Young market problems: ebooks as clearing house for unpublishable content

Part of me really wants to get a decent ereader and start plunging into the brave new market of electronic books; as a writer, reader, some-time publisher and general technoforesight wonk, I feel I should be down in the trenches if I want to see how the campaign is really going. The other half of me is the half that’s been burned by classic early-adopter screw-ups ever since I acquired that tendency from my father; I’m waiting for either a universally accepted open format, a decent open platform, or both. (I doubt I’ll have much longer to wait; I expect I’ll be nailing myself an affordable Android-based tablet in the post-Xmas sales next year.)

So, perforce, I have to get my news about the actual content sloshing around in the ebook marketplace from other people… and while I’m not taking it as broadly representative, this post from James “Big Dumb Object” Bloomer highlights the state of play wherein creators and new middle-men/aggregator outfits are testing the water to see what will actually float. Or, to put it more plainly: everyone’s throwing shit at the wall in order to see what sticks:

The other day I bought How To Write Science Fiction by Paul Di Filippo, tempted by the price (69p) and the prospect of another author’s view on writing SF.

It’s an interesting read, containing thoughts on what maximalist SF is, how to (attempt to) write it and an essay on the creation of Di Filippo’s novel Ciphers. There’s a few interesting nuggets there for me to think about (plus, now, a need to read some Pynchon). However it’s not very long, not really a book and not really about how to write Science Fiction. It’s the sort of text I’d expect to be posted to a blog. It’s the sort of text that in physical form would be thin and flimsy, and I probably wouldn’t ever buy.

It’s going to take a while for pricing to settle down in line with customer expectations, but the nature of the content being sold is a big part of that. Perhaps it’s the case that no one’s gonna pay for a lengthy blog essay when there are umpteen thousand of the things – some of exceptional quality, others not so much – floating around out here on the unwalled web, just waiting to be read. But then again, Nick Mamatas’ Starve Better – my dead-tree version of which I’ve been greatly enjoying over the last week or so, incidentally – is essentially a collection of essays and articles, many of which either were or started out as blog posts or fanzine pieces; it’s retailing at $3.99 for a selection of electronic formats, and – had I been in possession of a decent ereader – I’d have considered that a damned good price for the material it contains. I don’t know how long the di Filippo piece is, exactly, but perhaps the problem here is the attempt to price a single essay fairly; meanwhile, Starve Better is a curation product, an act of filtering Mamatas’ prodigious output down to the best material devoted to a specific topic.

So perhaps we could say that Apex, by doing the old-school publisher thing, have added value to the raw material and thus earned their middle-man cut, while 40k – who, I should note, I think are one of the more interesting ebook ventures I’m aware of at the moment, and not just because they’re publishing a lot of stuff from sf authors – are just rolling chunks of content out of the door with a snappy title and hoping for the best. Maybe the latter would work at a lower price… but until someone sorts out a decent and widely-adopted micropayments system, pricing at under a buck will remain the province of big clearing houses like Amazon who can afford to eat up the transaction charges on a lot of tiny purchases. Economies of scale haven’t gone away just yet, it seems.

More musings from James:

Will this mean that buyers will tread ever more safely when buying books? Perhaps now people will only trust books from the bestseller top ten or those recommended by a high profile book club? It feels to me right now that the lack of physical form may actually hinder more experimental buying once the blush of the new fangled eBooks dies to the norm, the marketing departments have tried to pull a few fast ones and readers have been bitten by buying some dreadful self-published novels?

I think these are very real issues, and not just for publishing; a flattened media landscape means curation and aggregation are becoming at least as important as the traditional editorial roles, and the marketing/PR channel needs to become more focussed on finding the right niche vertical to pitch to, as opposed to the old model of making generalised statements of awesomeness about a piece of work and hoping some hack will cut’n’paste it verbatim. Interesting times ahead.

11 thoughts on “Young market problems: ebooks as clearing house for unpublishable content”

  1. Finding the right niche vertical.

    Sorry, I just wanted to know what it would feel like to type that.

    Interesting piece, Paul. As someone who has published for the Kindle, I’m very grateful for the opportunity to put out-of-print works right back in-print.

    There certainly is the widespread perception that there is a great deal of dross available for the Kindle (I’ll restrict myself to that because I have no experience of other readers/stores). However, I’m not aware that we know for sure whether there is more shit being thrown at the wall than would be thrown at a physical wall by a physical publisher – and sometimes at fans (can I get an AMIRITE). Presumably there’s a bit more because people don’t need anyone’s permission to get on the store.

    I don’t think people will tread more softly once they’ve been burned. The fact is, these markets are driving prices down. When people download a duff book for one great British pound, they aren’t heartbroken when it turns out to be duff. They’re more heartbroken when the duff book costs £6.99 or something thereabouts (these are typically those put out by traditional publishers).

    Anyway. Some thoughts. Take them; leave them; paste ’em into WordArt.

  2. Amazon is supposed to adopt the ePub format for the Kindle in the near future, which means that almost every major eReading device will handle that format. But all of that will be up to the “publisher,” really. Most of the poor formatting and the like I’ve seen in ePubs have nothing to do with the file format.

  3. Interesting post Paul,

    When it comes to crap, always remember Sturgeon’s Law.

    The only way to identify crap ebooks is to become an active reader. Perhaps someone could start a website for non-Amazon books which identifies the crap by title, author and, most importantly, ISBN code. Amazon has reader reviews and, it behooves all of us to review the crap when we encounter it. Even if you just say “Crap” in the review.

  4. Very true, but there are two other factors to consider. One: one person’s crap is another’s pageturner (Dan Brown, anyone). Two: reviewer trust is critical, and Amazon’s internal system is too easily gamed or swamped. So independent and reliable aggregators/curators will become a new filtering intermediary between creator/publisher and reader. Mirrors fragmentation of music scenes into hyperniches collecting around certain live venues, cities and websites/blogs.

  5. With the number of free ebooks being published each month, there is a really simple way to avoid wasting your money on authors you are not familiar with; Stick with reading books that are free.

    My website has tons of sites that offer free ebooks, enough to keep you busy for a lifetime already and more are published every week.

    However, I do not believe that the so called crap ebooks will destroy the industry. The industry is quite well on its way to doing that itself by taking aay consumer rights, pricing ebooks well above consumer expectation, and not catering to sub-genres because they don’t bring in the big bucks that the usual suspects do.

    Let me ask you something. If you could hire all the people necessary to do something that would make you a steady profit of $500 a month for the foreseeable future why not do it? This is the money that some of the sub-genres might make, but it is steady and loyal money as well. To many people are ignoring micro-markets in order to keep flagging markets that are over saturated.

    E-marketers call these long-tail. You won’t get a flood of purchasers, but you will find a steady trickle all the time and the lower your price is, the easier it is for someone to justify trying you out.

  6. Your note about curation and adding value sounds right to me. If a publisher collects what’s important from a thousand blog posts it feels more worthwhile than publishing just two blog posts.

  7. Interesting, as usual. I can only add that we work with short formats “by definition” (our claim is: short is more). And, if you read the Amazon page, you’ll be aware that the essay (“How To Write Science Fiction”) is 11.000 words long. We try to be transparents using the word count, the best manner we have at the moment 🙂

  8. On a different note: Paul, if you are thinking of a device for reading ebooks in the traditional, sequential, page-after-page way, don’t even consider tablets with (backlit) LCD screens. Electrophoretic displays (E-Ink, Sipix, …) are hugely superior for comfort and, even more important, battery life (full days instead of hours). If you get one of the bigger ones (say, 8″ or 9″ screen) you can also bypass, at least partly, the format issue by reading pdf documents.

  9. @ShaunDuke Amazon files currently are ePub files with some proprietary code added on: ‘converting’ would be a matter of removing the proprietary bits.

    -Lisa Shapter

  10. If you’re worried about paying even 99 cents or 64p for an indie-published ebook, you can always download the first 10% for free. The free samples have helped me avoid spending even a few cents on a cr*p ebook or one that is badly formatted. (And if you complain to Amazon customer service about bad formatting, they’ll often refund your money and take back the book.)

    Paul Raven said:
    one person’s crap is another’s pageturner (Dan Brown, anyone)

    I’m happy to sift through all those cr*p ebooks, because traditional publishing has never been keen to publish the kinds of stories I like. I’m finding much more to read now that authors of “niche” books can find their audience.

    Catherine M Wilson

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