Saturday, May 29, 2010

It's not about the content

One thing that the recent events surrounding the release of the iPad and the subsequent rebellion of top publishers against Amazon's pricing model has made abundantly clear is that no matter what we want to believe, the worth of a book has little to do with the content of the book. That may sound harsh, and I am not suggesting that my little noir mystery that has sold a grand total of Garrison Kiellor's projected 14 copies is equally as valuable as Lee Child's 61 Hours (this week at #1 on the NYT Best Sellers list). But it is reflected in the fact that Child's book is available at Barnes & Noble for $13.49 as an eBook, $16.38 in hardcover, $20.16 in large print paperback, and $8.99 in mass market paper.

The difference in the price is based on the medium, not on the content.

To some extent, I can see that there could be a difference based on cost of production. But the truth of the matter is that readers do not recognize equal value between a hardcover and an eBook--even though the content is the same.

It seems to me that the best and fairest way of pricing a book in any medium is a single consistent margin above cost of goods. (The direct costs of creating a book have to be figured in "x" since the publisher will put different amounts of effort into the creation of different content.) When we arrive at a price then for a book that costs $3.50 to get from manufacturing, including shipping, we could easily say that the book sells for $13.50, cost plus $10. The eBook would sell on-line for $10. The audio book on 10 CDs would probably not cost any more than the hardcover as the cost of goods would remain the same.

What is more important to me as an author and as a publisher, is that there is a consistent value placed on the content of the book on which the royalty and publishing costs are paid. Inventing an 8% of retail price when the book is priced at $22.95 and sells for 16.38 yields the same result as a 50% split of the net on the $13.50 book in my example. And the author always gets the same amount, whether on a paperback, hardcover, or eBook. That would truly show the consistent value of the content and separate it from the value of the molecules used to produce it.

This method is flawed. You begin to see the flaws when you start dealing with the retail channel and discounts, but that is not the only place. However, the concept of consistent value for content regardless of medium is one that I believe has potential for resolving both the perception of readers and the self-worth of authors. It is worth considering.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

How much design compromise?

Sadly, I am not at BEA this week, nor at the IDPF Digital Book 2010 conference being held in conjunction with it. But I am following the conference closely via Twitter and half a dozen blogs. I was interested to hear one book designer comment that we would just have to compromise our design standards for eBooks.

I understand where this designer is coming from, but I'm not quite in agreement. The truth is, we have to learn a whole different way of designing. We learned a certain kind of tool years ago that was created to design images on paper. Some of those images were letters that made up words. We could position them precisely where we wanted them and they would never dare to be in a different place the next time the book was opened. We could finely tune the spacing of characters (remember 1/50,000th of an em kerning?), rotate the text, hand draw parts of the book, add images and charts and tables, and it all turned out perfectly.

Well, if you design paper books, you can still use those tools and still create exactly the Renaissance masterpiece that you want to have.

But the Kindle, Sony Reader, Nook, iPad, laptop, and desktop computer are not made of paper. No ink hits the screen (no matter how they talk about eInk). The book bits that you design may be on a 3" iPhone screen when one person reads it or on a Kindle Deluxe when another person reads it. That means that for the first time since a human first put ink on paper, the design of books has to change. The tools have to change. The whole concept of what it means to "design" has to change. And fundamentally, designers have to change. Put down the X-acto knife and step away from the drawing board. (Ooops! That was the last publishing revolution!)

The tools of the eBook designer are XHTML and CSS. And now we have to go back to the basics of great book design and ask how can we make this a more pleasant reading experience. There is nothing in the OEB specification that will prevent you from designing a fantastic reading experience. Can't rotate the type on the page? Let it go. That was a different artform. Can't kern the space between characters? Let it go, that was a different technology. Can't use color? Can't have the exact typesize? Can't control the table-cell widths? LET IT GO!

Now that you've got your hands empty, look at what you can do and learn how to design with that. And always always always keep in mind that you are the only person in the world that will see what the eBook looks like on your computer screen. The people who look at your design will all look at it on their own screens, at their computer or eReader's resolution, with the particular little quirks that Kindle, iPad, Nook, or Sony have built into it. Yes, according to the IDPF spec, you can make a drop-cap. But none of those devices will display it. You can turn on hyphenation, but none of those devices support it yet. You can designate what media size certain attributes should be applied at, but most of these will ignore that you have a style sheet at all if you try. So instead, you learn the key features that will work across the entire range of devices, and you design for those.

Here is the dirty little secret of designing for eBooks. The less you try to control the position and size of things on the screen (i.e. treat it like paper), the more likely it is that your books will look well and thoughtfully designed.

There are a few little things that you can do to improve the look of your eBooks, and they aren't hard.
  1. Use the full range of legal XHTML elements when you create your docs. If you use only the "p" tag and create a new class for every element, nothing in your book will ever change or adapt for different reading devices. (Did you hear that Google Books? If you can identify different classes of "p" then you can assign them different element names in the first place!)

  2. Correct default settings that were developed for Web pages in browsers. eReader manufacturers blindly accepted the most popular display faults for Web browsers when they created their internal defaults. You don't have to accept space between paragraphs and no indents. You have the power to change them.

  3. Use flexible units that will appropriately change with the devices. The measurement units that you should use more than any others are "em" and the small, medium, large font sizes.

  4. Until and unless you have hyphenation working, align text to the left and don't try to justify it. Come on. You know what it was like to try to justify text on an old Mac in MacWrite. Don't do it!

And get both the OEB (IDPF) spec and the referenced W3C XHTML spec and memorize them. These are your tools for great design in the future.

Saturday, May 1, 2010

At what price infinite readership?

Pick up a copy of your favorite book. Feel the weight in your hands. Touch the cover, the dust jacket. Touch the paper. Ask yourself these questions.
  1. How many pages are in this book?

  2. Who designed the cover?

  3. How long did it take the author to write?

  4. How thick is the paper? Is it smoothe? Is it textured?

  5. What typeface did the designer use?

  6. Are there drop capitals starting the first paragraph of a chapter?

  7. Is there a running head along the top of each page?

  8. Where are the page numbers?

  9. How much did it cost to produce?

  10. How much is this book worth?

Of course your answers will be different if you chose a hardcover first edition over a mass market paperback. They might change based on whether you bought the book new, at a half-price used bookstore, or borrowed it from the local library or a friend. The answers might even change based on whether it is fiction, general non-fiction, or a textbook. But whatever the answer to these questions, the fact remains that there is a material object in your hands. It is really no easier to reproduce this material object (to copy it, if you will) than it is to make a copy of a Danish Modern dining room set or a Gucci blouse. When you put it on your bookshelf, you expect it to be there for years. You expect that someday you will give it away, sell it second hand, or let your heirs inherit it.

Now, let's take a look at the same title as an eBook. Ask yourself the same questions. Why is it that when you finish the list of questions, the last answer is so extraordinarily different than with a paper book? Probably more radically different than even the value difference between a hardcover and a paperback.

It comes down to the fact that even if the eBook was well-designed, had good typography, was illustrated the same, and had the same exact content, it isn't real. It doesn't have a material existence outside the reader or computer I view it on. Copying it takes a matter of seconds and the copy is indistinguishable from the original. As readers, we cannot separate the content from the medium. The same book, by the same author, is worth less if it doesn't exist in a material form. So it is not like copying it is a big deal. We didn't actually take something off a bookstore shelf and walk out without paying. It never even existed in the bookstore!

In a strange way, I agree. Don't get me wrong. I believe that the words an author writes are worth the same no matter what medium they are delivered in. But the publishing industry has tied the value of the author's words to the retail price of the book, or more recently to the actual sale price, or even to the wholesale price. So even from an author's perspective, it is hard to value the eBook as highly as the printed version. I've heard myself answer the question "Have you been published?" with the words "Yes, but only as an eBook." Ouch! My writing isn't worth the paper it is printed on!

Yet when we remove the cost of materials for a hardcover book from the equation of how much the book costs, we assign over 500% increase in value based on the physical materials! ( quotes the materials cost for a $27.95 hardcover book as ~$2.83!) But, take away the $2.83 worth of materials and produce it with electrons and we expect to pay $9.95 at Amazon (now up to as much as $14.95) for top-end best sellers. Then, we expect to be able to copy them, give them to our friends, and post them on the Internet for free.

Because they aren't real!

The point of this rambling article is that if we just gave away eBooks instead of trying to sell them, we would have all the eyes that we could get through the pirated copies. Potentially infinite readership. But no one makes any money, except for those few people who will read, enjoy, and then go out to put the paper version on their bookshelves as a "real" asset in their library.

What are we going to do? I'm a proponent of free eBooks. Not stolen eBooks. The problem is that somehow we still have to pay for the design, art, promotion, marketing, editing and—oh yes—authoring of the book. So, do we build advertising messages into the eBook so that someone might possibly, eventually, click on one of our ads and generate a few pennies revenue? Do we place ourselves at the mercy of the readership with a "donation" button in every book? Do we cut all the expenses (except authoring, of course) by not doing professional design, covers, marketing, or advertising for our books and hope they "go viral?"

I don't think there is a right answer that has emerged for this yet. But I do know that some activities increase the likelihood of pirating. The first of those is staging or "windowing" the release so that the paper book has a two to six-month lead before the eBook is released. The pirated electronic copies will hit the Internet before the paper book is in the store! The second is charging the same price or a less discounted price for the eBook. Charging $14.95 for eBooks instead of $9.95 won't help sales of paper books, it will only increase pirated eBooks. The third is stronger digital rights management (DRM) that makes unbreakable copy protection. We should have learned this lesson from the music industry by now. It failed there and it will fail in publishing as well. And of course, fourth is more rigid enforcement, closing down of book exchange sites, torrents, and sharing sites has certainly proved ineffective for video and music. There is no reason it would be more effective for publishing.

So what do we do? Give up? Give it away? Ignore it and hope it will go away? What is the future?