Monday, January 02, 2012

Is there a market for "enhanced" eBooks?

Shortly before Christmas, The Huntington Post published an interview with David Prichard, the President and CEO of Ingram's Content Group. Ingram is the largest book distributor in the U.S. and operates Lightning Source, which is one of the largest publishing-on-demand services companies, and a major vendor to self-publishers. In the interview, Prichard talked about the future of publishing, and one of the things he talked about were "enhanced" eBooks:
"Enhanced e-books are only in their infancy, allowing authors to add alternative endings or interviews. Down the road, who knows what's possible? Maybe we will have biometric devices that can sense your pulse and body temperature and change the plot based on your feelings -- and you think Stephen King is scary now." 
"...for example, a biography can to come to life in many ways. Jacqueline Kennedy: Historic Conversations on Life with John F. Kennedy has all of the interview audios, videos, photographs, text, and transcripts available. Even classics -- Penguin has updated Pride & Prejudice with clips from the movie and even instructions on dancing. For the 75th anniversary of The Hobbit, HarperCollins released an e-version with exclusives including J.R.R Tolkien's book illustrations and recently discovered Tolkien recordings. Publishers are still learning what added value readers will or won't pay for. I expect we'll continue to see lots of experimentation in this arena." 
Seth Godin, well-known author and marketer, responded on to Prichard's remarks:
"It (the interview) is filled with breathtaking visions of the future, and they are economically ridiculous. The Long Tail creates acres of choice, so much as to make the number of options almost countless. But at the same time, it embraces (in every format) much lower production values. For what Michael Jackson and Sony (NYSE: SNE) paid to produce the Thriller album, today’s artists can make and market more than 5,000 songs. You just can’t justify spending millions of dollars to produce a record in the long tail world." 
"The same thing that happened to music is going to be true of books. The typical e-book costs about $10 in out of pocket expenses to write (more if you count coffee and not just pencils). But if we add in $50,000 for app coding, $10,000 for a director and another $500,000 for the sort of bespoke work that was featured in Al Gore’s recent “book”, you can see the problem. The publisher will never have a chance to make this money back." 
"Sure, there will be experiments at the cutting edge, but no, they’re not going to pay off regularly enough for it to become an industry. The quality is going to remain in the writing and in the bravery of ideas, not in teams of people making expensive digital books."
Others have picked up on the discussion; for example, the Teleread blog summarized Godin's post, and as of now, every comment on the Teleread post opposes Godin's position. I agree with what Godin wrote, with some reservations. First, let's leave the "long tail" arguments aside--the long tail theory has largely been debunked. The long tail only makes money for distributors, who can aggregate small numbers of sales from a large number of publishers/writers/producers. However, the market is being flooded by titles from self-publishers, and it's harder than ever for consumers to separate the wheat from the chaff. Price is no longer an indicator of quality. The most likely outcome is that there will be a small number of titles that do well (as usual), and an ever-larger collection of titles that barely, if ever, earn back their investment in time and money.

Many of the Teleread commenters objected to Godin's statement that it costs "$10 in out of pocket expenses to write" an eBook. He doesn't include editorial, design and eBook conversion services, which can cost hundreds to thousands of dollars if an author farms them out, but that's not what the commenters objected to. Their concern was that Godin made no accounting for the value of the time that authors spend writing. I understand their arguments, but I'm not sure that they're realistic, especially in today's climate. In the 1990s, I wrote two computer books, one for Prentice Hall and the second for Ventana. The first one earned back its advance and sold around 12,000 copies domestically, as well as local-language reprints in a variety of markets. The second one was never released in the U.S., but was released by Ventana's partner in Japan as a local-language title. It didn't earn back its advance. Considering the time I spent writing the two books and the amount I earned, I would have made about the same amount on an hourly basis if I'd worked at Burger King. That's why I stopped writing books.

Your market value is what your customers or clients will pay for your time. In the case of a self-publisher, it's the income that you get from your title divided by the number of hours you spent working on it. If that number doesn't satisfy your financial requirements, you have to increase the number of copies you sell, change your pricing, or do something else that pays more money.

Now, to Godin's central point: Most publishers and self-publishers are very unlikely to recoup the additional cost for adding rich media and interactivity to their eBooks. His cost estimates may be off, but his logic is correct. The fact is that most "enhanced" eBooks to date have sold poorly. If you're creating a native app for iOS or Android and you have to hire developers to do it, that costs money. Even if you're sticking with, say, Apple's EPUB extensions for rich media, Barnes & Noble's extensions for Nook Kids, Kindle Format 8 (when it becomes available to all publishers) or, in the not-too-distant future, EPUB3, there's a cost in time and money for adding interactivity and rich media. For now, at least, you're unlikely to earn back that cost. Thus, the most reasonable approach is to create conventional eBooks.

At some point, enhanced eBooks will "crack the code" and become widely popular, and the additional front-end expense to produce them will be justified. Today, however, that's not the case.
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