Thinking Outside the Book

A print author’s revelations about electronic book publishing.

As the print publishing industry suffers the pain of ever-higher costs and competition from other media, I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about electronic books or ebooks.

You’re probably familiar with the concept. An ebook is roughly defined as text and image content — like you’d find in a traditional printed book — that’s distributed as a computer-compatible file or series of files. So rather than read the book on paper, you’d read it onscreen.

KindleRecently, Sony and Amazon.com have been pushing their versions of existing titles as ebooks for their Sony Reader and Amazon Kindle. This is the most basic idea of an ebook — take the text found in the original book and reformat it for use in an electronic device to make it portable. Project Gutenberg has been doing this for years, with a huge team of volunteers transcribing out-of-copyright works to plain text format readable by almost any electronic device. (I have a handful of classics on my Treo 700p so I’m never without something interesting to read.)

Pros and Cons of Ebooks

A properly prepared ebook has numerous benefits over a traditional print book:

  • Ebooks don’t require paper to produce, so they’re “greener” than paper books.
  • Because ebooks don’t require paper, they’re less expensive to produce and ship. (Note that I said less expensive, not cost-free.)
  • Ebooks are much more easily corrected for errors or changes in the content.
  • Ebooks can be extremely portable, depending on the type of device they are designed for.
  • Since ebooks are less expensive to produce, they should be less expensive for readers to buy.

Likewise, print books still have a few benefits over ebooks:

  • Print books are generally easier to read, “thumb through,” and refer to, especially for those of us who learned to read with just paper books.
  • Print books don’t require a computer (or reader) or the expertise that goes with using such a device.
  • Print books can be read almost anywhere.
  • Print books are properly formatted for their content and the reader can consult an entire page or two-page spread at once.

So while I think the time has come for ebooks to rise as a serious method for distributing information, I don’t see printed books going away any time soon.

Dawn of the Ebook Revolution?

Although the idea of ebooks has been around for quite a while — and there are several failed ebook readers out there to prove it — a number of technological developments have made ebooks more popular than ever:

  • The ever-increasing adoption of the Internet and World Wide Web as a tool for finding information.
  • The ever-increasing speed of Internet connections, making it possible to get more information — including information in more advanced media formats such as audio and video — more quickly.
  • The ever-decreasing size and cost of computers. Smaller, less expensive computers make computers more attractive as a device for reading ebooks.
  • The ever-increasing computer savviness of readers. Not long ago, the “average” computer user didn’t have the technical know-how to download, open, and navigate the pages of an ebook.
  • The development of electronic publishing platforms, both local (such as portable document format or PDF) or onscreen (such as Safari) and digital rights management (DRM) to protect copyrights.
  • The development of devices such as the Sony Reader and Amazon Kindle — both of which are considered “successes” — as well as the improvements to those devices and new competing devices.

As more and more readers adopt ebooks as a medium for reading content, more and more content will be made available in ebook format. Imagine a snowball rolling down a snow-covered slope. The ebook snowball has just started its roll.

Print Publishers Jump On Board — Sometimes in Attack Mode

Not willing to miss out on their piece of the ebook pie — and perhaps glimpsing the demise of print publishing in the distant future — traditional print publishers have begun offering books directly to the public in a variety of ebook formats. They see their competition not only from other ebook publishers, but from the Internet itself.

Product ImageInterestingly, rather than concentrate on creating an electronically published product that will appeal to readers, some publishers have been concentrating on efforts to discredit their Internet-based competition. For example, one of my publishers cites the ideas set forth and expounded on in Cult of the Amateur: How Today’s Internet is Killing our Culture by Andrew Keen as a testament for why content published on the Internet should not be trusted or relied upon. Although I have not yet read the book — and frankly, after seeing what a jerk Keen seemed to be during interviews on various talk shows, I’m not anxious to read it — the book apparently claims that “Web 2.0″ has put online publishing in everyone’s hands and too many people are trying to pass themselves off as “experts.” From the book jacket:

In today’s self-broadcasting culture, where amateurism is celebrated and anyone with an opinion, however ill-informed, can publish a blog, post a video on YouTube, or change an entry on Wikipedia, the distinction between trained expert and uninformed amateur becomes dangerously blurred. When anonymous bloggers and videographers, unconstrained by professional standards or editorial filters, can alter the public debate and manipulate public opinion, truth becomes a commodity to be bought, sold, packaged, and reinvented.

Well, that’s certainly one way to look at it. And while the folks quoted on the back cover of the book tend to agree with this view — as my publisher does — there are quite a few highly respected people who don’t. Author Kevin Keohane wrote “Unpopular opinion: everyone’s an expert on the Internet. Is that such a bad thing?” for Communication World earlier this year. In it, he argues that “Keen ignores the fact that for every recognized expert, there are a dozen other passionate experts who have just as much information and insight.” Other critics all over the Web point out the holes and problems of Keen’s arguments.

To my publisher, it becomes more important to get the work of its professional, highly trained, and well edited authors into the electronic publishing world to compete with the “amateurs” out there than to produce the ebooks that people actually want to buy and read. It doesn’t seem to take into consideration that many of its “expert” authors — including me — are completely self-taught, just like the “amateurs” also providing online content. Even the editors, in many cases, began their careers doing something other than editing books. What makes me an “expert” is the 70 books and hundreds of articles under my belt. But back in 1992, when I hopped on this publishing roller coaster, I was no more an expert than today’s bloggers writing how-to pieces on their Web sites.

So my publishers have jumped into the world of ebook publishing by republishing their printed books both as as PDFs and online-viewable documents. And, in doing so, they’ve made several major errors that are losing readers and sales.

What’s Wrong with Most Ebooks

There are several problems with the way my publishers are republishing my work, but to understand what the problems are, you need to have a good handle on how the work is being republished.

One of my publishers is currently republishing my work in two formats:

Safari, an online content distributor, reproduces each page of a printed book by reassembling smaller images to build the book’s page. Imagine this: take the page of a book and use a paper cutter to cut it into a dozen squares. Now take those squares and shuffle them up, and place them on a grid, in the proper order to rebuild the page. This is what Safari does electronically.

There are multiple problems with this approach:

  • You must have an active connection to the Internet to read a book.
  • If your connection is slow (512 Kbps or less), you have to wait while each piece of a page is loaded and placed to read the page.
  • If you have a monitor less than 20 or 24 inches, you probably will not see the length of an entire page onscreen. That means you need to scroll and you need to wait while the rest of the page is assembled.

This is obviously not the best way to read a book. In fact, I fail to see why anyone would read a book this way. I have a free subscription to Safari and still buy the books I want to read. All Safari does is help me choose the one that’s likely to be best for me.

There are other problems with Safari that authors don’t like, but since they’re related to sales and royalties, I’ll leave them for another article.

My publisher also republishes my books in DRM-protected PDF format. This also provides readers with a page-by-page view of the printed book. And it also introduces multiple problems:

  • As I write this, Adobe’s DRM doesn’t work with the latest version of Adobe Reader. It doesn’t work with Preview or any other PDF reader software either. So readers are forced to use a specific version of Adobe Reader software.
  • The DRM prevents book buyers from copying the book to another device. So if you bought the book from your desktop computer and started reading it there, you can pretty much forget about copying it to your laptop to read while away from your office.
  • Although you can scale the book’s page size to fit your screen, if you don’t have a big screen, the print size might be too small to see. That means a larger scale and vertical scrolling. You can’t see a whole page at once.

Oddly enough, neither of these formats take advantage of electronic publishing features that would enhance the books. Other than hyperlinking table of contents entries on Safari and enabling search features on the DRM-protected PDFs, the ebooks are identical to the printed books — right down to their black and white screenshots — but presented onscreen instead of on paper.

Do the Pirates Have the Right Idea?

For the past two or so years, I’ve been suffering the heartache of having the electronic versions of my books appear as unprotected PDFs or CHM files on pirate Web sites. The PDF version, when printed, reproduces the entire book, from the [ignored] copyright page to the last page of the index. You have no idea how violated that makes me feel, especially when my ebook royalties from these same titles are so dismally low.

Interestingly enough, the CHM version of a book, if available, is a better product than the original book. Sure, it’s not formatted the same way, but it contains all the content — including the screenshots — and has the added benefit of being searchable and containing hypertext links to other book content. Like the PDF version, it’s portable in that it can be copied to and read on any computer. This makes it possible for the reader to put the book on a laptop and take it on a trip, to read during a long plane ride or consult when working offsite and print books are not available.

Readers Revolt

Product ImageRecently, a reader e-mailed me with some comments about the ebook version of my Mac OS X 10.5 Leopard book. Although she didn’t blame me, she was angry about the purchase and the product she received. She didn’t like the DRM limitations, especially since she doesn’t like to use Adobe Reader. And although she’d bought the ebook version to save money — there was a special deal going on at the time — she didn’t feel as if she’d saved enough money to make the purchase worthwhile. She concluded in her message that she’d never buy another ebook from that publisher again.

And that reminded me of something that most publishers seem to have forgotten these days: we’re creating a product for our customers. How can we expect to sell a product that our customers don’t want?

The Way an Ebook Should Be

These two developments — pirated book formats and ebook reader feedback — got me thinking seriously about the whole ebook situation. I realized several things:

  • Ebooks should be designed to be read onscreen. (Duh.) That means a landscape (wide) layout rather than a portrait (tall) layout. The entire page should fit on a screen so scrolling is not required. Type should be sized so it’s readable even when the page is viewed on a relatively low resolution screen (for example, 800×600 pixels).
  • Ebook formats should take advantage of all commonly-used technology available. That means including color images (which are often too costly for printed books), hyperlinked references, and possibly even multimedia content such as sound and video. Imagine having an ebook with live links to additional content online! Why not?
  • Ebooks should not be protected by DRM. Readers hate DRM because it limits their access to the content. For a reader to get the most from the ebook experience, he should not be held back by limitations and the frustrations of poorly designed DRM software. If you buy an ebook, you should be able to read it on any of your devices that support that format.
  • Ebooks should be priced low enough that anyone can afford them. I believe that most people want to be honest and will not steal content. But people don’t understand why an ebook costs the same (or nearly the same) as a printed book when there’s no paper, printing, or shipping costs. They’re right — ebooks should be cheaper! (They should not, however, be free because a great deal of effort on the part of authors, editors, and layout folks goes into the book.) Fairly pricing an ebook will encourage people who want to read it to pay for it rather than possibly obtain a pirated copy.

And this is where I’ve apparently locked heads with my publisher. I don’t like the way my books are being republished as ebooks. I don’t like dissatisfying or upsetting my readers. I don’t want my readers going to another publisher’s ebooks and authors because my publisher can’t produce a product that meets their needs at a price they’re willing to pay. And I’m not the only author who feels this way.

Thinking Outside the Book

Simply put, my publisher cannot think “outside the book.”

They insist on regurgitating printed books in primitive and inconvenient electronic formats. They insist on sticking to the same price points when the average reader simply doesn’t believe that a paperless book is worth as much as one printed on paper. And they wonder why the books don’t sell, why the authors are angry, why the readers are staying away.

I believe that to succeed in today’s publishing world, publishing organizations need to stop thinking of books in terms of paper and print-friendly layouts. They need to think about the best way to disseminate information to the people who are willing to pay for it. They need to provide quality content in a format that’s convenient for readers. If that’s a printed book, fine. But if it’s an unprotected PDF with hyperlinks to internal and online content, publishers need to accept that — and make their ebooks the ones readers look for when they need information.

What do you think?

I’d love to get feedback from authors and readers about the ebook situation. Use the Comments link or form for this post to share your ideas. You can remain anonymous if you wish.

14 thoughts on “Thinking Outside the Book

  1. My experience with electronic publishing has been with periodicals, and industry catalogs, but I think the logic still applies. Most of them are just plain awful to read, and for all of the reasons you cited. Some of the viewers are so miniscule in size, and are not expandable. This makes for a dizzying amount of scrolling. On some the image quality is so poor that when you magnify it, it is just a larger fuzzy blob. In today’s fast paced environment it is hard to imagine the publishing companies would be such Luddites.

  2. What’s interesting is that it’s not just any old publishing company acting like a Luddite — it’s a company whose business revolves around producing books about computers. Sheesh!

  3. I agree with many of the things you wrote, Maria. (As you know.) And looking at my own ebook collection I have:

    1) Some .pdb files of fiction that I read on my palm. Each one of them cost me about a 1/2 of the paperback one. They are easy to transport and can be read anywhere. My palm allows me to have around 300 in it. (Great for traveling.) If the iPod Touch or the iPhone allowed this I would be an instant buyer.

    2) Many, many scientific articles / chapters of books / thesis in pdf format. Extremely handy. I simply carry more than half of my research library like that: around 5000 pdf files.

    3) Some technical books, like most of the Take Control series on Leopard and Tiger. I love their format (links, easiness of reading, etc.; alas not in landscape format) and I often end up printing part of them. (I prefer to read the printed one, but I like the availability of the pdf format on my hard disk.) They cost a fair price, 10 to 15$ for 100 to 150 pages, and they are regularly updated (minor updates are free, major updates have a small fee). I also liked to read the Macworld, but the Zinio DRM format killed it for me. :(

    Another collection that I’m inclined to buy is the one being currently set by Sharon Zardetto at http://33thingsbooks.com/. They look very cool.

    If I could pick, I’d like you (and, eventually, your fellow co-author) to write something like this for WordPress. Another book I’d like to see in this format would be something along the line of “Killer Tips for Leopard” from Scott Kelby — great to read in small doses, from time to time.

    Maria Valente’s last blog post..links for 2008-02-27

  4. Me, I just read stuff. For computer stuff I’m way too geeky for your books, I use google instead. But for reading the newspaper, fiction and non-fiction that I want when I’m away from my computer, I would much rather have an ebook than paper. Too much paper required.

    With regard to your comment on screens – remember that many screens rotate, so more and more users will be at least able to read in portrait orientation. I don’t think it’s unreasonable to format ebooks that way, or even websites. I’m writing this on a 1200×1600 monitor, for instance.

    I would really like to be able to buy many of the books I will read on my liseuse, but too many publishers are stuck in “just say no” mode. Even with the pirate versions, I often reformat them to suit my reading habits, so the few that are available are often unreadable anyway (I read fast, and I do not like it when much of my reading time is spent waiting for the one second page refresh. It’s bad enough with pbooks where every second page turn takes a second, but when the ebook has half the word count on each page and one second every time… it’s annoying).

    Oh, and pricing: often publishers are setting pricing based on the hardback or trade paperback. Presumably on the basis than anyone who will pay $300 for the liseuse will pay a substantial premium for the ebook. Sorry, but I’m comparing their ebook price to the sale paperbacks, because I can’t pass it on to anyone else and thus it has significantly less value to me (I share books with friends and the local library, so typically each new book is read by at least three people). The latest peter hamilton, for instance, I paid $AUS35 for in trade paperback, but will resell it for $20 or so in a weeks time when i have read it. I’m sure the publisher would be reluctant to see me do that with the ebook, even though it’s perfectly legal to do so with the pbook I bought. So to me $12 is a fair price for the ebook.

  5. One other thing: with the iLiad especially, but with any liseuse, using them to store rapidly changing information is brilliant. I use mine for referring to CAD drawings and would love a touch-screen so I could annotate them but my Sony does not have one. It’s so useful to be able to download images onto it and always have the latest version on there.

  6. As an avid reader, I think you’re spot-on. The DRM for most of the major e-book formats has been broken, in one case for literally years. Which is interesting for at least two reasons: (1) it shows yet again that DRM rarely presents a barrier to dedicated pirates for very long; (2) the DRM-breakage has not caused a massive flood of high-quality e-books to hit the “pirate Websites” – the pirates just aren’t getting their content that way. (As your experience shows – Adobe’s DRM hasn’t been broken yet, but the pirates are handing out your books anyway.)

    One minor point: I think “ebooks should be designed to be read onscreen” means less landscape layouts than reflowable content (like HTML). One loses some typographic qualities with the current reflowable content technologies, but it means the content easily adapts to a display of any size with type of any size.

  7. I am glad to see that you and other authors are seeing the light when it comes to ebooks. The only thing I would say about your ebook suggestions is to forget “pages” altogether. The content needs to re-flow to fit any screen size. I know this can be a problem with some content, especially technical books with graphics, code segments and such. For such content, it is probably ok to assume at least a 640 pixel-wide screen (and probably wider). Most people aren’t going to read this type of ebook on a PDA. Some of the publishing tools for small-screen devices (like Mobipocket Creator) can use a thumbnail image that links to the fullsize image.

    I agree that there are still many difficulties to overcome with the myriad of ebook formats and the equal number of reading devices, from PDA to desktop PC. As for ebook formats, there is a new standard format called epub (www.idpf.org) that is starting to catch on with both publishers and readers. Some of the dedicated reading devices (Sony and Cybook) will soon have firmware updates to support this new format.

  8. A comment about pirates breaking DRM. It isn’t just the pirates. Many users purchase specific DRM-infested formats (LIT in particular) because the DRM is easily removed from that format. This doesn’t mean that the user is intending to do anything illegal with the ebook. It means that they don’t want to be hampered by the restrictions caused by the DRM. In the case of PDF w/DRM, that is the worst, because you usually can’t even copy a passage of text or print a page from the ebook you purchased.

    In many cases, the fact that certain ebook formats can be de-DRM’ed has been the reason that a purchase has been made. If no such format was available, many times a sale was lost to the “darknet”.

    It seems clear to me that DRM is not only a hassle for the user, but it is actually sales deterrent and a hinderance to more widespread adoption of ebooks. The other problem is the multitude of formats. Hopefully epub will catch on and help minimize that problem.

  9. While the use of particular typefaces and sizes is desired for esthetic reasons, in reality, most content can be read quite well with any number of fonts and sizes. One of the major benefits of an e-reading device is the ability to change font and size. Some people find certain fonts easier to read and the ability to change font size makes it possible to read without reading glasses for many of us.

    When a particular font is necessary (equations for example, or source code in a mono-spaced font), then they should be embedded into the ebook. Some ebook formats allow this, some don’t. Happily, font embedding is required in the new epub format, along with SVG support. This makes epub the best re-flowable format for technical books. PDF does a better job with this, but isn’t reflowable and sucks on small screens.

  10. I’m a serious e-book reader and like many I hate DRM with a passion. As a reading format, PDF is next to useless. In fact Mobileread (www.mobileread.com) recently had a thread on whether it should even be considered a legitimate e-book format.

    I prefer to buy un-restricted formats (such as SF and Fantasy from Baen or Fictionwise) but when I can’t I go for MS Reader format purely because I can then convert it into a format I can read on any device I choose in the program that I prefer (uBook or sometimes Mobipocket.)

  11. maria-

    you’ve got some very good insights here.

    and maybe a few that need small adjustments. :+)

    i’m an e-book programmer, and i’d like to

    show you some of my tools you might use.

    they’re not publicly available quite yet, but

    i’d love to work with an author who has the

    courage of their convictions to walk away

    from a publisher who refuses to do it right.

    -bowerbird

What do you think?