Have Publishers Helped Devalue “Content”?

Amazon's KindleBy Guy LeCharles Gonzalez, Chief Executive Optimist, Digital Book World

“Currently, nearly all the value of the ebook format comes from the device, not the publisher. Portability, frictionless purchasing experience, syncing across multiple registered devices–all of that is provided by the device and the retailer’s back-end.”

Publisher: “If You Can Afford An Ebook Device, You Can Pay More For Ebooks” –The Consumerist

In response to The Consumerist‘s provocative assertion that the value of an eBook comes from the reading device and not the content itself, Brett Sandusky, digital marketer and QBAH2 vlogger, quickly replied: “eBook devices have somehow made content worthless? Disagree.”

The Consumerist‘s underlying point, that most publishers don’t treat their eBooks with the same care they do print (as Liza Daly so clearly illustrated recently), can’t really be argued with, but Sandusky’s equally valid point suggests a bit of a paradox.

A critical factor in the debate about eBook pricing and release timing is the desire (need?) to preserve the primacy of the Hardcover edition, and most commercial fiction and non-fiction are priced according to their format not their content. In the on-demand  microwave era, though, that strategy might now be backfiring.

So I posed the following question on Twitter:

Have publishers been complicit in the devaluation of ‘content’? Is a book’s value solely based on its container?

The responses came in fast and,  in some cases, a bit furious:

  • I don’t think “complicit” is the right word, it implies intention. I think pubs have not known what to do, and value has gone down, but not purposefully. With digital, self-pub, direct to consumer, low print cost, content is all pubs got anymore. @bsandusky
  • Book’s value > container… content does get “devalued” on some devices/containers. Not complicit, just no real choices. @tsutrav
  • Content DOES get devalued on some containers if publisher executes poorly. Typos/bad formatting, etc. Some containers inherently less valuable: DRM/no resale/can’t loan/locked to 1 device. @elandes
  • No! Publishers need to focus on content and the protection and intelligent marketing of worthwhile IP. @FabulousFidel
  • Not at all. “Adding-value” is a tired argument, I know, but validation of research is one of many reasons for SMT and Academic most certainly. Admittedly, major publishers need to find ways to share content. New model(s) needed. @canadiancat
  • Perhaps poor advances, reluctance to embrace new models drive many authors away, leaving pubs w/”content” unworthy of value. @jchutchins

Eric Landes’ point was perhaps the most compelling — “some containers are inherently less valuable” — noting DRM and device/retailer lock-in as two significant reasons eReaders actually deliver less value than a printed book.

The inability to easily share content, not just with friends but even amongst one’s own devices (current and future), is one of the primary limitations of eBooks and has nothing to do with the quality (or lack thereof) of the eBook format. As more incompatible devices are sold, become obsolete and need to be replaced, it will likely become an even bigger issue than it currently is among the small but extremely vocal group of early adopters.

What happens when Kindle owners decide they want an iPad? Or disappointed Nook owners decide to buy a Kindle? Or one of the slew of new eReaders introduced at this year’s Consumer Electronics Show gains traction?

What can publishers do to change the value perception of their “content”, regardless of the “container,” or is that battle already lost?

11 thoughts on “Have Publishers Helped Devalue “Content”?

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  2. Josh Jasper

    It’s not the hardcover edition, it’s the pricing that goes behind the hardcover edition. Publishers rightly want to maximize sales on books with a $20-30 price point. The hardcover format is just an excuse for that price. Sales have to be high enough to justify what writer, editors, and the rest of the production costs (not the physical ones, those are negligible in the big picture) add up to. Publishing companies expect X return on Y investment. Unless ebooks can offer that, they’re not going to replace the books we have today.

    If anything, publishers put a high value on content, and only invest in projects that provide a good return. I wish ebooks were at that point, but they’re not.

    1. Mark

      I think it’s useful to consider different sectors rather than treating all publishing as one. For example, in academic STM and textbook publishing, publishers have added plenty of extra value which, in my opinion, far outstrips the little functionality that the hardware brings on its own. To whit:

      – DOIs at the chapter level;
      – annotations on the page;
      – internal reference lining (notes, index, glossary, TOC, etc. etc.)
      – external reference linking (urls, DOIs, etc.)

      All of this and more requires quite a deep level of tagging and structure applied to the content.

      In this respect, some publishers far from ‘devaluing’ content are actively pushing its value way beyond what the hardware can handle! I.e. it’s the other way around, hardware manufacturers are devaluing the extra value content listed above by not supporting it. Kindle, iPhone, Sony, and all the other eInk readers do not, as yet, support those extra features such as DOI linking. STM publishers, with all the extra value, still have to rely on computers to provide the full functionality for their ebook value-add. There is no single portable reader that can satisfy those added functions.

      Too many articles naively treat publishing as a single type.

  3. Brenna Lyons

    LOL! You post Amazon forums for the “small but vocal early adopters?” Is that misguided! I’m sorry. Amazon is new to this game…very. Keep in mind that the “early adopters” do not include Amazon and their DRM laden e-content. They are babes in the woods. And many of the true early adopters don’t bother to talk on Amazon’s forums, because telling the truth about the market on there gets you called a troll.

    The early adopters still standing would be indie press (some of whom are more than 15 years old now), Fictionwise (which had its start circa 2001), even ARe outlives Amazon in the market… Oh, and let’s not forget the early free content systems for classics, like Project Gutenberg, which was first advanced and planned back in the 1970s. If you want to show a standing “early adopters” group, show EPIC (http://www.epicauthors.com), which will be 13 years old this year. Or head over to Teleread blog. That’s a great early adopter network. Let’s at least get this whole thing in perspective. Amazon is not an early adopter of e-books.

    I’d have to agree with Mark. What NY conglomerate press does is only NY conglomerate press, and the sweeping generalizations to all publishing is really rather annoying to me. Like Amazon, NY conglomerates are new on the bandwagon.

    Indie press is not trying to preserve their print at the expense of their e-books, and they don’t take less care with their e-books, even when they have print and have good sales in print…even when they are primarily print houses with e-book secondary, like Mundania Press, Zumaya Press, and Echelon Press would attest to being. Indie press also isn’t pricing e-books at $15 for novel-length fiction; their price points vary from house to house, as they have found the balance with readers, but most of them offer a novel length fiction work for $5-7 or so in e-book, even when the trade print of it is $10 or more and the hard bound (some DO have hard bound) are $18 or more, depending on other factors. And, by and large, indie press is not slapping on useless DRM, unless the format is only available with it. If you want to play in Kindle land, you have to accept their DRM. Simple business decisions. Oh…and indie press is giving 30-50% of net to the AUTHOR. You won’t find that in NY conglomerate press, unless you go check out Carina from Harlequin, which is currently an e-book only trial, based on the indie model.

    But to answer your other questions…

    Some publishers, through mishandling, are doing two things…offering a lesser product AND spurring pirates on by either making e-books inaccessible or pricing them out of the market…or both. The whole regional availability problem with NY conglomerate press (and Amazon in particular) shows the duo are not well versed in the market they joined.

    Simply put, if you (readers) want your e-books available in the future, no matter your device, I have two suggestions for you…

    Purchase unsecured formats and don’t purchase readers that lock you to a format. Proprietary readers will take unsecured formats added to it, preferably you adding it yourself (yes, a dig at Amazon again). A device that only reads one format is useless, and everyone knows it. So, purchase devices that are multi-format or easy to convert content to…not hard these days. In addition, do not purchase DRM books that cannot be passed along to a new device.

    I loathe Kindle’s set-up, but I will use Kindle as an example. If you own a Kindle, don’t buy Kindle books. What? You heard me. Kindle will take other format books, so buy those, which gives you a convertible format book to be passed along to future devices (and thanks to backward compatibility, this is not a problem), like ePub or HTML…even unsecured PDF, if you prefer it, though PDF is sometimes not formatted into streaming correctly for this. If you have an e-book you can ONLY find on Kindle (there are some books I’ve found that fit that description), buy them and store them in the Kindle on PC as well as the Kindle unit proper, immediately. Mac version of the desktop/laptop reader is in the works. But, if you go Kindle and you purchase Kindle format books, you have locked yourself into the Kindle and connected products like iPhone, for good…at least for away-from-the laptop/desktop reading. I prefer not to do that, so Kindle is not on my personal short-list for when I need a new device.

    In some ways, it is the hardware producers devaluing e-books…not just the NY conglomerate publishers. I’d say The Consumerist’s comment should be tweaked to address this situation.


  4. Karen Syed

    As an Indy publisher, my main focus for any book, whether paper or eBook, is the quaity of the writing and the end product. The book is all about the story. This means that the content in its enirety must be as good as we can possibly get it.

    In many cases, the reader does not care about format, as long as they can read. If they like paper, they will buy paper, if they like eBooks, they will download their books. As a publisher I don’t spend a lot of time worrying about the security issues. It is just as easy to steal a library book or scan a book at the copy machine as it is to pirate an eBook.

    What devalues the quality of a book is when an author writes a sloppy story then an equally sloppy publisher picks it up, slaps a cover on it, does minimal editing, and then does a hack job of formating it. This is what has readers up in arms about the lack of quality in books.

    But not all publishers are equal. Some publishers pick up authors who genuinely care about the quality of the industry and take tremendous pride in what they have labored so intensively to produce.

    If readers are unhappy with what a publisher is putting out, then they should STOP buying from that publisher and they should inform the publisher of their decision and the reason.

    A huge problem in almost any industry today, and this includes the book industry, is lack of accountability. Consumers quietly complain amongst themselves, but continue to purchse those producs they don’t like. This isn’t a mixed message, it is just wrong. No one has to SETTLE for something that doesn’t meet up to their standards. We all have choices, we just need to consider them.

    If you want something to be better, then you have to tell whoever is making what you want and why. Business people are in it to make money, but they cannot read minds and some of us want to make our customers happy keep them satisfied.

    At Echelon Press, one thing we do is try to keep our prices as low as we can. We do not see the logic in selling a download at the same price as a paperback. They are formatted together so there are minimal extra costs involved. We keep our prices for eBooks under $10.00 (our average eBook price is $6.00) for the consumer. We shop too. I won’t buy hardbacks because of the size and the price. They just don’t work for me. But those who do purchase hardbacks should get a good solid product with a story that is written well and edited as well and they should get it at a reasonable price. That holds true for ANY book format. But that’s just my opinion.

  5. Tim Barrus

    Publishers are arrogant.

    That doesn’t have a business paradigm to wrap yourself around. Or business rhetoric that makes it nice. But it’s the truth.

    It’s always been a buyer’s market. There are so many writers out there that publishers can afford to be arrogant.

    They publish books but they only read them from agents. A writer is not even allowed to represent himself.

    They are taking the attitude that a digital paradigm is being forced upon them. It’s not the world they WANT.

    Their relationship to the digital book suffers from their resentment. They can hide behind as many publicists as they want. Every one of whom will tell you how wonderful digital is in glowing terms. But the reality is that their status and vis-a-vis that, their cultural power, has had the social veneer stripped from it — they’re vulnerable like everybody else. But they do not want to BE everyone else.

    That there is a public dialogue about platforms, pricing, content, product, all intrudes into their domain.

    Content on VOOKS suffers dramatically because the publishers are pretending it’s still an “experiment.” We get diet books and self-help.

    Perhaps if they publish the kind of drek they’re publishing in digital, it will all just evaporate and go away. The experiment is no longer an experiment and it’s being televised.

    1. Dan S

      Mark has a very strong point. I worked for an educational publisher, and for several years now, the value provided by textbooks in eBook form is greater than the value provided by the book. Our eBooks _started_ with a PDF of the textbook and added on to it from there. Extra content by the author and other experts in the field. Links to related content. The ability to update the book itself on a regular basis and not have to buy a new edition of the textbook. Access to daily news relevant to the subject of the book. Videos illustrating principles or even, in the case of history, the event itself. Animations, simulations. You can make the end of chapter questions link to the page where it tells you how to solve them. Links to live online tutoring. And every educational publisher is looking for new extras that will differentiate their eBook platform from everyone else’s.

      Interesting to me is the results of a recent publisher’s experiment. If the student has a choice between buying the ebook only or a combination of eBook and pBook at a very reasonable price, most students buy the combination. They want the pBook for those times when they don’t have Internet access – apparently, there are still times when their connections are bad or they don’t have their mobile devices. And the want the eBooks for the times when they leave their pBook at home.

  6. Dennis McCunney

    “A critical factor in the debate about eBook pricing and release timing is the desire (need?) to preserve the primacy of the Hardcover edition, and most commercial fiction and non-fiction are priced according to their format not their content. In the on-demand microwave era, though, that strategy might now be backfiring.”

    The recent battle between Macmillan, Hachette, and Simon and Schuster vs Amazon over Kindle edition pricing wasn’t about preserving the primacy of the hardcover edition. It was about preserving the hardcover *bestseller*.

    *Margins* on hardcovers are highest, and hardcover bestsellers are significant sources of revenue and profit. The publishers decided that *simultaneous* ebook release at a $9.99 price point were cutting into the hardcover sales. Many consumers simply wanted to read the book, and were perfectly happy to get it as an ebook at one half to one third of the hardcover price, with correspondingly lower margins for the publisher.

    (It’s a little like pirate downloads of musing in MP3 format. The ones that got hurt by it were the double-platinum stadium acts everyone wanted to hear. They new or mid-lever band might be secretly delighted by the exposure, as more people would hear their music, come to their shows, and possibly buy future releases.)

    Mass market paperback editions are released a year after the hardcover precisely to avoid competing with the hardcover release, and I think we can expect to see ebooks follow a similar pattern.

    Meanwhile, quality of electronic editions is an issue. Amazon is a worst offender. Every title they stock in paper only has an “I’d like to read this book in a Kindle edition” button. If enough folks click the button for a title, what happens? Chances are there *isn’t* an electronic source file to work from. So a physical book is sent to an offshore contractor in India who scans the paper copy and runs OCR on the scan. The results are packaged and sold as a Kindle edition. As far as I know, copy editing and proofreading to fix the inevitable errors OCR makes is *not* done, and the results are what you might expect.

    I’ve seen the occasional horror story in titles from other sources that *had* an electronic edition to start with. I have cautious hopes technology may assist. Right now, the publisher’s all use Adobe InDesign to do typesetting and markup. The output from InDesign is a PDF files that goes to the printer to be fed to an image setter to make plates. InDesign can also output ePub, which is pushing to be an industry standard, but does so poorly. Adobe is aware it’s a concern and future releases should improve in that area.

    But I think quality control issues extend beyond ebooks. One old friend was VP at an editorial production house that provided copyeditng and typesetting services to publishers. She described the increasing number of cases where it wasn’t being done on a mailing list we were both on. Another member of the list was an editor at a major publisher, who said “But that’s part of the standard budget of the book, and is always done!” “Maybe in *yuor* house”, was the reply, “but I’m the one in my company who gets to talk to the customers who used to pay us to do that and have decided it’s not necessary.”

  7. Theresa M. Moore

    Unfortunately, you cannot avoid one format or another just because you don’t like it. I publish in seven different formats, which includes print, and the worst offender is the epub. It does not allow you to format the original document file the same way you do for the print book or a PDF. As for Kindle, I don’t think you can buy other formats for the Kindle unless Amazon sells it. That’s just the way it is. Kindle operates on proprietary software which only allows what Amazon sells on it. Other ereaders operate that way, too, as long as they are attached to specific company like WIndows, Apple or Sony. You cannot cross buy unless your phone or computer is made independently. So I try to find publishing platforms which will give me the best quality available, and if I can’t find it I don’t use it. Very often the electronic version of my books come out on Kindle or other hosting sites because they don’t take more than fifteen minutes to make them available. It’s the print book which takes longer. And though I don’t sell as many in print as I do ebooks, I do make them available anyway. But I follow the costing model, which says that the ebook must be priced less than the print book, not just because it makes sense but because that is what a reader expects. The value of content does not depend on what format it comes in. Price is what drives sales.

    1. Dennis McCunney

      @Theresa ePub isn’t the culprit. It’s a container, which can hold other things besides text, but will ultimately be constrained by the capabilities of the device used to view it. A printed book might be set in, say, 11 point Monotype Bembo on 13. Unless I get the electronic version as a PDF with embedded fonts, that’s not what I’ll see. The devices I read ebooks on don’t have Monotype Bembo and can’t control line spacing with that precision. The former print designer in me weeps a bit, but the sysadmin I am now knows that’s simply the nature of the technology.

      Amazon uses the Mobipocket format in the Kindle (and bought Mobipocket to get it.) Mobi is essentially an encapsulated HTML subset, with even less capability of displaying the book as originally designed than ePub. Amazon is all about vendor lock in. They use Mobipocket format with a proprietary DRM scheme different from the one Mobi itself implements. If you have a Kindle, or Amazon’s iPhone or PC apps to read Kindle editions, you are forced to purchase commercial ebooks from Amazon. You can’t get them from another vendor unless you do something to strip the DRM, and even then you must get titles in Mobipocket format or convert to it. (The Kindle DX supports PDF, but there’s still Amazon’s DRM to contend with. You can read non-DRM protected Mobi content (and PDFs on the DX) sourced from elsewhere, but chances are that it’s freely available in a public domain or Creative Commons licensed edition. If you *buy* it, Amazon gets a cut.

      Lack of a standard format is a limiting factor in ebooks. I read them on a Palm OS PDA. I *can* read just about anything – Mobipocket, PDF, Word, RTF, eReader, HTML, plain text…but I need to maintain half a dozen different viewer applications to do it, and remember which book is in which format read with which viewer. (The device doesn’t do ePub, but I have software that can convert it to something the device does do.)

      Ultimately, I want to get electronic content *once*, and read it on whatever I have at hand. So I want a standard format everyone supports, and oppose things that get in the way like DRM.

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