On Ebooks: Pricing & Quality, Amazon & Streaming, Org Changes, Social Reading, Ownership & More


During discussions around ebooks at the PublishingNext conference, one question from Arunava Sinha, who – apart from being the Head of ibnlive.com & cricketnext.com at Web 18 – is also a translator of classic and contemporary Bengali fiction, wasn’t quite entirely answered – “What can be the argument against having digitized ebook versions of each publication?” Lipika Bhushan, Head of Marketing at Harper Collins India did say that it is not about not knowing how to digitize books, but about contractual issues. “Till the time we were signing contracts two years ago, we didn’t have digtization of books in the contract. If we start digitizing our backlist, we have to go back to the author, and it’s a time consuming task,” she said, to which Sinha responded “”the readers will not wait.” And he’s right: Books publishing isn’t the only industry facing this problem – the music industry has been going through years of issues with dealing with “future rights”. The listener did not wait for the music industry, and the reader will not wait for publishers to sort their contracts out.

Some notes on ebooks from the conference:

- Mistakes About Quality: ”The most important lesson to be learned from the US and UK is to not see digital as lesser quality. Publishers didn’t like them, and treated them as cheap rubbish products. When ebooks came out – horrible typeset, badly proofed, and now customers already think that ebooks should cost less, and with bad production they devalue it further. we’ve damaged ourselves.

- Ebooks Not Just For Youth:  James Bridle, a director at Bookkake said “Even through some people have said it’s (the ebooks business) been coming for years, it’s taken everyone by surprise, vecause there are wrong expectations about what they’re about. The misconception is that it is only for young people. My dad is 65, and reads mostly digital history, and reads it on the kindle. He can take it where he goes, because he can read the text size, and he likes big heavy books, but it’s no longer big and heavy.

- Publisher Organizational Changes: “The precursor to ebooks taking off is that the businesses themselves change, and organizations restructure themselves around ebooks. Audiobooks is a large market in the UK, and (initially) they got stuck with ebooks work in a publishers setup. ebooks have slowly come into the org, and become a core part with serious restructuring and understanding on the part of the publishing process: publishers now have digital as a part of their workflow, and they sit between editors and the distribution,” Bridle said.

- Social Reading: “When people spoke about ebooks”, Bridle said, “they spoke about the smell of a physical copy, but they never said that until ebooks came along. The underlying current (in terms of an issue) is the ownership, the ability to highlight, to bookmark and organize. With social reading (online), where people can bookmarks sections and save it, but they can also share these bookmarks and make it social. These books should belong to the reader. The experience of reading is almost separate form the books itself. A teacher can mark books, and send notes to students. It’s important to keep the quality of the texts. The device decides the content, and that’s not necessarily a good thing. Publishers need to be involved in shaping the market, because there is so much experience.”

- Ebooks & Impact on Republishing: ”initially it felt like it was leveling the playing field. it is easier to start a new publisher, and you still have to do the marketing and promotions,a nd the barriers are lower. It’s changing the recycling of books – a smaller house cannot republish classics. It’s so cheap to product electronically, that large publishing houses can buy up the book.”

- Books  & Libraries: Earlier this year, Harper Collins put a cap of 26 books on ebook rental, because unlike a physical copy, the ebook version doesn’t deteriorate, and there is otherwise no case for reordering. The underlying suggestion is that you don’t buy an ebook, you lease it. One of the speakers called this an outrage.

- Amazon & Streaming Books: Amazon recently started talking about streaming of books, where you pay a subscription for access.

- eBooks Need To Be More Than Just Facsimiles Of Books - ”You have an ebook, and a book, it still goes through editorial copy-editing etc. When we’re talking about ebooks, they’re not a great change. People have worked hard to make sure they’re not a great thing. They can’t just be facsimiles of books. They have to be native products, and that’s where the real digital publishing is going to come from,” Michael Bhaskar, Digital Publishing Director at Profile Books said.

- Digital Archiving & Piracy - Nilanjana Roy pointed out during the Q&A that there is a perception that technology is perishable and archives die, and alternate publishers that are good at keeping ideas in circulation. In response, Pranesh Prakash pointed out that Digital Piracy is a form of archiving.

- Indian languages & Digital Printing: Radhika Menon of Tulika Publishers informed that new digital technology still cannot deal with Indian languages, and in case of CTP (computer to plate), matras (hyphens) disappear. “We end up using Pagemaker,” she said.

- Why Isn’t Independent Publishing online? Trisha Gupta felt that the ebook should seem to be an attractive option for independent publishers, in terms of warehousing and print runs, and we need to think about adapting books, not just think of the ebook as a lower cost option. “The Kindle Singles have been a big hit. We think that people wouldn’t buy short stories, but could you buy a portion of a book as a short story. The idea of mobile phone penetration: we should think of publishing speech genres, which perhaps we could download and listen to, and do that do on cellphones. You need to cater to different kinds of readers differently. In magazine writing, we’ve been reading that a review should be no longer than X number of words, and now look at Caravan Magazine that has long form. If the content is there it will find readers.”

Disclosure: the writer was a speaker at the Publishing Next conference in Goa at the invitation of the organizers, with costs of attending covered.