What’s been gnawing at me lately

cat chewing on an e-reader

One of the things that I find gets more difficult year after year—and I can’t tell if this is more because I’m getting older, or because I’m letting myself be pelted with information faster and harder than ever before, or because I don’t write as regularly as I used to—is synthesizing ideas. I spend hours each day gathering information, and some days it seems like for every page I read on the Web, I open or bookmark two more to read later. Yet when an occasion arises for me to state what I think about what I’ve read, I most often end up blurting out whatever my gut tells me, rather than what’s the result of deliberate analysis and consideration—because who has time to ruminate? I’ve heard the rumor, of course, that our guts know more than we think they do, but as I haven’t yet had time to read up on the subject, I can’t say to what extent or in what circumstances that’s true. My gut is whispering to me, however, that my gut is often misguided or misinformed.

For at least the last few months, as I’ve been trying to figure out what I want to do (a) for my master’s thesis and (b) to pay back my student loans after I finish the damn thing, I’ve been trying to absorb as much information as possible about e-books, e-readers, and the future of the book in general. I’ve read articles, essays, and tweets; listened to podcasts, panels, and lectures; watched videos and (sorry to have to use this word:) webinars; and talked with a lot of people. I’ve done a lot of talking at people, too, pushing and no doubt breaking the limits of courtesy with dozens of unfortunate friends, acquaintances, and strangers as I try to articulate what my gut tells me about all this partially digested input. And I’ve written about a few small things, trying to finely chew at least some corners of the subject.

Just in the last week, thanks to the Digital Book World conference and Apple’s iPad announcement, I’ve skimmed, read, watched, heard, or bookmarked thousands of chunks of content—most of them tweets, since I wasn’t present at either event but followed along through hashtags and Twitter lists—having to do with books in the digital era.

And what do I think about all of it?

I don’t know.

Well, not true. I do know that I think a few things, some of which are, in no particular order,

  • The iPad 1.0 is not for me. But it might be for my mom.

  • I’m disappointed in the iPad’s e-reader application, as it was demoed in Wednesday’s presentation. I hope that what actually ships this spring handles H&Js better.

  • There is an unfortunate trend among e-book software developers to go way, way kitschward in making their apps looks like conventional books while apparently overlooking what’s useful to readers in the way paper books are designed and built. How about fewer irritating page-turn animations and better typography, please? If you don’t know what I’m talking about, maybe you should hire me.

  • I really need to try putting some ePub documents together and testing them on different applications and devices, like I’ve been meaning to do for months.

  • E-book DRM is not working and mostly just inconveniences all the wrong people.

  • There is, thank god, a community of people in publishing who do not have their heads up their asses, and they are becoming increasingly vocal and creating organizations that do new things.

  • Books are not going away, neither in their paper manifestations nor in their common conceptual forms. For one thing, there are too many old books lying around, and they’re surprisingly durable, and people delight in seeing their information captured on crispy, crunchy paper. For another, people value the kinds of extended, linear stories that our current types of books tell, in what have proven to be format-independent ways (audiobooks, anyone? serialized novels? Homer?).

  • There probably won’t be as many full-time, paying jobs for text designers and typesetters five years from now as there are now. Sorry. But the skills and mental, uh, quirks that make us good at those tasks make us good at plenty of other stuff, too. So if you want to still have a text-design job, you people who’ve been doing the X-Acto-and–wax–style layouts using digital tools for the last twenty years? Y’all need to retrain. Seriously. That nasty habit which you heard me muttering was going to bite you in the ass is now, officially, biting you in the ass.

    I’m going to be crash-coursing myself through some of this stuff, as well, so I’ll try to post resources as I find them. In the meantime, you could start by following whatever links show up under the #ePrdctn hashtag on Twitter. This tag was devised by Lindsey Martin to flag “best practices” posts about the production of ePub documents. If you don’t know what the hell a hashtag is, step away from Facebook for five minutes and read HOW TO: Get the Most Out of Twitter #Hashtags or The Twitter Hash Tag: What Is It and How Do You Use It?

  • The dearth of graphic and interactive elements in most books is a feature, not a bug. Video and pictures can be wonderful, but their many uses do not eclipse those of plain text. Readers <3 text.

  • Some readers of e-books insist on reflective e-ink–type screens, while others prefer backlit LCD-type screens. Some don’t want screens smaller than a mass-market paperback page, while others don’t want to carry devices larger than a cell phone. And some readers will go sledding in hell before defiling their eyes with any electronic book, and they will carry their dogeared paperbacks with them to the grave. Surprise! There’s no right way to read. Get over it and use that time you would have spent arguing with each other to discuss instead what texts you think are worth reading. We could all use better filters to help us pick the signals out of the noise.

Postscript

I wrote this post in the middle of the night and then slept in, through the first hours of the Amazon/Macmillan shitstorm. Having read the first few hundred comments on the Times story, a fistful of tweets, and a couple of blog posts, I can confidently say that I have no idea how this will shake out.

My queasy gut tells me that Macmillan can’t afford to play this game of chicken. It makes my heart hurt, because I worked in production at what is now Macmillan (then Holtzbrinck), and I know how thin the so-called margins are in book publishing to begin with, and I can very clearly see why many (all?) publishers want Amazon to stop selling their e-books below cost. At the same time, I can also see why nearly every commenter (or the first five pages’ worth, anyway) on the New York Times story is saying, “Suck it, Macmillan! E-books already cost too much, even at $9.99!” The biggest reason is DRM, duh, but another one is sloppy shit like this. And one of the reasons sloppy shit like that happens is that those publishers who can afford it are producing books the traditional X-Acto–and–wax way and then outsourcing their e-book production to other companies, which probably automate the conversion process, and then they’re not practicing any kind of QA on what comes back, because nobody gives a shit, because the people who make the decisions don’t read e-books.

Contrary to what 99 percent of NYTimes.com’s commenters apparently believe, it does not cost nothing to produce e-books; but it almost certainly costs more than it should. No matter what is the immediate outcome of this particular tug-of-war, I think the bottom line is that both e- and print book production costs have to come down, and quality of the books, license terms, and UX has to go up, so that readers feel like they’re getting a fair return for their money.

All of which comes back to my rant about X-Acto and wax, above: garbage in, garbage out, and design/layout/typesetting people who can’t learn to work clean, with semantically marked-up files that can quickly be translated into multiple formats, are going to find themselves fighting over scraps in the wedding invitation design market if they’re not careful. Of course, that market may boom in the U.S., once same-sex marriage is finally admitted to be constitutional, but you might not want to stake your whole career on the expansion of that niche, while bating your breath.

As Bridget Warren of the late, great Vertigo Books said in the Digital Book World roundtable of a few weeks ago, “Lifelong learning [is] what we all signed up for when we joined the book world.” God knows you didn’t choose to work in publishing for the money. So if you still have that spark of curiosity and are interested in learning new things, yesterday is probably a good time to start cramming.

Sorry. I think I’m done now.

How about you? What does your gut tell you about all this?

Photo: Linus seems to like the Sony Reader PRS-505 by Eirik Newth; some rights reserved.

19 thoughts on “What’s been gnawing at me lately

  1. P.P.S. Yes, I’m working on converting all the Amazon.com links on this site to IndieBound links. Please continue to hold . . . Done.

  2. My feeling on the quality-price issue at established publishers is that the situation stands thus: On the one hand, publishers can’t afford to put their resources into producing good-quality ebooks because not enough people are buying ebooks and/or ebooks are priced too low. But on the other hand, no one is willing to pay realistic prices for ebooks because the quality is so poor (well, among other things like DRM). What to do?

    But I agree with all your points…except that I totally want an iPad. I’ll wait a few months to see how the bugs shake out of ver. 1 and to save up my pennies, but all I’ve been wanting is a giant iPod Touch for ebook reading and it seems like that’s what I’d be getting.

    By the way, I DEMAND that Adobe sell CS4 for under $100! The unit cost is practically zero anyway! Greedy bastards.

  3. “There is, thank god, a community of people in publishing who do not have their heads up their asses, and they are becoming increasingly vocal and creating organizations that do new things.”

    AMEN! I Tumbld that bit. :-)

    My gut says that, after a day like today on Twitter, I really needed to read a post like this. Thank you for writing it!

  4. I’m so happy to have stumbled on your blog via @glecharles. First, I just finished a master’s thesis on digital publishing business models and I am so excited to find another publishing-focused person in the graduate world. It’s great to know that there’s some actual scholarship coalescing around our harried, decentralized industry and that it’s not just coming from the big organizations.

    Second, I agree with just about everything except your gut feeling about Macmillan. As a Bedford/St. Martin’s new media vet myself, I think there’s a lot of interior institutional support for such a move. I think John Sargent and the people through the ranks can handle the rocky results of taking a stand, especially when the perception of Amazon’s reaction can be so negative. Maybe it’s just me (and likely at least a handful of other people) but I think Amazon is overreacting to an extreme and I’d rather go looking for my Macmillan-pubbed books elsewhere than give money to the big (increasingly scary) giant.

    The arguments about price, as we know, are an entirely different problem. The streamlined production processes publishers need to implement are too far a cry from the norms of big houses, but smaller publishers with the guts to make a big change are on the cusp of getting it right. I posited that XML as the most versatile investment, but there are design-to-ePub possibilities making huge jumps in in-house ebook design capabilities. I completely agree that more of us need to learn the production and content management as well as editorial foresight to meet and anticipate market demand.

    Our industry will not survive if more and more publishing “newbies” are raised on pessimism and crippling nostalgia that makes them scorn one camp and blindly praise the other. I hope that’s where those publishing people without their heads up their asses (hopefully myself included) come in. With any luck more and more publishing newcomers will engage in cross-discipline learning (editors with interest in digital arts; production specialists in both print and digital mediums), so more of the process can remain in-house and completely integrated with the existing publishing process.

    I look forward to exploring your blog and following on Twitter. And best of luck with your thesis writing!

  5. @Shelby: Yes, of course, the quality/cost thing is a Catch-22. But some small publishers seem to be doing a better job with e-books than the big ones are, even though they have way less in the way of resources. How are they making that happen? I suspect that, as Kate Rados has suggested we all do, they work their asses off. They don’t sit around grumbling about how publishing is going to hell in a handbasket and fixing it’s not in their pay grade; they sit around saying, “How can we sell our readers more of what they want, so that we can make rent next month?” Is this possible in a large organization? Maybe not. The companies that can adapt quickest certainly have the advantage during this upheaval.

    @Guy: You know I give you shit about tweeting too often, but by keeping the conversation hot, you’ve helped create a seething mosh pit of excited, optimistic publishing people. I’m sure it’s exhausting, but you make it look like you’re having fun, and that’s contagious—even to me. I never would have thought to articulate it in such a way myself, but now that I’ve heard it put into words, I’m totally with Stephanie: I suspect that fun is the only thing that can save us. And I don’t mean that just in the publishing context.

    @Victoria: Thanks! Nice to meet you! I wouldn’t call what I’m planning to do at ITP scholarship; more like making mudpies. But thanks for the encouragement. Every bit helps. And I’m glad to hear that you’re confident that Macmillan can hold its ground. Although I worked there for only seven months and have shockingly little sense of what the company as a whole is like—I didn’t even meet everyone in my corner of my floor of the Flatiron—I enjoyed my time there, and I liked the handful of colleagues with whom I regularly interacted. I want them to continue having jobs and making the best books they can.

  6. Great post. I especially endorse the observation that “it does not cost nothing to produce e-books; but it almost certainly costs more than it should.”

    E-book prices will have to come down — when publishers say they can’t make them for less, they mean THEY can’t make them for less, but talented new companies will — and the fight is basically over who controls the rate at which these prices fall.

    While I think publishers should be able to set their own prices, they should be aware that they will soon face competition from newcomers — newcomers ramping up costs from nothing rather than down from too much — and they’ll need to be prepared to compete.

  7. I’m currently slogging through the comments over at Metafilter (thanks, Bridget!), and although there are still a lot of “Fuck publishers! Who needs ’em? I’m just going to get books off BitTorrent!” stupid punks—which I’m tempted to analogize to saying, “Fuck farmers! I’m just going to live off the land and get my food for free!” but I won’t [#seewhatIdidthere]—it’s overall a much more informed and nuanced discussion than what I found on NYTimes.com yesterday. I’m also tempted to digress into what I think some of the reasons are for that difference—there are a lot of them, not all of which are irrelevant to this discussion—but instead I’ll just point out that I’m glad people like Justinian are in there, being amazingly patient. Anyway, recommended, if you have the stomach for that sort of thing.

    The Making Light crowd’s take is also, as always, worthwhile.

  8. More recommended reading:

    Tobias Buckell, Why My Books Are No Longer Available on Amazon.com – On SFWA.org, since it looks like the original, on his own site, got slammed and his account’s been shut down.

    The above pingback from IRFiction: Victoria Sandbrook, How to Keep Digital Publishing Costs Low.

    More links, 5:10 pm (I’m just going to keep adding them here, for simplicity’s sake):

    Jason Boog, Amazon Vs. Macmillan Vs. Kindle Readers: GalleyCat Readers Respond

    Guy LeCharles Gonzalez, Authors’ Reactions to the Amazon/Macmillan Battle

    Charlie Stross, News flash and Amazon, Macmillan: an outsider’s guide to the fight

    7:10 pm (I suspect that everyone I follow on Twitter has seen these, since that’s where I found them, but on the off chance that there are still some people in the world who don’t get all their news there . . .)

    Edward Champion, Macmillan: The New Amazonfail

    Mignon Fogarty, Why I removed all the Amazon links from my site

    Moriah Jovan, Line of scrimmage: The interwebz

    Jay Lake, Bug off, Bezos. And take your damned bookstore with you.

    Don Linn, The MacMillan – Amazon Dustup is Good For us All: Remain Calm and Carry On

    Marion Maneker, Amazon’s Self-Defeating War on Publishers

    C.E. Petit, GBS Musings, Tangent: AmazonFail (version 3.21)Whoosh! Over my head, but perhaps intelligible to others

    Rich Rennicks, Understanding the “Great Ebook Price War”

    Morris Rosenthal, Is Amazon’s Kindle Killing Book Publishing?

    Andrew Wheeler, More on Amazon-Macmillan (also Amazon and Macmillan, but he didn’t have much information to go on then, so it’s a lot less interesting)

    10:35 pm

    Mike Shatzkin, The wild weekend of Amazon and Macmillan

    Scott Westerfeld, Zinc Blinked – a great explanation, adapted to the meanest understanding, for your friends who don’t know anything about book publishing

    2/1/10, 12:15 am

    Kassia Krozser, Amazon, Macmillan, Agency Models, and Quality (Oh My)

  9. A hitch I didn’t mention with e-book production is that although streamlining the digital workflow for forthcoming books is one thing that can be done relatively quickly, the long tail is incredibly important, too, as Amazon.com and Chris Anderson demonstrated to us all, and getting deep backlist into electronic format can be a huge, huge, huge, expensive project.

    Some independent presses have been able to embrace digital publishing, and it’s helping them reach new readers. A lot of others, however—New Directions comes to mind—have most of their backlist locked into print. I’d guess that the bulk of ND’s bestselling books over the long term predate digital book production entirely. Some of their current editions look fuzzy because the pages (and even covers) have had to be reshot from hard-copy originals. Furthermore, the rights issues for digital conversion are extremely messy, and it’s even more difficult to untangle when you’re dealing with a dead author’s estate and can’t just ask the writer, “Is it okay if we reissue your book as an e-book?”

    In a way—and I TOTALLY don’t mean to recommend piracy—some of those publishers would do well to get on BitTorrent themselves and see if any of their backlist has been deemed worthy of being shared. If so, download it, clean it up (if necessary), and stick it in an online store; there’d be little outlay to do so, and at least some readers who don’t use BT, or who only search there if legal options are nonexistent or unsatisfactory, would pony up for the licensed version. Obviously, in such a scenario, it would be unwise to apply DRM to the repackaged version.

    Incidentally, I spent a few days last semester examining what books are available on BitTorrent, for a school project, and what I found is that it’s mostly, not at all surprisingly, the kinds of books you’d expect people who nick all their media from torrent sites to be downloading. In order of prevalence, the spread appeared to be something like

    1. science fiction, some of them ones that are downloadable for free anyway (e.g., Baen’s free library), but bundled into lumps
    2. mysteries
    3. horror
    4. thrillers, adventure novels, or whatever genre it is that Tom Clancy is in
    5. how-to books such as the O’Reilly “animal” series and the “For Dummies” books
    6. romance novels, typically with a description on the bundle like “These are all the books my girlfriend says are her favorites”
    7. mid-twentieth-century classics

    I spotted so little contemporary literary fiction that it’s barely even worth mentioning, and I was surprised by how few audiobooks I saw, considering that other types of audio files are swapped so frequently and that it’s so trivially simple to break Audible’s DRM. The sources of many of the tidier bundles seemed to be fans who had taken the trouble of lovingly scanning, formatting, and proofreading(!) the entire collected works of their favorite authors. Surely that enthusiasm can be put to some good use.

    This is certainly not a scientific, quotable survey; it’s just my impressions of what came up when I spent an evening searching for books on the Pirate Bay. I’m sure somebody out there’s bothered to collect actual numbers.

  10. Incidentally, for those who have freestanding WordPress blogs (not ones hosted by WordPress.com), there’s a handy dandy plugin for switching all your bookstore affiliate links from one vendor to another: BookLinker by Michael Hartford:

    Give your visitors the freedom of choice with BookLinker, a WordPress plug-in that converts existing affiliate links into a list of book resources: Amazon, Powells, and IndieBound affiliate links, WorldCat library searches, and LibraryThing book pages. With BookLinker, you provide your affiliate ID for the three primary book resources on-line, and select which links to display. Any existing affiliate links in your blog will be transformed on the fly to the links you’ve selected. No changes are made to the actual content of your posts, so if you choose to return to a single-affiliate mode, simply deactivate the plug-in or turn off the option to convert the affiliate links of your choice.

    This site is still, despite my feeble efforts to get my shit together and move it onto my own domain, on WordPress.com, so I had to change all my links by hand; fortunately, most of them are on one page. But if you’re on your own server, this plugin sounds like it’s worth trying.

    Delightfully, since IndieBound links are, on average, about 1/5 the size of Amazon’s affiliate links for the same books, my “in print” page now loads faster.

  11. […] make much sense. The part of Doyce’s post where poor Eirik gets dragged into things and where my grumbling gets taken somewhat out of context is at the very end: In the postscript to this piece, Eirik Newth […]

  12. Your comment about post-production conversion to e formats is right on the button and overlooked by many. Style & code your content early (ideally while the stuff’s being written) and send it to multiple outputs after you’ve finished polishing it.

    Unfortunately much of the headline debate about e-books doesn’t touch on the changes required in production workflows to help publishers send content out efficiently. These changes are often subtle but have many many benefits. Not only does it enable you to do more it helps everyopne working with content understand it better, be more consistent and it dramatically reduces duplication of effort. It’s a massive learning curve for the old world production staff but it’s fun!

  13. I just want to pull this line of Shelby’s to the fore (or the tail, rather) again, because it keeps amusing me:

    By the way, I DEMAND that Adobe sell CS4 for under $100! The unit cost is practically zero anyway! Greedy bastards.

    Yup. Why is paying real cash money for intangibles so fucking inconceivable?

  14. […] India Amos, former art director at Nextbook [now Tablet magazine]; former senior designer at St. Martin’s Press: My queasy gut tells me that Macmillan can’t afford to play this game of chicken. It makes my heart hurt, because I worked in production at what is now Macmillan (then Holtzbrinck), and I know how thin the so-called margins are in book publishing to begin with, and I can very clearly see why many (all?) publishers want Amazon to stop selling their e-books below cost. At the same time, I can also see why nearly every commenter (or the first five pages’ worth, anyway) on the New York Times story is saying, “Suck it, Macmillan! E-books already cost too much, even at $9.99!” […]

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