Monday, 5 May 2008

Book Publishing in a Digital World

Filed under: Cyberspace — Jan Goyvaerts @ 18:10

The software industry has long gone digital. The actual product has always been digital. But until the late 90s, most software was still sold in physical boxes. Today, it’s mostly only bargain bin stuff and major computer games (too big to download) that are still sold in boxes.

Most photographers have gone digital. A modern digital SLR takes better pictures than a 35mm film SLR, particularly at high sensitivity (ISO). Home video and TV is all digital. Only feature films are still shot on film. But the Red One camera may soon change that. The music industry tried to fight the trend. But I don’t believe that anyone selling music still believes that there’s a future in CDs.

The book industry doesn’t seem to have figured out the trend yet. Or maybe they’re just sticking their heads into the sand. But it’s inevitable that books too will soon be digital products. Only collector’s editions will be available on paper.

There is some ongoing discussion about the (programming) book industry in the blogosphere. I’m sure there will be a lot more talk before shipping printed books is no longer Amazon.com’s core business.

Talk of the average programmer reading less than a book per year is meaningless. People haven’t been reading books since… Well, people haven’t been reading books. Googling for average american reads books per year points me to One in Four [Americans] Read No Books [in 2006]. That’s not very different from 10 years ago. People who like to read still read. As for me, I read no books last month. I average about half a dozen per year. It used to be more before the internet. Reference material is better accessed online.

I’ve had a bit of a passion for writing ever since I inherited the typewriter my mother used in college. I was 7 or 8 and my fingers really hurt. :-)

Some sing the praises of lulu.com. I have actually used lulu.com as a reader and as a writer. It’s a mixed bag. I think it’s the swan song of the printed book. Just like the best steam trains were built when it was already obvious that diesel was the better technology.

In 2002, I wrote a detailed regular expressions tutorial for the documentation with PowerGREP. I didn’t want to release what I intended to be the world’s most powerful grep tool with a two-page syntax list like most other grep tools. I told you I like to write! In 2003, I published it online at regular-expressions.info to drive search engine traffic to PowerGREP and later RegexBuddy.

I regularly got requests for a printed or printable version of the web site. In 2006, I signed up with lulu.com to print my regex tutorial as a paperback. Creating the PDF with the proper dimensions and formatting, approving the printed proof (which I had to buy), setting up retail distribution, etc. took me about 4 days and $150. It was easy enough. Though what I made easily paid for 4 days of my time, sales were disappointing. I decided to kill the project when I delved deeper into the lulu.com stats: I was selling more PDF downloads than paperbacks! There is no demand for dead trees. Particularly not the kind that ships slowly and expensively. Lulu.com simply can’t compete with Amazon.com in terms of order fulfillment. People complain if they have to wait 15 minutes to download their licensed copy of RegexBuddy. I had to stop using my e-commerce provider that manually verified all orders and switch to one that processed orders in real time. But lulu.com takes many days just to print the book! There’s no way they can compete with Amazon Prime. And even that is already to slow in the digital world. If you sell something tangible, you cannot avoid working with retailers if you want to sell any kind of volume.

And on-demand printing is expensive. Traditional publishers pay very low royalies. But their printing costs are quite low. If you want to price your lulu.com book competitively, your royalty won’t be much higher. Far worse is that nobody will stock your book. Amazon.com won’t discount it. So you’ll end up spending your higher royalty on doing your own marketing.

As a reader, I purchased two books from lulu.com: The Tomes of Delphi: Algorithms and Data Structures and The ECO-III book.

The Tomes book was first published through a traditional publisher. When it went out of print, the author regained the copyright and made it available for print again on lulu.com. It was and is an excellent book. The author and original publisher did a great job. It’s quite timeless by computer book standards. This is what lulu.com does best: converting existing text into a paperback. That’s what I used it for as well, though with less success. Incidentally, Julian does not offer his book as a PDF download. I think he should. Lulu will pay him the same royalty for the download, but the reader won’t have to pay for and wait for shipping.

The ECO-III book is about the Enterprise Core Objects technology in Delphi for .NET (Architect edition). It should revolutionize developing database applications, but I can’t wrap my head around it. That’s why I got the book. I didn’t get beyond the first few chapters. I could look beyond the poor layout. But it simply does not explain the technology. It talks about classes and methods and where to click, but it doesn’t tell me why I should care about ECO or teach me the underlying methodology. I can read about classes and methods in ECO’s help files.

There’s no point in complaining about bad editors. There are a lot of bad editors, just like there are a lot of bad programmers. The fact that a bad editor can drive a book project into the ground only proves that you can’t publish a great book without a good editor who works well together with the author. I actually enjoyed the time I spent making a pixel-perfect PDF for lulu.com. But then I also enjoyed smashing my little fingers into a typewriter as a kid. Unfortunately, most authors really just want to write the book, not edit out all the little issues that keep a decent book from being great.

I’m sure Marco Cantu does well with his books on lulu.com. He made a name for himself with his traditionally published “Mastering Delphi” series. There will be room for lulu.com while printed books have the edge in readability. But I don’t believe that will last much longer.

If Amazon offered the Kindle in Thailand, I would buy it sight unseen. Unfortunately, its core feature of wirelessly downloading books won’t work here until Amazon signs on one of the local cellular networks. But there’s no doubt that something like the Kindle will soon eliminate the printed book. Instantaneous delivery, 200-book storage space and non-destructive yet persistent note-taking are only some features that can never happen with a printed book. And how long do you think it will be politically correct to make schoolchildren break their backs lugging dead trees? Give Moore’s law a few more years, and you’ll get a free Kindle with every newspaper or magazine subscription. Just like you get a cell phone with a calling plan.

PDFs and ebooks haven’t really caught on yet, because the transmissive low-resolution screens on PCs and laptops are uncomfortable for long reading sessions. The Kindle, however, has a reflective screen that’s just as nice as ink on paper, except that color is still on the to do list. But color is too expensive for the typical paperback too.

I don’t know if the Kindle will be successful in the long run or not. But I’m sure that something like it will be the only “book” people will carry physically in the future.

And that will really open up the long tail in book publishing. People go to lulu.com because they don’t want to deal with publishers, or publishers don’t want to deal with them. It’s only a matter of time before there’s a Kindle that uses an open format that allows anybody to publish their own books on their own web sites.

But publishers aren’t going to go away. In fact, I predict that in the end, publishers will come out stronger. At least the ones that survive. When everybody can publish their own drivel, a publisher’s cachet becomes even more valuable.

I was recently asked if I was interested in co-writing a book. I signed the contract last week. I didn’t sign for the money. I signed mainly for four reasons. I’ve wanted to write a real book since the days I hurt myself on an old typewriter. I’m only writing half the book, leaving enough time for my software business. The book is on a topic that I’m an expert on. It will be published by the #1 publisher of computer books.

Actually, the last reason is the only real reason. It’s the one that makes be believe that the book will be successful. It’ll actually be in real bookstores where people can browse through it. Amazon will have plenty of stock and a deep discount. People won’t recognize my or my co-author’s name. But they’ll recognize the publisher just from the style of the cover. People do judge books by their covers.


  1. Jan —

    I’m pretty sure I wasn’t “whining”. Complaining, yes, but “whining” is a pretty unfair characterization.

    And to clarify, there are two issues at hand: Editors are often ignorant of what they are editing, and the whole process is very inefficient. At least my experience was.

    Nick Hodges

    Comment by Nick Hodges — Monday, 5 May 2008 @ 23:52

  2. Fair enough, Nick. I’ve edited my post to change “whining” into “complaining”. See, even blog posts can benefit from some good editing!

    If your editor was ignorant of what he or she was editing, then your publisher gave you a bad deal. I’m sure that you found the process very frustrating. My point is that this doesn’t prove that the whole process of editing is bad, but that it’s important to have a good editor. And “good” implies knowledge of the subject matter.

    The book I’m about to write will be edited by the editor of three best-selling editions of another book on the same technology. When I said that the publisher was the only real reason for me signing the contract, the editor assigned to the project was part of that.

    When publishers look for authors, they always ask if the author is qualified to write a book on the (technical) subject. Authors should be just as much concerned with the editor’s and publisher’s qualifications to edit and publish a book on the subject.

    Comment by Jan — Tuesday, 6 May 2008 @ 13:42

  3. Hi Jan

    If you are willing to give ECO another try (yes, it supposed to revolutionize developing database applications :-) you might find the new series of tutorial PDF-files easier to read to get into the backgrounds. The first part is called “Why ECO”. A free version (up to 12 classes) can be downloaded from the website, and will work with both RadStudio 2007 Architect and VisualStudio.

    You can download the PDFs from http://www.capableobjects.com/ProductsServices_ECO_VS.aspx

    Comment by Jonas Högström — Tuesday, 6 May 2008 @ 14:31

  4. Digital revaluation in print media is worked well. Online readership is increased dramatically from the past three years. All the publishers are presenting their publications through online to attract the advertisers, increase the readers and generate the revenues. There are some companies like Pressmart Media providing the e-publishing solution for all print editions and distributing them through various new technology mediums.

    Comment by John — Tuesday, 6 May 2008 @ 17:19

  5. Jan —

    No problem — I certainly value your insight. I agree that I had some bad editors, but even when they were good, the process was inefficient and irritating all around — but naturally YMMV. And you are totally right that authors should be as careful about who edits them as editors are in choosing writers.


    Comment by Nick Hodges — Tuesday, 6 May 2008 @ 22:57

  6. What bothers me most about the current book publishing industry is the false divide between electronic and paper books. You can buy either the electronic copy at a reduced price, or the paper copy at full price, but not as often can you buy the paper copy and get the electronic copy included without a price increase. Since the cost of the book is in editing, printing and distribution, giving me a pdf copy with any paper book I buy costs the publishers nothing, while for me it creates value. The same goes for cd sales. I want to buy a physical copy, and have the electronic version arrive in my mailbox immediately. I don’t understand why publishers don’t seem to catch on that this is a way to drive sales.

    Comment by Joeri — Wednesday, 7 May 2008 @ 19:20

  7. […] has been something I’ve wanted to do since I was very young. I took the opportunity, before books go all digital. The book will be published by the same publisher as the best book on regular expressions to date. […]

    Pingback by Writing Offline - Regex Guru — Tuesday, 27 May 2008 @ 12:56

  8. Joeri, it’s definitely a good point to ask why you don’t get digital editions (of books) included when you buy paperback books. A lot of books would benefit a lot from having a digital version included in the paperback version. Especially books concerning informations about programming and stuff (i.e. nearly any kind of reference and tutorial books on programming or webdesign) would benefit a lot. Many of these books already ship with a CD or DVD containing hundreds of examples printed in the book version, but if you need these books on the go (in your office AND at home) you still have to carry them physically around. And – to make things worse – most of these books (especially the better ones) tend to be the heavy-weight ones. Today nearly everybody carries a USB-Stick arround. Being able to copy books to (and read from) USB-Sticks will definitely be a much apreciated addition to paperback versions.

    Comment by Garonne — Tuesday, 27 May 2008 @ 21:35

  9. Books in the electronic format is an established fact nowadays. They can be read on the computer and you’re right, Jan, it’s not possible to read for a long time using normal electronic devices. This is why for a long time now I’ve been using Sony reader PRS-500. I like it, it’s got so called eInk technology implemented, which doesn’t tire the eyes and allows a person to read a book for a long time.

    There are problems too. The first is that the good outside light is required. The second is that the PDF format is not properly supported, the text cannot be re-formatted.

    Since I bought the reader, I haven’t bought a single paper book, I only buy electronic copies of books, so you see, digital reading in digital world have its place and is going to get even bigger (type “flexible book reader” into YouTube for example)

    Comment by George The Computer Specialist — Sunday, 7 December 2008 @ 3:48

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