Iain M Banks


Transition iTunes podcast serialisation from September 3rd

Hachette Digital have confirmed that they'll be publishing the UK ebook edition of Transition in epub format, priced £17.61 and available from Waterstones.com and WHSmith.co.uk. More details when the relevant catalogue links go live.

Further Discussion

Option One:

Discuss this item on the Iain Banks forum

You will need to register as a forum member before you can join or start a conversation thread.
Please see the Joining the Forum thread for more info.]

Option Two:

21 Comments and counting

  1. ak77 says:

    I'm genuinely disgusted at this. I have been a Banks fan through and through since the beginning, M. and no M. and I presumably always will be. My I.M.B/I.B collection stands proudly on my shelf.

    However, I am flabbergasted that he is happy to see his fans gouged by this kind of pricing on an EBOOK! How can you justify £18, if only to recoup cannibalized revenue from the already overpriced hardback cycle that isn't selling well?

    I was asked £25 in brick&mortar WHSmith for the hardback yesterday, I couldn't afford it. And now to find that the no-production-overhead, near-zero-distribution-costs, licensed-not-owned, unresellable, intangible, ebook version costs £18, I'm disgusted.

    /Hoping the Banks' website thinks enough of my opinion to publish my genuine and heartfelt thoughts.

  2. Darren says:

    Hi AK77

    Okay, you clearly have some very strong feelings on the subject, which is quite understandable. So, very quickly, because this is an incredibly complex issue that's been explored in far more detail elsewhere for many, many months (and bearing in mind that any opinions expressed in the following are entirely my own and not necessarily those of my employers, etc.):

    1) Iain Banks doesn't set the price of his printed or electronic editions. His publishers suggest a recommended retail price and then (since the net book agreement was abolished in the 1990s) retailers are generally free to adjust that as they see fit. Not passing the buck there, just pointing out that it's a dynamic system with multiple decision-making inputs.

    2) eBooks do actually carry some fairly significant production overheads (not least is the UK government's insistence on charging 17.5% VAT on ebooks) and distribution costs (starting with online retailers who take their cut, same as with p-books). Again, the issue has been explored and explained elsewhere in far more depth than I can effectively summarise here, but a few Google searches should turn up plenty of material.

    3) £25 for a hardback sounds like it could have been a mistake on WHSmith's systems, although having said that, as mentioned earlier, retailers are free to ask whatever they like for a book (the price we print on the cover is just the recommended retail price, after all).

    How do we justify our pricing model? Well, at the end of the day, we're running a commercial enterprise, not an art gallery. So we set a price for our products that we believe the market will stand and will offer the best possible commercial return for us (so we can afford to go on publishing books) for our retail partners (so they can afford to go on distributing our books) and for our authors (so we can afford to pay them and they can afford to go on writing books for us to publish).

    Personally (again) I think that what the customer is really paying for is the content, the story, the new Iain Banks novel. So the price on the book is the price to read the brand new Iain Banks novel, right now, without waiting for a cheaper edition to become available at a later date. The format that you prefer to take delivery of that content in is up to you - we have produced the new Iain Banks novels in various formats, after all - but whatever you choose, it's still the new Iain Banks novel.

    So: if you don't want to pay £18 to read the brand new Iain Banks novel (in an ebook, if that's your preferred format) right now, then that's fine, no-one is forcing you to. You have options (a number of which are entirely legal and don't involve resorting to digital theft): You could wait a while and maybe the price will drop. Or look online for a cheaper, second-hand hardcover copy. Or borrow one from a friend. Or borrow one from a library. Take your pick.

    Lastly, here's a couple of quick questions: how much difference would it make if we pre-loaded the e-book edition onto a USB memory stick or a CD, so you actually had a physical object to hold onto, or pass to someone else, or store in a collection? Would that solve the "unresellable, intangible" issues? And would that make any difference to the fact that what you were reading and paying for is essentially the new Iain Banks novel?

    Genuinely interested in responses to the last couple of points, there.

    And a quick update: here's an author's-eye perspective on the issues surrounding ebook pricing (with reference to the recent dispute between Amazon and Macmillan):


  3. ak77 says:

    Wow! Great response Darren!

    Thanks, I genuinely appreciate you taking the time (and of course it's a handy place to definitively state your case on the matter).

    To clarify I believe the brick'n'mortar price was £22.99, and I don't think there was a mistake.

    To answer your questions, the physical-object is a part of it, but another is the intrinsic value of the purchased object, and the right to sell it. If I bought the dead-tree version, I'd be able to turn around and resell it when I was done. Or trade it, or lend it. But as I'm only *licensing* the ebook and it's infinitely-copyable but illegal to do so, the money I spend on it is absolute and at the same time the object is worthless. There is no immutable value (in the secondary sense) to my purchase. It is immediately worthless as far as tradable/resale value.

    Cars have nothing on ebooks for depreciation.

    SO, when I'm asked to pay almost (or exactly) the same price (or more) for an ebook as the physical thing, I'm being asked to forego my normal rights as a buyer of goods, and pretend that I was only ever really buying the experience, and that this is somehow the same as that. But it isn't.

    To be clear, I probably wouldn't even sell the book, but a physical book has a value, as an investment, that an ebook cannot ever have.

    Also: "..a number of which are entirely legal and don't involve resorting to digital theft".. huh? Where did I even suggest that I'd illegally download a version instead of waiting for the price to drop? I totally understand the tiered model you employ, I just don't like it. But that doesn't mean I'm immediately going to pirate, and I don't appreciate that that's your presumption.

    "Or look online for a cheaper, second-hand hardcover copy. Or borrow one from a friend. Or borrow one from a library. Take your pick."

    See, they are some of the reasons people like physical copies. I can't do any of those things with the ebook version; here is your proof that they are not the same.

    Again, thanks for your detailed reply.

  4. Darren says:

    Hello again -

    First up, I do apologise: I certainly didn't mean to imply that you, personally, would be at all likely to download an illegal copy of an ebook. It's just the obvious elephant in the room whenever there's a conversation about online availability of digital material, so I was just trying to acknowledge the possibility. My bad there, should have made that a bit clearer, phrased that a bit better.

    And then, back to the main point (and again, entirely my own opinions here): What I'm really hoping to get across here is that I believe the real value in buying the new Iain Banks book lies in being able to read the new Iain Banks story. But I kinda get the impression that the discussion is still very much focused on the object value of the container rather than the experiential value of the story.

    Most publishers provide a choice of container for the new stories they publish, and the choice of container is one that the customer is free to make (it's not like publishers only release new stories in a single, proprietary ebook format, thereby forcing the consumer to buy a specific reader just to access the files.. unlike, say a certain global online reader with their own device to push that I could mention...)

    Those container options might include:

    1) The printed book. A physical, bulky object, it's less convenient because it can't be downloaded to a portable, digital reader (with any ease) and so it's difficult to carry more than a few of them around at the same time. But on the plus-side, thay can be lent to someone else very easily, they can be re-sold, thay can potentially be signed by the author, and they can be used to fill a bookcase and decorate a room.

    2) The ebook. Obviously a digital file is a lot more portable and easy to store, but they require additional equipment to read them and they come with those pesky licensing restrictions. So they can't be lent to someone else with ease (unless of course the actual e-reading device is borrowed for a while) and they don't come with the right to re-sell them.

    3) The Audio edition. Again, it's a smaller physical object, but once more it needs additional equipment to experience. And it's relatively expensive to buy, unless someone is happy with an abridged version. But again, it can easily lent or re-sold and be collected and displayed for decorative purposes.

    So there we have the same story in a choice of three delivery containers, each with their own pros and cons, their own trade-off of convenience versus price versus object value. And the purchaser obviously has their your own criteria to weigh up as well, which might include factors such as:

    - Do I want to invest in an ebook reader because it's more convenient for me to read electronic books?
    - Do I want to experience the story by listening to it while doing something else (driving, for instance)?
    - Do I want to share the story with family and friends?
    - Do I have a collection that I'd like to add the container to?
    - Do I want to re-sell the container the story came in after I've experienced it?
    - Do I want to experience the story at zero cost, by borrowing a copy from someone else?

    So the rational purchaser weighs up the benefits and limitations of those options in light of their personal needs and preferences. They weigh up the relative merits of each, taking into account the trade-off, then decide what best suits them and as a result they reach a purchase decision. I completely understand that if someone has invested in an ebook reader they'll want to make use of it. But what it essentially boils down to is: do they value the convenience of a digital file over the re-sale and inherent object / investment value of the hardback edition, or vica-versa? That's probably the key differentiating factor in the decision on which container to go for. But when all's said and done, what the purchaser is really paying for is the opportunity to experience the new story. Once they've decided to do that, they just have to decide which container to purchase it in...

    You quite rightly pointed out that print books and ebooks aren't the same. And I agree with you. But the story inside them is. So why is it upsetting - if you choose to buy the story in one container and not the other, knowing beforehand that they're different and how they're different - that they're sold on a different basis and have different pros and cons? After all - to give an example from another story-experience industry - you can't (legally) record the latest movies from Sky, burn them to blank DVDs and sell those on. Neither can you make a copy of a film you see in the cinema (although both are theoretically possible, of course - the elephant's back). So if you want a physical object that you can then pass on to someone else, you have to choose to buy the DVD. What makes books so very different? (and that's a whole other discussion, I know...)

    Of course, none of the above means that you shouldn't make your opinion heard and you should always feel free to exercise your right as a consumer to lobby for lower prices on the goods you want to buy, or to simply shop around and look for a better deal.

    And speaking of which, there's some interesting news on ebook pricing just broken: our US sister company, the Hachette Group, has announced a move to an agency pricing model for ebooks which (as I understand it) will result in slightly higher-than-Amazon-preferred prices for new titles and bestsellers at point of publication, but which will afford the opportunity for prices to be reduced over time, making back-list titles cheaper. And hey, let's not forget that the artificially low price point that Amazon have been pushing is mainly intended to help sell as many Kindles as possible before the new generation of multi-purpose tablets turns up so is by no means guaranteed to be a permanent price-point anyway...

    Anyway, it's good talking to you. Always extremely interesting to get this sort of direct feedback from customers.

  5. ak77 says:

    Well, I notice our posts are getting longer as we go, so I'm going to take this opportunity to break the pattern, but also to have a think about what you are saying here, before replying. You have some well reasoned points (it's not the first I've heard of a few of them), but I also have some immediate knee-jerks to some (like whether I am convinced you can claim the convenience of ebooks, as something extra you are providing, and charging for). But I will let what you are saying sink in rather than just firing off ripostes.

    You obviously have a pretty clear idea of how ebooks fit into the publisher's (author's?) repertoire. And so I wonder if this is a consensus the industry-at-large has arrived at (because it's been pretty slow coming), or something you see as self-evident that is just slowly coming to the public's awareness as they find their assumptions dashed? No matter how you cut it, right now, people do not understand ebooks costing the same, or more, as an ebook.

    Does that suggest that public education of the industry's mechanics is your priority (or hurdle) here?

    Separately: I see Amazon's game and am not fond of their strong-arm; I followed the Macmillan debacle with great interest. I do think authors and publishers (in that order) need to be encouraged and rewarded, but boots are getting bigger and without due care it's the people who will get stomped.

    Separately, separately: regarding the elephant (and it's a whole other conversation, too), but there are some clear parallels between where the publishing industry is today and where the music business was 10 years ago. Of course, I'm not suggesting that everything (or even a significant portion of anything) should be cheap, or free. But there really is a fine line between protecting one's livelihood, and strangling one's goose.

    eReaders are about to get HUGE, very quickly. Like nothing we have seen so far. If you can help it, don't turn your authors' True Fans (the ones who hang on every last word, and salivate for the next) against you in a bid to own everything, and earn every penny.

    Some pennies are worth more (to you) in the pockets of happy customers.

    (Dammit, way longer than I intended!)

  6. Darren says:

    Just a drive-by link-dump, as I'm in the middle of a day full of meetings, but this blog piece from SF author Tobias Buckell sheds some light on ebook production costs, pricing models, etc:


  7. Darren says:

    ...and another one (sorry, in the middle of a pretty manic fortnight just at the moment)....

    http://www.idealog.com - extremely smart cookie Mike Shatzkin comments on a Michael Cader analysis on a recent NYT piece on ebook pricing.

    Definitely a hot topic in the industry at the moment!

  8. ak77 says:

    Hiya Darren,

    As I read your links, here's Cory Doctorow's latest take on pricing..


  9. ak77 says:

    Ok, I read 'em. They're both excellent links, the Tobias Buckell one especially (some points quite similar to Scalzi's). I did have some disputes with the Shatzkin one, but not enough to raise here.

    Again though, they're reiterating a similar tale.. besides the Amazon power-struggle, people don't know about the industry's machinations, they just know that they have less rights and less tangiable uses for eBooks, so they assume a lower price.

    It's the industry's job (though it seems to have been left to the individual authors to wave banners and hand pamphlets out, on the corner) to educate the book-buying public about these things. And if they want to sell eBooks at, or very near, the same price, they need to introduce benefits to eBooks purchases, that shore up the disparity in buyers-rights. Maybe when one buys an eBook, the publisher will guarantee the digital file's availability to the customer for life, no matter the format or intended device.

    You need to add something. The notion of 'convenience' is not it. Device buyers have already invested in their convenience, and they don't want to be taxed twice more on that investment (ValueAddedTax already having been applied to their eBooks) by the publisher trying to get theirs too (for no extra actual input on the publishers part, besides a few hundred pounds for someone to typeset it in a digital-specific format).

    However, the one thing that has really struck me, is the raging disparity between UK and US eBook pricing. Now, you've told me so far that it's about VAT, and that may add a small amount.. but not the HUGE difference apparent when perusing the articles you linked, and hearing about the absolute upper-bound of pricing that US customers will bear.

    According to the current conversation, $14.99 is the height of Macmillan's claim. According to the Shatzkin piece, the upper bound is closer to $12.99.

    But right here, on this website, you are asking nearly £18. Sterling! That's $28! Nearly DOUBLE the Macmillan upper bound.

    So, if I take the US upper-bound: $15, and convert it to sterling: £9.57
    Then I'll add VAT @ 17.5% (£1.67), for a grand total of: £11.24

    Where is the extra £5~ coming from? Why are British customers inclined to a upper-bound twice as high as their US counterparts?

    This is a major issue, because of all the talking and justification of eBook pricing going on right now, it's all referring to the US model, and none of it seems to be taking into account that everyone else (or just the UK) will be paying a *lot* more.

    Can you justify the £17.61 eBook price, in light of the currently discussed $14.99 upper-bounds?

  10. ak77 says:

    Damn, I just reread that, and it's a tad more confrontational than I'd intended.

    My apologies. Same questions, different tone..

  11. ak77 says:

    "The online book store formerly known as Shortcovers has underwent a brand overhaul, renaming itself Kobo, and launched a new UK-specific ebook store that claims to offer nearly two million titles for downloads.
    The books, available from the likes of Random House, Penguin Group, Bloomsbury, Simon & Schuster and Faber & Faber, will be available in ePub, the free and open e-book standard format, for a maximum of £8.99."


    In fairness, there is no word on whether the eBooks will be current with hardback releases, or staggered after the HB cycle.

  12. admin says:

    Right then, I'll give it my best shot. Apologies for the delay - extremely busy at work just now - but I managed to rattle the following off over the weekend. As always, this is all IMHO, not my employers' policy, etc. and I'm a little out of the loop myself as I haven't had time to get to grips with my RSS reader for about a fortnight, so please do bear that in mind...

    Re: "It's the industry's job (though it seems to have been left to the individual authors to wave banners and hand pamphlets out, on the corner) to educate the book-buying public"

    Absolutely right. And one of the problems that the industry faces is that up until now, the conversation has been driven by retailers with a vested interest in selling ebooks at a loss in order to sell ebook reading devices. The industry has stepped up to the plate recently by opening the discussion on a move to an 'agency' pricing model, which will mean a wider range of pricing, starting at $12.99 - $14.99 for a new title and dropping to something like $5.99 - $6.99 for a backlist title (not that Amazon are keen on mentioning the lower price band in their press releases...)

    As far as I know we're still seeing how that's going to develop.

    re: "if they want to sell eBooks at, or very near, the same price, they need to introduce benefits to eBooks purchases, that shore up the disparity in buyers-rights"

    Okay, I can't help but feel that you're still not quite getting my central point here, which is: what the publishing industry is actually selling is the content of the book, the story. It's then up to the customer which package (ebook, hardback, paperback, audio etc.) they choose to take delivery of that content in. The customer is free to weigh up the relative costs and benefits (convenience, sunk costs, collectability, tangibility, re-sale value etc.) and then choose the delivery format that best suits them. But at the end of the day they're still reading the same story... aren't they?

    So, why should the industry charge less for the same story in a different format? Unless it's a deliberate promotional pricing policy intended to grow a certain sector of the market (which we see all the time for new authors, or specific title promotions). It seems as though you're saying that the publishing industry has a vested interest in growing the ebook sector because they cost less to produce and the publisher can reap additional profit as a result, but that's not necessarily the case at all (and I'll re-visit that point that in a couple of answers' time...)

    re: "The notion of 'convenience' is not it. Device buyers have already invested in their convenience, and they don't want to be taxed twice more on that investment"

    Absolutely. The sunk cost of an e-reader is a major factor in the customer's purchase-decision process and it's something that has to be taken into account when choosing the most suitable delivery format for the books they subsequently choose to purchase. But the publishing industry isn't forcing anyone to sink those costs in an e-reader - there are alternatives. So again, why should the publishing industry then subsidise the future purchase of content unless it's for specific sector-growth or promotional purposes?

    [Incidentally, it could also be argued that the main reason prices should be lowered is because there are a much wider range of alternative forms of entertainment available for the consumer to choose from. But the question then becomes whether or not prices can actually be lowered without risking the long-term viability of the industry and thereby reducing investment in product development (new authors) or essential quality control (would consumers be happy if everything was published in ebook at $4.99 but you could only get hold of celebrity memoirs, bestselling thrillers or self-published niche material?) And actually, when you weigh up the relative costs in terms of entertainment value per minute of books, DVDs and CDs, I'd personally argue that literature is already pretty damn cheap (looking at broad averages: assuming a 400 page novel takes about 6.5 hours to read, that's approx. £2.90 per hour for an rrp hardback, vs £6 per hour for a 120 min DVD movie and around £7 per hour for a 60 minute MP3 download album). The main problem is that the relative unit costs are higher and consumers tend to take more notice of the price of an object than the relative value of the contents...]

    Re: "the publisher trying to get theirs too (for no extra actual input on the publishers part, besides a few hundred pounds for someone to typeset it in a digital-specific format)."

    Right then, ebook costing. Again, there's that focus on the cost of providing an alternative delivery format, rather than the overall cost of the publishing the story. Can we move away from the idea that Ebooks aren't a pure-profit add-on to a paper-book? Instead, we need to think in terms of the cost of publishing a particular title - a particular story - which then has to be divided by the total number of units of that title sold - whatever the delivery format - in order to determine the unit cost and thereby establishing the profitability of a that title.

    So, whilst the specific production costs for an ebook might be a relatively small proportion of the overall total, the cost of an individual ebook sale still has to include an element of the core costs of producing the title And that includes author payments, editorial, production, marketing, sales and publicity staff costs and more... as explained in the Tobias Buckell piece and elsewhere.

    re: "However, the one thing that has really struck me, is the raging disparity between UK and US eBook pricing."

    Yes, but that's a long-established pattern that reflects the relative size of the two markets and isn't limited to ebooks - US paperbacks are typically around $6.99 whereas UK ones are roughly £6.99. It's to do with the US's relative advantages in terms of economies of scale - they have a vastly larger market to aim at, which means they can produce afford to produce larger print-runs of a paper-book and still be relatively sure of selling them all. This means they can spread their fixed production costs across a larger number of units and achieve a lower unit cost, which means they can afford to lower the unit price and still make a profit (and, therefore, stay in business etc. etc.)

    And I know what you're probably going to say - ebooks don't have the same production costs - but please see my previous reply about having to factor in all the costs of production for a particular title in order to get the unit cost of one sale, as opposed to the sale of that title in a specific delivery package. So the relative economies of scale still apply when factoring in the physical print costs of the paper edition of a particular title.

    re: "But right here, on this website, you are asking nearly £18. Sterling! That's $28! Nearly DOUBLE the Macmillan upper bound."

    Yeah... but bear in mind that the $12.99 - $14.99 price band is a very recent development and still a theoretical one (as far as I know), unless Amazon has accepted the agency model and is now selling ebooks on those terms? I have to admit, I've had my head down recently and haven't been able to get into my RSS feeds to check on the latest state of play... but things are obviously changing rapidly, so that £17.61 price could alter as well.

    re: "Can you justify the £17.61 eBook price, in light of the currently discussed $14.99 upper-bounds?"

    Well, yes, personally I think we can. Because the £17.61 price is the price we're asking for the opportunity to read the new Iain Banks story in a particular delivery format of choice (and hey, that's actually cheaper than the price we're asking to read that story in p-book format, which is r.r.p. £18.99, after all).

    And again, that's the essential point I'm hoping to make: you have a choice. If you prefer ebook, because you've already invested in an ereader and want to use it, or because an ebook is more convenient, then go ahead. Alternatively, if you'd rather have a physical object that you can lend to someone else or sell on afterwards, there's a paper alternative for a bit more.

    Although let's face it, you'll probably find the print edition much cheaper online, if a retailer has chosen to reduce their price (and therefore their own profit margin) in order to entice you to buy from them instead of a competitor. It's one particular major retailer's choice to sell ebooks as loss-leaders to-date - in order to entice folks to invest in those sunk-cost ereader devices - that's led to the whole $9.99 price-point debate in the first place after all. And the publishing industry has responded to by proposing / introducing [delete as applicable] the agency model with a range of price points, from $6.99 through to $14.99, depending on proximity to publication date and other factors.

    Anyhow, thanks again for taking the time to raise these questions. It's been very helpful for me in terms of clarifying my own thoughts on the pricing issue (and hell, I've actaully used some of the stuff they drummed into me in my Business Economics degree, which I never thought would happen).

    And while I don't expect to have converted you completely to the idea that ebooks can justifiably cost the same as p-books, hopefully I've managed to shed some light on the way prices are actually set, and show that it's really not a case of publishers ripping off the reading public. The industry doesn't have the power to do that anyway, because the reading public can always apply the ultimate sanction if they choose to and simply buy something else or do something else instead...

  13. ak77 says:

    In regard to adding value, I just wrote a mid-length bit about Philip Pullman's new ebook/app, and then hit the "clear comment box" instead of submit. I'm gutted; you may be relieved! So here are the basics, minus my (probably overlong) opinions:


    1) full ebook
    2) synchronised, unabridged audiobook (read by Pullman)
    3) video illustrations and extra content


    Less than either the HB version or audio CDs cost separately, for both, digitally. They won my custom in the time it took to read the blurb.

    So, as I accidentally deleted my actual comment, you may take it as read that any objections you might have were discussed and settled already :)

  14. Darren says:

    Hey, no objections whatsoever... :)

    In fact, for the record: I think it's fantastic that Canongate have been able to put together an Enhanced Editions package for what I personally think is a very interesting title - and one that's likely to be extremely high-profile, given its somewhat controversial subject-matter. EE have set the bar extremely high with the titles they've worked on so far, but there's not a lot of chance of this becoming an industry standard any time soon... not unless a lot more EE-style producers enter the market in a relatively short space of time and start under-cutting each other.

    The thing is, I have a rough idea of how much the guys at Enhanced Editions charge for this sort of ebook treatment and believe me, it's not small beans... although worth every penny if you have a title that's big enough and likely to attract enough attention. I'm not entirely sure what sort of business model is involved either - whether EE have licensed the content from Canongate and are then going to keep the revenue from ebook sales, or whether Canongate have paid a flat fee for the format and will keep the revenue, or whether it's a variable split - but obviously that's also going to affect which titles are likely to get the EE treatment.

    In the meantime, at £9.99 you've got yourself a bargain, definitely :)

  15. ak77 says:

    I wondered the same thing about the business model, and how they have managed to spread the load to prevent cannibalizing sales from the (more expensive) books/CDs. As you say, we don't even know if they license their books to EE or not.

    However, Canongate have definitely said they intend to push the digital side of things, so it is absolutely in line with their intentions. I think they are gearing up for the future intelligently. It seems like they are creatively pushing what digital-media-integration really means. I do like the fact that instead of just making books into their electronic equivalent, they are utilizing the multi-functional nature of the new medium and packaging ebooks, audiobooks and soundtracks into tight media experiences (and that it doesn't cost more than the normal version seems like a gift, versus the usual demands to pay separately for differing uses).

    I know, I know, "multi-media?", woo the nineties! But it seems like they've gotten it just right.

    Not revolutionary by any means, but evolutionary is fine by me.

  16. Darren says:

    That's where being a smaller, more tightly-focused imprint / publishing house can actually be an advantage - you get to focus your attention on a narrower range of titles, rather than the huge number that the larger houses publish every month (it's basically the difference between boutique-level specialism and factory-scale mass-production).

  17. ak77 says:

    I wonder if a return to boutique/specialists is how it'll all pan out ('til the next global-industry crisis).

    More and more there are options to get your content out there, in all sorts of formats. So perhaps the big players will recede into providing infrastructure and services, and leave the content to the boutiques and individuals. Seems like it makes sense on some levels at least.

    We've had some excellent results from lulu.com, to the point where you can produce *single copy* HBs/PBs (shipped to a customer's door) for similar prices than you buy mass-market editions in the shop (+/-). Of course there is more to publishing than just printing books, but I think the networks of independent-news-aggregators and blogs will probably counter that advantage at some point (in a good-enough-to-make-it-viable fashion, at least). It's beginning to be possible to really do-it-yourself in publishing, beyond classic vanity publishing, just like pro audio and video production took-off in bedrooms in the mid-nineties.

    One of the points I made that got deleted, was that "app" ebooks neatly side-step the contentious DRM/sharing-books issue. Firstly by putting the blame in Apple's hands for locking down their devices. And secondly, as apps aren't transferrable and you probably aren't going to lend the device to someone else, (by the iPhone/iPad's very nature) people will have to buy their own copy.

    Somehow people seem to see these app-books in a different light, and don't appear to have quite the same issue as they would with something sold as a book that had similarly restricted rights. Perhaps because of the Apple connection, they have already invested one set of disdain for the general-lock-down, so by the time they get to the app-book it doesn't occur to them that this format is not only a convenient container for the book's contents, but also a business decision by the publisher to what ever benefits it brings, including the DRM and non-transferability. Or else the extra content just feels like a fair bargain, who knows..

  18. Darren says:

    Okay, now we really are heading off into the wider realms of conversation re: future publishing industry strategy and there's a lot of that going on at the moment (one of the most interesting voices in that field, by the way, is Mike Shatzkin, who writes things like this: http://www.idealog.com/blog/wi.....challenges on a regular basis. And then there's a chap called Eoin Purcell who's based in Ireland and who posted this: http://publishingperspectives.com/?p=13674 just the other day...)

    Again, personally, I think the main issue is that publishing has become a book production business, rather than a content curation and marketing business. After the industry dropped the Net Book Agreement in the 1990s (at which point I was a bookseller at W'Stone's, incidentally) the supermarkets started to lead the charge on price-promotion and the big publishers had to get on-board, because price-promoted titles dictated the best-seller charts, and best-sellers always sell better than everything else (which isn't so much a tautology as a self-fulfilling prophecy: the vast majority of consumers love the reassurance that everyone else is reading the same book).

    But now the WWW offers the opportunity for much greater exploitation of the Long Tail of the book market - well, by aggregation-based retailers, at least, which is the main point of Chris Anderson's theories that a lot of critics and commentators seem to miss - which allows smaller, subject-focused publishers to cater to strong interest-group niche audiences. And if - like Canongate did - they luck out when one of their titles suddenly goes mainstream-bestseller (The Life of Pi in their case) they can use the revenue from that to drive investment in focused promotion for the rest of their Long Tail list as well as even stronger communication with their core audience.

    But back at the factory-sized major houses the problem seems to be that there isn't actually a visible, existence-threatening problem just yet. Because chucking out huge piles of potential best-sellers still works, especially if you're fortunate enough to end up publishing a true phenomenon like Stephenie Meyer's Twilight series (as my own employer, Little,Brown is) or Charlaine Harris's True Blood books (published by our sister company Orion via their Gollancz imprint).

    So here's a theoretical point of view: given that old-school paper books are still selling rather well, thank you very much, where's the incentive to invest in these new technologies and, in effect, hasten the break-down of the existing business model? Sure, everyone's talking about e-books and how they're going to revolutionise the way books are sold and consumed, but right now, they still only account for, what, 3% of total sales volume?

    That's forecast to grow to anywhere between 10% and 30% (estimates vary) in the next few years, but even then, in order to invest in grabbing a slice of that theoretical growth in market-share, big publishing houses would have to invest in a whole lot more staff to actually handle all the production and promotion tasks required (or buy in those services) as well as investing in the new infrastructure and systems needed to manage the distribution (or hand a % of their revenue to third-party distributors). Either that or they would have to re-purpose existing staff away from their current focus on print titles, with all the re-training costs involved in teaching them a whole new digital skill-set.

    Or, to put it another way, big publishers would have to stop working on a large chunk of their core business, which still results in 97% of their sales, in order to focus on the 3% that might grow into 30% in a few years... if things work out the way some analysts are suggesting. And again, from that theoretical perspective, where's the business sense in that?

    It's a tricky conundrum and no mistake: there's a big, bad, change-shaped something that's possibly heading the industry's way, but right now things are still working almost as well as they have been for most of the past 20 years or so. Which means the folks at the top have tough decisions to make: how much of the revenue from their core business should they invest in changing technologies and new methods of production to prepare for a theoretical future that might be essential to invest in? Versus how much they continue to re-invest in the tried-and-tested old ways of doing things, which still seem to be working pretty well.

    When to make the shift, where to shift to (apps? ebooks? online content?) how big a shift to make, and how to keep the shareholders and key stakeholders (particularly big-name authors, who are obviously essential to the survival of big publishing houses) happy in the meantime... all sounds like scary stuff, from where I'm sitting, which is why I'm quite glad I'm just the guy who updates the websites... :)

  19. ak77 says:

    Great reply Darren!

    Just on my way out the door but I'll re-read later, there are some great points in there :)

  20. ak77 says:

    Hey, have you read this?

    The Late Age of Print: Everyday Book Culture from Consumerism to Control, by Ted Striphas.

    It's great read about some of the things we talk about. And it's also been released under a CC licence, so you can download it for free, here: http://www.thelateageofprint.org/download

Submit a Comment

Please N.B. All comments are moderated (during UK office hours) so there may be a delay in your comment appearing live on the site. Please only submit comments that are relevant to the item you're currently viewing.
If you would prefer to participate in a more free-form conversation, please visit the Iain Banks Fan Forum. If you would like to get in touch privately, please see the Contact page for details.

What would you like to say?