Friday, January 29, 2010

Playing Chicken: Publishers, Apple, and Amazon

My post this morning raised the key question that I thought had been ignored in the first round of coverage on the iPad as e-reader: why would people pay $14.99 for an e-book in Apple's iBooks store when they can get the same title for Kindle at $9.99?  But in fact the trusty Walt Mossberg of the WSJ asked that very question of Steve Jobs at the iPad launch event--the video is now posted at All Things Digital (I found it via E-Book Newser). 

Jobs's answer has huge implications--though it's open to different interpretations. He says "the pricing will be the same." Mossberg asks, "the price will be $9.99?" Jobs: "The prices will be the same...Publishers are actually going to pull their books from Amazon because they're not happy." 

I take Jobs to mean that the prices won't be $9.99, because the higher price is what publishers have been desperately concerned to establish in the Apple deal. But obviously a $14.99 price for e-books can't be sustained if Amazon is going to keep selling the same title for less. For publishers not to undercut Apple, they would in fact have to withdraw their titles from the Kindle store. That would be a real throwdown--especially because right now, publishers are making more money on Kindle e-book sales than Amazon is. (But let's not forget that Amazon is still making loadsamoney on selling the Kindle device itself.)  It would be a significant threat to Amazon's Kindle business, and one has to wonder whether Amazon will retaliate, as they have done at other times, against publishers' print-book business. For both sides, print books are still a much larger business than e-books, so there's plenty to lose. It may be an interesting game of chicken. 

Apple iPad: Is It Actually an Amazon Trojan Horse?

As anyone on Planet Earth knows, Apple announced its new iPad device Wednesday with enormous hoopla. There's particular excitement among publishers because Apple has agreed to sell books in an iTunes-like store at prices somewhat higher than Amazon has been charging for new titles on the Kindle.

The excitement is somewhat paradoxical because although Apple is giving publishers a better split of sales proceeds (70 percent vs. Amazon's 50), these sales will actually make the publishers less money: Apple "iBooks" prices will be capped at $14.99, while right now, Amazon is paying publishers half of a list price that could be $25 to $30.

Furthermore, what no one has mentioned so far is that Amazon already has a Kindle reader app for the iPhone which allows you to buy books and read them--and supposedly all iPhone apps will work on the iPad.  So will you potentially have a choice of buying an e-book from
Apple's iBooks store for $14.99--or, buying the same title from Amazon, on the same device, just as conveniently, for $9.99?

I feel as though I must be misunderstanding something, because this seems like a setup to make iBooks completely irrelevant in a hurry.  This will be no skin off Apple, because the iPad will be just as good an e-reader with a Kindle app as it is with iBooks. So it could be a "Kindle killer" in the sense of luring potential customers of Amazon's device. But it could at the same time actually strengthen Amazon's hold over the book market--the exact opposite of what publishers hoped would happen.

In that case, our joy at the tablet will be short-lived. Not as short-lived as Adolf Hitler's, though, in this latest expression of the unquenchable internet meme:

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Two New Approaches to Publishing: Notes from Digital Book World

I’m just back from attending the Digital Book World conference. I thought briefly about attempting to give an overview of  the whole thing, but there’s way too much ground to cover. For what might be called the strobe-light account, I recommend searching Twitter for #dbw, where many participants tweeted updates from the panels. And Publishers Lunch has posted summaries of most of the key sessions.

Out of many informative and sometimes provocative presentations—and unfortunately I missed several because I could only be in one room at a time—two new “business models” that people talked about yesterday especially intrigued me. One might be called an attempt to fix what’s most broken with the traditional big-house trade publishing business. In that sense it’s backward rather than forward-looking, but a smart and promising way of addressing our problems. 

First, the profit-sharing model of HarperStudio, as explained by founder Bob Miller, where instead of traditional advances and royalties (he reports), the publisher pays a small advance, but splits all revenue, minus direct costs (but not overheads) evenly with the author. The beauty of this approach is not only that it drastically decreases the house’s unearned advance risk, but that it aligns the interest of publisher and author more closely throughout the process.

Marketing budgets and strategies, for instance, can come out of a conversation between publisher and author, not the kind of negotiation where the author and publisher haggle over whether to spend on a book party or a publicity tour.  Bob’s account of the warm fuzzy feelings between HarperStudio and its authors sounds almost too good to be true, but as someone who has always tried to make the author part of the publishing team, even with a more conventional contract, I think there is a lot going for his program. (Roger Cooper’s Vanguard Press, which also offers authors less money up front, more later, plus a guaranteed marketing budget, is a similar and also appealing consultative approach.)

If HarperStudio and Vanguard are smart attempts to fix what’s broken in Big Publishing, Richard Nash’s Cursor is an attempt to “skate to where the puck is going to be,” in Wayne Gretzky terms. Looking forward to the likely future (see my post from Monday) when general-interest publishing is a relic and the publisher’s relationship with a community of interest is its key asset, Cursor envisions selling those dedicated readers not just books, but a variety of ways of interacting with authors—expensive, deluxe editions; 99-cent e-books; even classes or other forms of in-person access. As Richard noted in his presentation, paying $25,000 for an MFA, as thousands in our country do annually, is really a very expensive way of buying access to established writers.  Also novel is his plan to make contracts with three-year terms (and no advances), in the belief the publisher should earn the author's ongoing loyalty rather than aking him  (His session, too featured some other innovative models, Eoin Purcell’s Greenlamp and Angela James’s digital-first Carina Press at Harlequin. Cursor seems to me the most ambitious of the three.)

These ventures have been much written about already,  and in truth it's too early to say how well the results will pan out over the long term.  But they look to me like really welcome developments which, if they work, could point the way for publishers large and small to follow. I wish them all success and will be following them closely.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Arrrh! The E-Book Piracy Nightmare Scenario

Just yesterday my first Unanswered Question about the future of publishing was, Is pirating of books, which is now so easy to do, going to be an annoyance--i.e. a perpetual problem, but one that is not large enough seriously to affect the industry--or is it going to take a huge, crippling bite out of sales as it seems to have done in the music business? Right on cue, Sathnam Sanghera of the London Times has stepped in with an article that offers his own alarming answer, looking at how digital downloads have affected the music industry. Citing the Digital Music Report 2010, he writes that the industry
has been decimated. Even though legitimate digital sales have grown nearly ten-fold in the past five years, overall the music industry’s global sales have fallen 30 per cent over the same period. Illegal downloads still account for 95 per cent of music downloads worldwide.
I don't happen to believe that the music business is a perfect analogue for book publishing. For one thing, the experience of listening to a song from your iPod is he same as listening to it from a CD, but reading a book on your Kindle is not the same as reading a hardcover.  So I suspect printed books are going to remain a much bigger piece of the market than either CDs or vinyl did.  

I also think Sanghera's article conflates different approaches to "free" book content. He treats publishers deliberately giving away free samples to spur sales as if it were the same as illegal file sharing. Nonetheless, it's salutary to be reminded of just how cavalier consumers can be about paying for the sweat of an author's brow.  To go from the faceless statistics of the Digital Music Report to the anecdotal evidence of one candid ripoff artist, just read this eye-opening interview from The Millions with one file-sharer calling him- (or her) self The Real Caterpillar. 
In the past month, I have uploaded approximately 50 books to the torrent site where you contacted me. I am much less active then I once was. I used to scan many books, but in the past two years I have only done a few.
"Only" 50 books uploaded this month!

Caterpillar has a complicated morally self-justifying calculus by which he/she doesn't pirate new books by some authors, to "avoid causing noticeable financial harm to the author whose work I love enough to spend so much time working on getting a nice e-copy if I were to do so." But Caterpillar cheerfully acknowledges "it is clear that morally, the act of pirating a product is, in fact, the moral equivalent of stealing" while continuing to do so. 

It seems pretty likely most file-sharers don't even bother to think about the moral issues this much while they do their Blackbeard act on authors', and publishers', livelihoods.  Having read these two articles back to back today makes me feel that anyone who doesn't think piracy is going to be a really significant problem in the coming years is being willfully naive. 

(illustration by the great Howard Pyle, from Howard Pyle's Book of Pirates--copyright expired!)

Sunday, January 24, 2010

8 1/2 Unanswered Questions about the Future of Publishing in the Digital Era

It's evident from what I have been posting here that like everyone in the book business I'm preoccupied by the changes that are happening so swiftly in it. I'm looking forward to attending the Digital Book World conference on Tuesday and Wednesday of this week, where some of the smartest people in and around the industry will be speaking. In the last 12 to 18 months we've started to get some sense of how new technology is going to reshape publishing but the crystal ball remains extremely cloudy.

I thought on the eve of the conference I'd put down a list of what strike me as some of the most critical questions that will determine how publishing evolves in the years ahead--questions that I have as yet no good answer to. I'm hoping I may learn something at Digital Book World that will start to answer some of these--but I suspect it will be a year, or two, or five, before all the answers come into focus.

  1. How much will piracy damage the sales of books now that scanners and e-readers make it easy to share files? We know books are being widely pirated already, and we know it's going to become yet more widespread. We don't yet know whether the sales lost to piracy are going to be an annoyance or a crippling problem. 
  2. How badly will the ongoing collapse of traditional media affect publishers' ability to market their titles? As a serious nonfiction publisher I've seen the number of reviews my books get take a nosedive in the last two years, for the simple reason that book coverage in newspapers and magazines is disappearing. This has certainly affected sales. I firmly believe that blogs, viral  word of mouth, and other internet-based publicity is a great, and growing, medium for book marketing, but if your book got reviewed on a couple of dozen blogs, that wouldn't equal the readership of the Los Angeles Times Book Review or the Washington Post Book World, to name two major review sections that have recently closed.
  3. What prices will consumers be willing to pay for e-books? And how will that affect the price of printed books? Right now major publishers are desperate to resist rock-bottom pricing of e-books, fearing it will devalue printed books along with it. So what gets established as the fair price for an e-book is a key question. If Amazon is successful in making e-books very cheap, the business may evolve one way; if publishers can keep e-book prices closer to print books, it may evolve another way. There is of course a different strategy on e-book pricing from what the big houses are straining for: make'em dirt cheap. This viewpoint holds that we could all sell a lot more books if we charged a few dollars for a new book instead of $16 or $30. So my "half-question" on this list is, Can publishers sell a lot more books if they move the price point down to $4, or $3, or $2? Some enterprising publishers are certainly going to experiment in this direction. It will be interesting to see what happens?
  4. Will "enhanced" e-books ever be cost-effective enough to be viable? As I've said here, I have my doubts about this. But some publishers are pinning their hopes for supporting high e-book prices on the idea they can "enhance" them with videos and other additional content. (They should read Kassia Krozser's post about this notion, first, though.) 
  5. How long will it be before the line between book and magazine publishing is obliterated? I'm surprised I haven't seen more commentary on this point. In a digital marketplace, we're not tied to the constraints, or expectations, of publishing in book-length chunks. "Book" publishers have access to authors who can, and often do, write essays or stories or reportage that may be a few thousand words, instead of a few hundred pages, long. And we are no longer shackled by the incredibly long lead times involved in traditional, printed book marketing. Why not sell a short story, or topical article by one of your authors online, instead of taking 12 to 18 months to put it out in a book-length unit? By the same token, if you're the New Yorker or The Atlantic, why not take advantage of the eyeballs you already attract and sell readers a long-form work by one of your writers? We have already seen publishers making deals to ally themselves with news/magazine sites (such as Perseus and the Daily Beast). 
  6. Is general trade publishing obsolete? The perspicacious Mike Shatzkin sees a stark future for the book biz as we know it. He argues that in a world where anyone with a modem can "publish" material, performing that function will no longer make a viable business, and that for publishers to survive, they must become the home for communities interested in a particular subject--"verticals" to use his term. If he's right--and I fear he may be--venerable brands like Knopf, FSG, or Norton are all at risk, and it's imprints like and PoetrySpeaks, already aligned with core audiences, that will be the future of publishing. 
  7. Is the explosion of e-reading actually expanding reading? Jeff Bezos and others I call "e-vangelists" claim that it's so easy to sample and buy new books, and so convenient to read them, on the Kindle and other devices, that people who own these gadgets are reading more books than they ever did before. At least two people I know--including one of my Bloomsbury colleagues who already reads a heckuva lot--report it's true. They are reading more books since they got their Kindles than they did before. This could be  great news for the book business. Maybe e-books will lead to a renaissance of reading! If e-reading manages to grow the market rapidly in the next decade, perhaps that will counteract all the other trends I worry about here. I'm not ready to count these chickens quite yet, however.
  8. Are e-books going to kill retail bookstores? This to me is the $64,000 question--the one whose answer will determine the fate of large (and probably many small) publishers.  E-books are a tiny but rapidly growing share of the market. But even if they only become 10 or 20 percent of the market, that may be enough to make bricks & mortar bookstores unsustainable--a loss of that much business may be the difference between profitability and failure for many stores, possibly including the chains. And if bookstores go, billions of dollars in sales, and the book publishing industry as we know it, go with them. Even the expansion of reading contemplated in question 6 may not happen quickly enough to save big publishing if this happens. Mike Shatzkin's post "How to Handle a Smaller Print Book Business" is essential reading for anyone interested in the future of the business, though he doesn't foresee quite the apocalyptic scenario that I'm worrying about. 
These certainly aren't the only questions that will determine how the book business unfolds over the next several years, but they're the ones that I have been overheating my cranium pondering. What are yours?

Friday, January 22, 2010

Charles Dickens: Get Your Cotton Pickin' Hands Off My Copyright, Pardner

Why is protecting copyright important? Who can say it better than Charles Dickens, a colossally bestselling writer in his day whose works were shamelessly pirated in a developing country with scant respect for intellectual property: the United States.

Many of you are probably aware that Dickens's celebrated American tour of 1842 was prompted in no small part by his desire to make some money in the American market. His works were hugely popular here, but he earned not a nickel (or farthing) from their sale. By coming to the States he at least made some lucrative speaking fees. While he was here, he spoke out loudly in favor of an international copyright agreement--a topic that was not warmly received by his hosts. Then, as now, Americans considered themselves a specially moral nation; we really hate to have it pointed out when we don't live up to our ideals.
I spoke [Dickens wrote to a friend], as you know, of international copyright, at Boston; and I spoke of it again at Hartford. My friends were paralysed with wonder at such audacious daring. The notion that I, a man alone by himself, in America, should venture to suggest to the Americans that there was one point on which they were neither just to their own countrymen nor to us, actually struck the boldest dumb! Washington Irving, Prescott, Hoffman, Bryant, Halleck, Dana, Washington Allston -- every man who writes in this country is devoted to the question, and not one of them dares to raise his voice and complain of the atrocious state of the law. It is nothing that of all men living I am the greatest loser by it. It is nothing that I have a claim to speak and be heard. The wonder is that a breathing man can be found with temerity enough to suggest to the Americans the possibility of their having done wrong. I wish you could have seen the faces that I saw, down both sides of the table at Hartford, when I began to talk about Scott [Sir Walter, also hugely popular and widely bootlegged]...
I had no sooner made that second speech than such an outcry began (for the purpose of deterring me from doing the like in this city) as an Englishman can form no notion of. Anonymous letters; verbal dissuasions; newspaper attacks making Colt (a murderer who is attracting great attention here) an angel by comparison with me; assertions that I was no gentleman, but a mere mercenary scoundrel....
Dickens got as far west as St. Louis. But I was delighted to discover recently that, in the imagination of one screenwriter, he made it to Nevada. On a 1963 episode of the TV Western series Bonanza, Dickens read in Carson City--where he found the audience had his work memorized already--and in one remarkable scene, gave Hoss Cartwright an impassioned defense of intellectual property. 

Yes, that's Jonathan Harris--better known as Dr. Smith of Lost in Space--as the great novelist. You can see him read from Oliver Twist here. To judge by Mark Twain's review of Dickens reading in New York, Harris may be better at the job than the great man himself. 

Update: it is both ironic and probably inevitable that the YouTube clip of Dickens defending copyright has been removed because of copyright infringement! I recently saw it posted, however, on another YouTube page. Rather than give you another link that may go out of date, I suggest you search for the TV show under "Bonanza Charles Dickens" or the episode's title, "A Passion for Justice." 

(Hat tip to the excellent Charles Dickens Page for these quotations.) 

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Amazon "Fires Missile" at Book Publishers--But Is the Target Really Apple?

I had hoped to avoid writing about e-books for a while, not because I don't think they are interesting but because I'm reluctant to have one topic monopolize this page. But  developments are coming fast and furious in this quarter of publishing so you can expect to see a lot more about this here for the foreseeable future.  Witness two events of the last couple of days: First, we learned that Apple has been in discussion with the "Big Six" publishers about terms for making e-books available on their much-bruited new tablet computer. According to Michael Cader at Publishers Lunch, these discussions center around an "agency model" in which--unlike other e-tailers (notably Amazon)--publishers will own their book files and set prices while Apple will in effect take a commission on those sales rather than buy and resell the books to consumers. Although the functional difference between "reselling" and "licensing" is trivial, as Cader points out, it's huge to publishers because it gives them control over pricing and allows them to experiment in this area, instead of acceding in Amazon's attempt to commodify all titles at $9.99 or less. 

Almost simultaneously with this news, Amazon announced a new e-book model for publishers and authors, offering a 70 percent royalty (a big improvement on their usual terms) with certain key conditions--including a) the e-book must be priced no higher than $9.99 and b) it must be at least 20 percent lower than the printed book price.  

There seems to be some confusion about what this announcement means. Henry Blodget, at The Industry Insider, hollers that this move "fires a missile at the book industry" and will force publishers to cut their prices for e-books; also that it " should also solidify Amazon's already tremendous dominance of the ebook business" by enhancing the popularity of the Kindle. 

I think Blodget has it backward: Amazon is staring at the possibility, even likelihood, that a host of new e-readers--numerous models have been announced--will rapidly grab much of its share of the e-book market. Many readers, me included, actually prefer buying e-books via the Kindle store, then reading them on iPhones with their crisper more responsive display. When we can read them on a large-screen Apple tablet--and buy them via an elegant, simple Apple-designed e-book store (or through iTunes), we won't need either Amazon or Kindle. 

In other words, Amazon is trying to compete on price while Apple and others compete on quality and features. So far, Apple has been highly successful at that kind of contest. In short, I see this as a would-be preemptive strike by Amazon in anticipation of the Apple tablet. Amazon is going to be a major player in this market for the foreseeable future, but rather than being the game-changing "missile," their current move seems like an admission that they will no longer be a sole 600-pound gorilla. 

So far these events seem like good news for publishers. With several players competing to sell e-books to the public, we're less likely to be bullied by one of them, and with these differerent business models in effect we may be able to accelerate the necessary process of trial and error regarding pricing, timing and so on. 

Still, one aspect of the new Amazon pitch has the potential to further destabilize the marketplace and threaten publishers. The 70-percent royalty is surely meant to attract authors to make direct deals with Amazon, cutting out publishing houses altogether. Amazon may well offer even better terms to carry a certain e-book exclusively. This has already happened with one bestselling author, as I've discussed here. If this becomes a major trend, it could really damage publishers' profits and they can't afford to take this threat lightly. 

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Where Do Authors Come From?

One question editors are frequently asked at cocktail parties is, "where do you find the books you publish? Do they all come from agents?"  Some editors, probably wiser ones than I, simply answer, "Yep." My answer is, you never know where you are going to find a publishable book or a promising author. True, the vast majority of titles I publish (probably 95 percent) come from literary agents. But a few come from other sources. When I was at Oxford University Press, many of our authors submitted their work directly, and an important part of an academic editor's job is maintaining relationships with important people in the field (whose graduate students may be the star authors of the future). I still, happily, publish some scholars whom I deal with directly.

I also believe that a good editor will create his own books: instead of sitting at a desk waiting for someone to send you something, you think of an idea for a book and go looking for the right author. Very often, that author has an agent, but creating a book this way is different from, and sometimes more satisfying than, leaving it to other people to bring you stuff.  I have published several titles, from how-to books to award-winning works of history, that came from me pitching ideas to authors.

Another happy occurrence is when authors refer their friends or colleagues to you. Some of my best authors have come to me through authors I've worked with who suggested a friend or colleague contact me. Again, often this connection involves an agent, but it's not quite the same as the agent flipping through her Rolodex and putting my name on a list. I always take referrals from an author very seriously whether or not an agent makes the submission.

But as I say, you might find an author anywhere. Many years ago, before internet shopping existed, I was an impecunious editorial assistant who bought shoes from mail-order catalogues. One day I phoned an order in to Land's End and found myself having a longer conversation than usual with the customer service rep. Hearing that my shipping address was "Persea Books," he said, "Oh, are you a publisher? I'm just learning about the publishing business now, because I'm writing a novel." This aspiring writer was working at Land's End to pay the bills, and while he actually had an agent, he wasn't going to miss an opportunity.  My shoes arrived promptly, with a literary fiction manuscript as a free bonus.

This story might be funnier if the manuscript were lousy, but on the contrary, it was quite well written. In fact, I thought it was too quiet and literary to sell, and turned it down--but a couple of years later, I saw the same manuscript was published by Simon & Schuster. Where do you find authors--or publishers? You never know.

P.S. This story is not meant to suggest I yearn for unsolicited and unagented manuscripts. I will write at another time about the slush pile, and why I don't read it any more.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

E-Books: Do I Smell Another Rights Battle Brewing?

I don't know about you, but I can hardly bear to hear any more about e-books for a while, after a couple of weeks of hearing various experts' predictions for the future of publishing; hearing about the cornucopia of new e-readers being shown at the Consumer Electronics Show; and the incessant drumbeat of rumors about the Apple tablet, aka Unicorn. But a new wrinkle in the e-book rights tussle occurred to me as I was pondering Jonathan Galassi's New York Times op-ed that argued why e-book rights to backlist titles like William Styron's Sophie's Choice should remain with Styron's hardcover publisher, Random House, even though their contracts were written before e-books existed.

As I have written here before, there is legitimate (and spirited) debate about that assertion. But what I'm wondering about now is books whose contracts were drafted more recently. In the early 1990s, when the internet was starting to happen and books on CD-ROM were the hot new thing, publishers sensibly began revising their contract boilerplate to include electronic book publication among the rights granted by the author.  However, this new language drew a distinction between what's usually called "verbatim text"--i.e. the display of the author's words via some electronic device--and what was often called "multimedia"--i.e. something that included video, sound, or interactive elements (John Waters' Odoroma, perhaps) along with the written text. And in a large majority of contracts--I'd guess almost all contracts where agents were involved--multimedia rights were reserved by the author.

Most agents back then concurred with the general notion that the publisher ought to control any version of the book that involves reading it as you would the print edition. But most all of us, agents and publishers alike, thought of "multimedia" as something different from "book." (As I said in my last post, it is different from a conventional book and requires a different level of investment in content and editing.) Several agents also maintained that movie studios--agents had wrested movie rights from book publishers decades earlier--would refuse to acquire book properties unless they hoovered up anything multimedia-ish in the deal.

So from that day right up until now, most book contracts  grant "verbatim text" rights to the publisher and reserve multimedia versions to the author.

Are you seeing the problem here? Today, publishers are eager to publish "enhanced" e-books, and the enhancements include, say, author interviews on video. One company, Vook, has launched a business specifically to create versions of print books that include pictures, film clips, hyperlinks and so on.

This may not be an issue for new titles, where the enhanced edition is conceived when or before the contract is drawn.  But it's going to be very tricky for the last 15 years' worth of books. Unlike the situation with authors from the 50s or 60s, where publishers can argue the author's general grant of book rights included a form not yet invented, we're talking about contracts that explicitly do give the publisher the right to a Kindle-type, text-only e-book, but not to a Vook-type, text-plus-video/audio/Odorama version.  Even if the "enhancement" is a two-minute Q&A with the author, filmed with a Flip cam, one could argue that's multimedia.

I still believe e-book rights should stay with the original publisher, but we will have to revise our definitions of e-books and our boilerplate language to avoid a situation where the publisher could find his author issuing a competing e-edition on the grounds it's a "multimedia adaptation."

It won't be the main theater of operations, but this could be a new front in the e-book wars.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

The Problem with "Enhancing" E-Books, or, Another Premature Obituary for Print

As I noted in my previous post,  Wired online recently previewed Ray Kurzweil's multi-platform e-reading technology called Blio. I think Blio is nifty but I stop short of sharing Wired's opinion: that it means "the end of the paper book. Right now, e-books are poor copies of paper books, with a single advantage: convenience. A book is just a container for text, not its natural home."

Wired is right that so far e-books are inferior replacements for books printed with ink on paper. For all their virtues, no e-text display is yet as pleasant or easy to read as an old-school book. This, I believe, is the main (not only) reason why consumers don't like to pay print-book prices for e-books. It's not that readers calculate, as various opiners have done, that publishers' cost of goods and distribution is lower with e-books and therefore we should lower our prices. Nor is it that Amazon has nefariously conditioned Kindle customers to believe $9.99 is what a book is worth. It's simply that, notwithstanding the ease of obtaining or carrying an e-book (and for some readers, the hugely useful ability to make the type larger), no e-book serves the purpose of reading (or browsing in, studying, or annotating) a text as well as its printed cousin.

But I don't want to rehash the e- vs. p-book debate here; I want to take up the implications of Wired's comments on Blio.  I assume what Wired means by the line quoted above is that what makes e-books now superior to printed ones is not that they do the same job better, but that they can present content in a way mere ink on paper cannot. They, along with Mike Shatzkin who has also posted about Blio, wax enthusiastic about the platform's capacity to add all sorts of multimedia goodies--videos, soundtracks, animations, hyperlinks--to book texts.

It's an alluring vision--imagine a history of World War II that includes not only a narrative, and the grainy photo insert such books have had for decades, but newsreel footage, FDR's or Ed Murrow's radio broadcasts, animated battle maps, or later interviews with survivors of Pearl Harbor or D-Day; it could include not just footnotes but hyperlinks to every source cited, or for that matter every New York Times article about the war from 1939 to 1945. 

Wouldn't that be cool? And you can imagine similar "enhanced" e-book treatments of all sorts of titles, from cookbooks to celebrity biographies. There's just one problem, and it's a big one. To create all this multimedia content is incredibly expensive. Leaving aside the cost of obtaining the rights, in my hypothetical WWII example, to newsreels, radio broadcasts, and six years of the New York Times--all of which could be prohibitive in itself--the time and energy involved in developing such material editorially (and which would probably involve both a book author and talented in-house staff) would be the equivalent of creating probably half a dozen text-only titles, or more. Simply creating hyperlinked footnotes--something I'd love to find in a digital book--could take up weeks of someone's time. 

Yes, digital publishing allows us to create vastly richer products. But richness doesn't come cheap. You can create an amazingly sophisticated straight-text book very economically, because the sophistication comes from the author's mind. To create an equivalently sophisticated multimedia book is far more demanding. It's like the difference between creating a floor plan and building and furnishing a house--and requires an equivalent increase in person-hours and resources. 

Don't forget, we've been down the road with multimedia books before--back then they were on CD-ROMs. Books on CD failed, not only because consumers weren't ready for the technology, but because very few of them, in my opinion,actually delivered on the promise of the medium. And those that did tended to be priced far higher than what readers were used to paying for books. 

In effect there are two ways to go with "enhancing" e-books. There's the low budget, easy way, where you attach some video or audio content alongside of what's basically conventional text. And there's the expensive, difficult way, where you really reconceive the work and develop the content in all the ways digital makes possible.  I can't see any means of making the latter economically viable without charging prices that are at least three or four times what hardcovers usually bring.  Now, we may find the market will bear such prices. Would you pay $75 or $100 for the fabulous WWII e-book I described above? As a history buff, I might. But unless I, and thousands like me, actually will, I think Blio and its kindred will remain an underutilized technology.  

Even if a high-end market is established for such truly enhanced e-books, it's hard to see them displacing straight-text display (whether that's a printed page or e-ink) for a long time. The written word is still by far the most efficient and economical way of conveying information. "Enhancements" may add value to it, but they subtract efficiency.