, Austin, TX
Brazos Bookstore, Houston, TX
Capitola Book Cafe, Capitola, CA
Chaucer’s Bookstore, Santa Barbara, CA
The Country Bookshop, Southern Pines, NC
Cuppa Pulp Booksellers, Chestnut Ridge, NY
Fountain Bookstore, Richmond, VA
Gallery Bookshop, Mendocino, CA
Inkwood Books, Tampa, FL
Mysterious Bookshop, New York City, NY
Patti’s Book Nook, Gueydan, LA
Politics and Prose, Washington D.C.
Porter Square Books, Cambridge, MA
RiverRun Bookstore, Portsmouth, NH
St. Johns Booksellers, Portland, OR
Strand Book Store, New York, NY
Square Books, Oxford, MS
Third Place Books, Seattle, WA
WORD,  Brooklyn, NY

Over the coming weeks we’ll be putting up many more eBooks for sale, and in a few months we’ll be able to make eBooks readable on any device – computer, tablet, or phone.  But for now we are excited to partner with booksellers in building a site for booklovers eager to connect in a vibrant, independent community.  Let us know what you think at indies@zolabooks.com, since we’ll be improving and refining the pledge process even as we add functionality.

The way this “pledge” idea works is that you declare yourself to be a regular customer of a particular bookstore, and then when when you order an eBook from the Zola website, that bookstore will receive from Zola a part of the eBook sale price. This seems utterly fair to me. If the store has helped to make the sale by having a print copy of a book on display, then that store should be rewarded.

Tell your favorite local bookseller about Zola. I fear that if the local stores do not find a way to participate in the eBook market, their chances of staying in business are not good.

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The Oxymoronic Notion of Digital Content

The current controversy about the state of the eBook industry has been unproductive for a number of reasons. Much of the information out there on the blogs is just wrong—which should not come as a surprise because the book business is complicated. What’s surprising is the sour tone of so many of the comments on such blogs. A common theme among them being that “somebody is making a lot of money out of books but I’m not.”

In addition, almost no one outside the industry seems to have any grip at all on the editorial process. How many different editors does it take to make a good book? This sounds like a bad joke about replacing light bulbs, but the answer, if you are talking about a professionally produced book, is four to seven: an acquisition editor, a substantive editor, a line editor, a copy editor, a production editor, a proofreader, an indexer, and often a lawyer to check the text for libel. Sometimes a single person can perform a number of these editorial functions, but each one requires a distinctive mindset.

There is also an insidious source of confusion and misinformation arising from people who hope to benefit financially from the intentional muddling of essential distinctions.

Let’s take a hard look at the phrase “digital content.” Do eBooks have digital content? Many people—people who are in the business of selling digital everything and who proclaim from the rooftops that everything non-digital is a dead duck—would like you to think so. It makes it easier for them to make money. But the idea that eBooks have digital content is very misleading. The content of eBooks is language, language which has been digitized. Likewise the content of the books Gutenberg printed was language set in type. These are just two different ways to make language hold still so you can read it.

The confusion about the supposed digital content of eBooks is important because it fits perfectly into the favorite transformation narrative of the “digital changes everything” cheering section: if eBook content really is digital, publishers could and should wake up from their long but highly profitable analog slumber, and allow the digital revolution to sweep away their antiquated methods of making books. When this happens, the books will be just as good but much cheaper.

But what authors and editors must do now to produce good content is exactly the same thing they have always done. Every book and every edit is a one-off, custom proposition. What authors and editors produce is no more digital than the folk-art wooden rooster a farmer might carve to decorate his weather vane. Of course word processing software has made working with texts more convenient, but these gains in efficiency were achieved a decade ago. Yes, there are some new programs that make the conversion of texts to eBooks quicker and easier, but this conversion cost has always been trivial.

If the content of eBooks was actually in some deep sense digital, the text could be written by a writing program and edited by an editing program. But they can’t be. I knew a student at the Iowa Writers Workshop back in the sixties who was trying to generate short stories out of a computer program. They were just as awful as you would imagine. I sometimes try to write a poem. The best way to know if you have come up with a good line is to check Microsoft’s opinion. Lines that could work as poetry will certainly flunk the simple-minded Grammar Checker that comes with Word.

So the cost of the content of eBooks cannot be reduced much because the making of it is deeply artisanal in nature. Since content is in no deep sense digital, producing it at a high level cannot be automated, which is where important cost savings could have been achieved if any were possible.

Curt Matthews
CEO, IPG and Chicago Review Press, Incorporated

Curt Matthews is the founder and CEO of Chicago Review Press, Incorporated, which is the parent company of Chicago Review Press and of Independent Publishers Group (IPG), the first independent press distributor and now the second largest. Curt has served on the Independent Book Publishers Association (IBPA) board and has also served as its president.

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Should Any Ebook Reseller Be the Custodian of Our Literary Culture?

In the last post to this blog I pointed out that the Big Six publishers have about 51% of the overall market for print books, and that this percentage was just fine. The 49% left over for independent publishers is easily enough to support a vibrant literary culture.

But to what extent do the Big Six dominate the market for eBooks? At this point nobody is compiling reliable numbers, but since print bestsellers and eBook bestsellers are usually the same titles, a good guess is that the Big Six have about 50% of the eBook market too.

This degree of dominance in the eBook market is to my mind also just fine: in addition to the Big Six, there are thousands of independent presses keeping every conceivable cultural pot boiling. No, the real worry is that just two or three online resellers are going to be allowed to dominate the distribution of eBooks, and that they will be guided purely by the crassest sorts of commercial considerations: the desire to achieve overwhelming market share; the ability to set prices; the power to crush competition; and a financial interest in keeping inconvenient or unprofitable content from reaching the market at all.

Why should publishers cede all of this power to these new players in the book business? It is obviously true that producing good content is the hard part of making a good book, no matter how that content is captured. How much credit do we give a printer for manufacturing a book we enjoy? Some credit surely, but nowhere near as much credit as we give a book’s author and the editorial team that polished the text. Is the important thing about an eBook the fact that it turns up on the latest new device? The distributors of eBooks have gotten way ahead of themselves when they suggest that their systems or devices are more important than the content they deliver. This is the tail wagging the dog.

We should also keep in mind the danger of censorship. In the case of printed books we have been over this ground time and again. Do printers control what books are printed? Do booksellers decide what ought to be sold? No, they do not, although at various stages in our history they tried to. Should an electronic distributor be allowed to restrict what we read? As a society we have faced these censorship issues again and again, and in all instances we have said NO except for very extreme cases involving pornography or the protection of children.

The real danger may be even more prosaic. Those of us little guys who have had to deal with large corporate entities know that getting inadvertently stepped on is the serious problem. If you are a mouse sharing a stall with an elephant, at some point that elephant will need to scratch its rump against the rough boards of its stall and you may be in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Nothing personal about it, you’re just squashed.

The eBook distributors of this world may intend no evil, but then again they intend no particular good either—except perhaps to generate favorable profit margins for their stockholders and senior executives. But books are not widgets, and a purely commercial standard of corporate virtue is just not good enough when the viability and vitality of our literature and culture are at stake. No monopoly is ever a good thing, even in the case of widgets. A monopoly on book content, whatever the intentions of the monopolist, would be a cultural catastrophe.

Photo: Curt Matthews, CEO, IPG/Chicago Review Press, Incorporated. Courtesy of The Chicago Tribune Curt Matthews
CEO, IPG/Chicago Review Press, Incorporated
Curt Matthews is the founder and CEO of Chicago Review Press, Incorporated, which is the parent company of Chicago Review Press and of Independent Publishers Group (IPG), the first independent press distributor and now the second largest. Curt has served on the Independent Book Publishers Association (IBPA) board and has also served as its president.

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What Should an E-book Cost?

The conversation about the pricing and marketing of print books and e-books has not been well informed. Here is information about how the numbers actually run. The place to start is with print books.

What Should a Printed Book Cost?

The royalty rate is usually 10% of the cover price for a hardbound book, 7.5% for a paperback, increasing by a few percents if certain levels of sales are achieved. So an author makes $1.12 a copy on a $14.95 paperback.  A 10,000 copy sale of that paperback—a  very respectable performance in the estimation of most publishers—will earn the author about $11,000; not bad, except it takes a year or two of very hard work to write a book. Most authors have to keep their day jobs.

What does the publisher make? He will sell that $14.95 paperback to the booksellers and book wholesalers at, on average, a 50% discount from the price on the cover–$ 7.48 in the case of this $14.95 book. For 10,000 copies sold this will amount to $74,800.  The printing of the 10,000 copies will run about $1.50 a copy or $15,000 total. We have calculated that the royalty for the author will be $11,000. So the publisher nets $48,000, not a bad day at the office except this income also has to cover the cost of that office, and the warehouse, and the staff. When all these factors are taken into account, the publisher’s share is about the same as the author’s.

A carefully kept secret in the book business is that even the best authors need editing. In fact the good ones insist on help and will follow a gifted editor from company to company to get it. Most books are hugely improved by the editorial process. Nor are the improvements editors make limited to spelling, punctuation, and grammar. Often they are deep structural changes that make a title more engaging for its intended audience, more saleable.

The help that authors get is never mentioned in public because the author is the brand name, not the publisher. Spreading the credit among any more names would just blur the marketing focus. But the cost of editing, designing, page makeup, and proofreading is high, higher in fact than the cost of printing the book.

What Should an E-Book Cost?

What then should you pay for an e-book edition of a $14.95 paperback? Most people would say it ought to be practically nothing because there are no design, no printing, no warehousing, no shipping costs for the publisher to pay. An e-book, after all, is just a batch of electrons, weightless, shippable through a wire.

But this is to misunderstand what it takes to make a successful book. An e-book still needs all of the expensive editorial services noted above; and if it is going to sell, it has to be marketed, distributed, and publicized, just as a print edition must be. And the author royalty on an e-book sale is usually about the same as it is for a print book, even though the list price of the e edition is lower. We have noted that for our $14.95 paperback the printing amounts to about $1.50. Warehousing and shipping will add another $1.50 to the real cost of selling a printed book. A web retailer should be able to work on a narrower margin than a bricks and mortar bookstore, which could lower the price of an e-edition perhaps another $2.00.

Deduct these specifically print related costs from the price of a printed book and the minimum price for a straightforward e-book comes to about $10.00—less than the price of the print version but not some small fraction of the print price. Certainly not 99 cents, and not $5.00 either.  E-books, as they become more important in the book trade, will have to carry their full share of the editorial and marketing costs of producing them.

Amazon’s Terms

At the moment there are two very different ways publishers can work with Amazon: the Agency Model and the Wholesale Model. There has been a lot of fancy dancing around these models, but of course it all boils down to how the money is divided up between the parties. Only the six biggest publishing companies have had the market power to compel Amazon to accept the Agency Model, which allows the publisher to keep 70% of the e-book list price. Independent publishers have had to accept the Wholesale Model, which has let us keep only about 50% of the suggested price. That is a 20% difference.

Now Amazon is insisting on terms for both print books and e-books that are even less favorable for independent presses. How will such presses be able to afford to publish good books when they receive so little of the sales price? They won’t be able to. And is it obvious that independent presses should have to work at such a huge competitive disadvantage to the major publishing houses?

Independent publishers are crucial to the vitality of our culture. They are the reason why in America almost no good author goes unpublished.

Curt Matthews

CEO, Independent Publishers Group/Chicago Review Press, Incorporated

Curt Matthews is the founder and CEO of Chicago Review Press, Incorporated, which is the parent company of Chicago Review Press and of Independent Publishers Group (IPG), the first independent press distributor and now the second largest. Curt has served on the Independent Book Publishers Association (IBPA) board and has also served as its president.

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