Are We There Yet?

Expert publishing blog opinions are solely those of the blogger and not necessarily endorsed by DBW.

ebooks, publishers, virtual reality, vr, mobile, augmented reality, self-driving carsEbook sales for “traditional publishers” seem to have hit a plateau. In the latest quarterly report from Simon & Schuster, for example, digital sales (including digital audio) fell approximately 10 percent, and HarperCollins has reported drop in digital revenue, as well. In some sectors, this has become a cause for celebration: the book is not dead, kids and millennials prefer to read “real” books. Print has won!

I do not want to argue which formats are better than others, as that argument is long dead. There is going to be a place for both print and ebooks in the foreseeable future. It is not digital versus print, but rather digital and print.

The physical book is a great device, and for many purposes it will continue to be the best format. But if we believe the digital transformation in book publishing is almost complete, we will soon find out we are wrong.

There are many new technologies on the horizon that will impact what and how we read. At the recent F8 (Facebook Developer Conference), Mark Zuckerberg shared his 10-year plan, including many ideas about his vision for virtual reality (VR) and chatbots. Do publishers have a 10-year plan? Are publishers prepared for what is here or almost here?


We are voracious consumers of content, but we consume this content on our mobile devices more and more. Recent studies show that Americans check their phones 150 times a day, and Time Magazine just crowned the iPhone the most influential gadget ever created.

Publishers experiment with enhanced ebooks ,short-form reading and apps, but they continue to see success with full-length books. This should not mean that the experimentation should stop, though. As consumption increasingly occurs on a mobile device, will long-form still be the preferred reading choice? Publishers should continue to invest resources to find new ways to create and deliver content.

Self-Driving Cars

Self-driving cars will be here sooner than we think. The estimated number of cars in 2020 with self-driving features is 10 million. How will that impact reading? Will it change the kind of books we read? What are we going to do with this additional “recovered” time during our commutes? How will we entertain ourselves in these cars? With our eyes no longer necessary to be on the road, we can consume books in the car in a different way than we currently do. Imagine reading picture books to your children as you drive to visit out of town relatives, or reading the latest business title on your heads up display.

Virtual Reality/Augmented Reality

Publishers should not see VR as just another theme to include in novels or as a nonfiction topic about which to write. Just as publishers see additional profits from movies based on books, VR could be the next frontier for publishers as a new revenue source. Publishers also need to be aware of the pull of VR on the total entertainment time. We spend an average of 19 minutes a day reading. The average time users spend on Facebook is 50 minutes, watching TV programs and movies 2.8 hours, and eating and drinking 1.07 hours. Books have withstood the test of radio, movies, TV and video games. Will they be able to take on VR, or will time spent on them continue to decrease?


We are already interacting with early bots: Siri, Cortana and Alexa are examples of voicebots. Chatbots could be used in Facebook Messenger, WhatsApp, or just the open web. They are a great combination of natural language processing and artificial intelligence. Microsoft’s CEO, Satya Nadella, described what was at the heart of the shift from apps to bots as the concept of “conversation as a platform.” Bots seem a natural extension of handselling and could help with book discovery. But more importantly they could also be an amazing new way to tell stories.

The Quartz app, for example, is an early indicator of what is possible. But it does not even scratch the surface. Imagine a bot that understands your preferences, knows your needs and presents content at the right time and in the right format. The mobile device is an amazing “player,” as it can provide you text, audio and video (regular or VR). Book publishers will miss out if they do not view this device as a key component in the future of reading.

Kudos to Farrar, Straus and Giroux for creating MCD/FSG, a new imprint, and to Sean McDonald, who heads it up. As Jonathan Galassi, FSG publisher and president, says in the announcement, their goal is “to create a space to publish work and experiment with publishing styles, forms, and genres that are at the edges of FSG’s traditions.” More publishers should invest or allocate resources to build a lab or innovation teams to create competencies in data gathering, analytics, content formats, delivery mechanisms, reader engagement, and much more. The pause in ebook sales gives publishers a moment to breathe and take stock, but they can’t break for too long. The “next thing” is almost here.

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4 thoughts on “Are We There Yet?

  1. Catherine Dunn

    Totally agree, especially about VR. I just think there is so much mileage still to be explored. I also think games are stepping into a significant part of the ‘narrative space’ and in the future there’ll be a lot more crossover between reading and something more interactive. At the moment it all sounds a bit gimmicky, but things are still new. Who knows where we’ll be in a few decades or a hundred years?

    (My own personal vision is of a kind of hard-to-explain mashup between ebooks and geocaching, a format that I think would work well for niche titles like local history or anything strongly place-based.)

  2. Michael W. Perry

    The problem with ebooks is all too obvious. When Gutenberg created the first movable-type book, he had the good sense to make it every bit as attractive as the best that human hands were able to create at that time. Those who’ve been klutzing with ebooks lack that good sense.

    I was once in the Library of Congress. On one side of a hall was a beautiful illustrated manuscript of the Bible from the late Middle Ages. On the other side was a rare copy that first movable type book, the Gutenberg Bible. If some jokester had exchanged the signs on the two exhibit cases, I’m not sure most visitors would have been able to tell the difference. Both were beautiful in much the same way. Printing had built on the best of hand manuscripts.

    Now compare a modern printed book from a major publisher with the ebook version of that same book on a smartphone or tablet. Looking at just the text itself, do you have any trouble telling which is better? No, the difference is enormous. At best, ebooks are merely ugly. More often, they’re hideously ugly. Apart from books created with InDesign, which pushed the limits of what fixed-layout epub can do and only works on a limited range of screen sizes, the standards simply don’t exist to make them look better. Why?

    1. Too much attention has been devoted to making the standards include multi-media, as if books desperately needed to include video. They don’t. Working for Microsoft, I watch that stupid idea bomb badly with the CD-ROMs of the late 1980s. It is doing the same today. People don’t want their reading interrupted with other media.

    2. There’s no evidence that either the epub standards group or Amazon, with its properietary format, has paid any attention to typographers and others who know how to make a book look good. That is why digital hasn’t represented a step forward. It’s represented a step back to the age before Gutenberg. You cannot reproduce something remotely resembling the Gutenberg Bible with today’s ebook formats.

    3. People scroll through webpages and that conceals many of HTML’s inadequacies. They page through ebooks, and yet the ebook standards fail to offer ways for either the publisher to ensure that an ebook’s pages looks good on all devices, or that the ereader app is smart enough to display good design and layout itself. Is it too much to ask that ereaders display images intelligently? It is too much to expect that they avoid widows and orphans? Apparently. Ah, but we can play video, as if that mattered.

    I could go on, but a detailed list of what’s wrong with digital publisher would be almost endless. The technology has been around for over 15 years, and yet it still seems to assume that a Palm Pilot is near-state-of-the-art, that all readers want is endless lines of text on a screen, and that their greatest desire is to make the font size a bit larger or smaller.

    If the ebooks had a motto, it would be \Ugly is OK.\ That’s what wrong. That’s one reason why readers, having discovered that, are returning to print. It’s not the \smell of paper\ that’s drawing them back. It’s that print books are more attractive than today’s ebooks can possibly be.

  3. Adrianne

    Ebook sales for “traditional publishers” seem to have hit a plateau. In the latest quarterly report from Simon & Schuster, for example, digital sales (including digital audio) fell approximately 10 percent, and HarperCollins has reported drop in digital revenue, as well.

    I’ve switched over to ebooks almost entirely (90-95% of my purchases), but I avoid the trads like the plague. Why? Overpriced and terrible selection. I’d love to have more of my old favorites as ebooks, but not for the prices the trads are charging. If I desperately need a paper copy, I’ll look for a used copy; for digital, I’m fairly price-averse for genre fiction.

    Given that I actually stopped purchasing genre fiction for over five years due to a lack of interest in what the trads were publishing, I’m amused that the indies/small presses have been producing enough content that I now have a “to be read” pile that would take over a year to finish (presuming that I stopped purchasing new books). The indies are more focused on producing an enjoyable story, so they get my money.

  4. Peter Turner

    Thanks, Sanj, for another provoking piece on innovation in publishing. Sadly, I think the challenge facing the traditional publishing industry is cultural, a bred-in-the-bone conservative orientation. There is a genuinely felt skepticism about internally directed innovation and suspicion of consultants, technologists, and others wanting to apply the lessons of other industry segments to publishing. This latter is maybe more justified because there is a real danger in applying false analogies from one industry to another. I strongly suspect that book publishing and what drives what we read and where will come by building new models from the ground-up by innovators who stay as far away from traditional publishing models as possible.



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