Fiction Writing and Other Oddities

Sunday, January 21, 2007

Why e-books and Sony's new e-book reader missed the point...

Since I'm about to be published first as an e-book and then as a trade-sized paperback, I've been doing a lot of research into e-books, marketing and promotion. I've also been looking at e-book readers.

I've come to the conclusion that everyone has missed the boat. That's why the e-book market--with the exception of erotica--just hasn't performed up to everyone's expectations, and why it is so difficult for an author to make a living writing for that market. Which is really too bad, because if you could make a decent living at it (instead of around $300-$600 a year if you publish 2 e-books in a year...which is another topic).

There are a lot of reasons so I'll just go over the obvious ones.

First, a little background. Although it seems like everyone is getting into the e-book market these days, it is not taking off the way anticipated and the additional e-publishers are just fragmenting an already very small and very fragmented market.

The e-book thing started valiantly enough with erotica and boomed, but when you think about it, it was because it was aimed at a tightly focused audience and offered several advantages specific to that audience:
  1. You could get the material anonymously and read it without people knowing you were reading erotica. That's probably the biggest factor.
  2. The Internet had already exploded with sites catering to the clientele who would also be interested in erotica, so they were already using the Internet.
  3. The audience was into instant gratification when they were in the mood.

So, erotica and the Internet seemed made for each other and it continues to perform well. (Uh, pun intended.)

However, book publishers and the computer industry kept looking for the next "killer app" which could net them a lot of money. They looked at the erotica market and thought...hey, maybe the kids growing up today carrying around computers will want to read e-books--maybe if we get in on the ground floor, we'll make a lot of money.

This never materialized the way folks thought it would, and in fact, the computer industry no longer talks big about the anticipated explosion in the e-book market. The devices kids are carrying around do not lend themselves to reading e-books, even if the kids wanted to read them. There are no convienant, cool, devices kids or adults can carry around (like the iPod) that make reading fun.

I don't think things are totally bad, but I do think there have been major mistakes made and until they are corrected, things are not going to improve very much. Let's face it, everyone is trying to get into the e-book market these days, and for most authors, you're going to be a total success if you manage to earn $300 on an e-book. That's a far cry from being published by a traditional publisher. Even the smallest publishers who offer advances generally start with an advance at least around $1,000--and that's a very tiny advance. You'll probably earn $3,000 all told, which is 10 times as much as you'd earn with one e-book, and that's if you publish with a teeny-tiny traditional publisher and do no promotional work, and no extra stuff at all. In other words, you're better off with a teeny-tiny traditional publisher than an e-publisher--unless you're writing erotica.

Let's look at this more closely. I'm going to take myself as "typical of a reader" because on the whole, I think I am.

Mistakes the Industry Has Made

  1. The reader wants the same experience reading an e-book as they do reading a regular book. This is Sony's biggest mistake with their new e-book reader. The fact is that if a reader wants the same experience as reading a paperback, they'll get a paperback. Well, duh. Why buy a very, very expensive black&white device (that costs as much as 60 paperbacks) that only supports one "store" which has a very poor selection of books? You're totally locked in (what else would you expect from Sony, anyway--since they are famous for trying to shackle their customers.) I'd rather buy 60 paperbacks--reading all of them will take me about 3 years, which is probably longer than the Sony e-book reader will last--and I can get my books from any sources.
  2. Until an e-book reader has a batter life of at least 8 hours, forget it. You don't need batteries to read a regular book. I read a lot on planes--in fact--that and the beach are two places where probably more books are read than any other place. And both locations are e-book unfriendly. Most flights I take are at least 1 hour, but more like 2 hours. You add in the time waiting at the airport, and you're already talking 3 or 4 hours. Trying to find an electrical outlet in an airport is not easy. So my laptop and most e-book readers are going to run out of juice and leave me...yep, leave me to waltz into the airport bookstore a paperback. And at the beach? I've yet to find a beach with electrical outlets. A day or afternoon at the beach is more than just a couple of hours. So again...if I carry an e-book reader, I'm going to be left with nothing to read after the batteries die. So why bother?
  3. You can read a paperback while your plane is getting ready to take off. You can't turn on either a laptop or an e-book reader until they let you use electronic devices. This is dumb, but there's nothing I can do about it. (There has never been any evidence to suggest that our consumer electronics wreck havoc with the airplane's electronics--so not being able to use our stuff is just silly...but that's a topic for another blog.)
  4. I already spend too much time at the computer. I work on a computer all day, then I'm on the computer at night writing fiction. I'm generally on the computer about 12 hours a day. When I take time off, I actually don't want to be sitting at the computer. A book gets me away from that, although I only read about 15 minutes each night in bed before I go to sleep, since when I'm not on the computer, I have chores and exercising to do.

Those are just a few of the drawbacks. But, the thing is, there are some bright spots. Everyone is getting into book trailers these days. Someone a lot smarter than me must have noticed this. There are some things that e-books and e-book readers could do that traditional books could not deliver. I'm not sure how this would play out, but I definitely think that we need to think about the e-book strengths if we want that industry to really take off.

What could be done to seduce people into buying e-books?

  1. Offer content and experiences you can't get in a traditional paperback. For me, it occurred to me when I was working on a trailer for my upcoming book, Smuggled Rose, that my heroine--Margaret Lane--plays Beethoven in several scenes. Why couldn't the music she plays be part of the e-book? Make it multimedia. Include pictures (if appropriate) and music. Not quite a movie, but a little more than a traditional book. A few extras. The nice thing is that since I write mostly historical fiction, it opens up the whole idea of giving the reader more information about the era, including popular music, (introduce kids to classical music painlessly!) art, interesting historical snippets, architecture...even with modern fiction, the possibilities are enormous. Even just including links that the reader could click on that would take them to interesting and related sites (assuming wireless connectivity is available). That might even make reading an e-book on a computer a more interesting experience, too.

    I'm actually not sure how that would work out, because I still want the book to be a book and you don't want to turn it into a video, but creative folks a lot smarter than I am should be thinking about this. I see it more as "options" readers could indulge in--e.g. a link on the page where Margaret is playing Beethoven--that would let the reader click and hear the music, if they wished. If not, they could simply continue reading.
  2. Create an e-book reader that is usable. That means it must have at least the following features:
  • Color. Why even create a device without color these days? At a minimum, you want to be able to see the pretty cover of the book...
  • Good Battery Life. 8 hours minimum. Make it 10.
  • Flexible. I should be able to download content from anywhere, any bookstore on the Internet and my computer, as well. I should be able to read everything: html, pdf, lit, and all those goofy e-book reader formats.
  • Lots of Room. It must hold 100 books, minimum. I mean, why not? Storage is cheap.
  • Multimedia support. That's right. I want to be able to play mp3 and some videos, as well as read. I will NOT carry multiple devices, including iPods, etc so I can listen to an MP3 and then read. In fact, I want to be able to listen to my MP3s while I read.
  • Wireless and USB support. Yeah. How else am I going to download content?
  • Browser. Again, I want to be able to browse the Internet and download content. Duh.

Which brings me to UMPCs. Ultramobile PCs. Those tiny little full function PCs which are about the size of...Sony's e-book reader, except a lot more functional. You can read whatever you want on them because they run a regular operating system. You can even get bluetooth keyboards and a mouse if you want to do e-mail or write your great American novel on it, when you're done reading. I'm particularly fond of the OQO model 2 at the moment.

The only big problem is battery life is still not that great, but they are a computer. In fact, as soon as the OQO 02 comes out with the Vista operating system on it, I'm buying one. I travel a lot and I'm soon to have a published e-book. I want one device I can use to read my book, get my email, update my website, and write while I'm traveling. I can't do personal stuff on my laptop given to me by my office, so I don't want to carry two full-sized computers around with me (plus my work Blackberry, and my personal cell phone). But I could live with my Blackberry, my personal cell phone, my work laptop, and the OQO 02.

In the meantime, e-books will continue to be the red-haired stepchild of the publishing industry...


Anonymous said...

I just put my first literary novel up on a publisher in Seattle. Your views are dead-on and very appreciated. Guess I'll give up that option on the house in the South of France and just go to Panama City Beach like every other year.

Seriously though, erotica may lead the way, but e-books are the future if the bugs you spell out are fixed.

Amy said...

I completely agree--esp. with Google and Microsoft working on digitizing out-of-print books to make them available online. I, myself, when doing research have gone more and more to online because of the faster search capabilities than trying to page through tons of paper. But, I also think there are some fundamental changes that may occur as this process continues. And there are vendors now coming up with computers the size of paperbacks that can get 6 hours of batter life, e.g. the OQO model 2 with the extra battery. It's a little heavy but heck, for 6 hours, I could go for that, big time.
As an e-published author, I'm actually quite excited and can't wait to see what will happen over the next few years. Technology is our friend! :-)

Anonymous said...

Keep up the good work.