Philosophical Musings

July 5, 2009

Where Cory Doctorow is Wrong – You won’t Make Money Selling Books in the Future

Filed under: business,Copyrights,Digital Culture,ebooks — Elad Kehat @ 9:57 pm

I was delighted to find an interview with Cory Doctorow in the July-August 2009 issue of Harvard Business Review (available here, but behind a paywall). I’m a huge fan of Cory, and while there was nothing new in that interview, it was still fun to read.
The point of this post however is spread the word about the interview (for that there’s twitter…), but rather to take the opportunity to say that I think Cory’s got his views on the future of books wrong, and to bring my own experience as a counter example.

The case in point is his claim (oft-repeated elsewhere) that an electronic book isn’t a substitute for a printed book, and thus authors can expect to keep making money by selling printed books in the future, while giving away e-books for free to gain publicity.
Of special interest are the following question-and-answer:

HBR: What about the Kindle? Doesn’t it throw your model into question?
CD: I don’t think so. First of all, anyone who’s willing to spend $350 on a Kindle is not someone who’s going to cheap out about spending 10 bucks on a book. The Kindle may come way down in price, but I think it’s going to do that by adding a bunch of features that increase appeal and the volume produced. Once you load the Kindle up with features, you have the same problem you have with a computer – it becomes too distracting. So I’m not all that bothered. Now, maybe I’m wrong about this, and if I am, then I’ll have to figure out another way to make money on my books. Of course, spending 10 years at the coal face of electronic publishing will give me the tools to find that new income model.

Like I said, I’m a huge fan. I read many of Cory’s books. However, I never paid for them. I read them all in e-book format on my Sony Reader (a competitor to the Kindle). I spent far more than $350 on Sony Readers (I bought 3 of them to date – for my wife and my father as well as for myself), but that doesn’t make me not “cheap-out” on spending $10 on a book. Even though I admire the author, if he gives the e-book away for free, I see no problem in not paying for it. Moreover, future features notwithstanding, my Reader is, and has been since I bought my first one 2.5 years ago, my preferable way to read books. Whenever faced with a choice between a printed book and an e-book, I choose the latter. In fact I go out of my way to acquire an e-book version of a book that I want to read even when I have the printed version available at hand.

Obviously, this single counter-example – myself – does not mean that the majority of the market will behave the same as I do. Cory himself seems to acknowledge the exceptions to his expectation by saying that “It’s a rare person who treats an electronic book as a substitute for a printed book” – that could leave me as one of those rare cases.
Nevertheless, I don’t think that he supplies any strong arguments to support his expectation that my case is going to be the rare exception. His main argument is the problem with reading off the computer screen is its myriad distractions. I disagree. My reason for preferring to do my long-form reading on my Sony Reader rather than my computer screen(s), is that it’s much more comfortable for curling up with in bed, on the sofa, or reading on the table during breakfast. Laptops, even NetBooks, are too big and uncomfortable for that, and Smart-Phones are too small. The average paperback has the near-perfect form factor for book reading, and the Kindle / Sony Reader manage to improve on that!

Finally, we’re discussing here an author who gives his e-books away for free. As most books become available in digital editions, and digital readers proliferate, the publishing industry is going to experience the same fate the music industry did. No DRM scheme would save them (as Cory had claimed himself in the past).
In conclusion, I think that Cory had better put that coal face to good use. If anyone can find a new income model for authors, it’s him.


September 14, 2007

Wake Up and Smell the Medium

Filed under: ebooks,entrepreneurship,postmodernism — Elad Kehat @ 6:12 pm

Back in 1998 or 1999 – the good old days of the big internet bubble, I had a company that did web development projects for internet startups. That means I saw a lot of startups, 99 percent of which are long gone now. There are many reasons for startup failure, and having a stupid idea isn’t a prominent one. This post however, is on one of the stupidest ideas.
I don’t remember the startup’s name – all I ever saw was a demo of their product. They developed a product for ecommerce (remember, it was in the days of the big bubble), where you had a 3D, video-game-like environment that you moved through to do your shopping. Think Doom (which was the big name in first-person shooters back then) staged in a shopping mall. You walk through the virtual mall, looking at the shops’ signs, and hey, here’s a shoe store. You walk in. There are shelves with shoes on display. You get close enough to some shelf so you can see the shoes, but no, these are the ladies’ shoes, you want men’s. So you go to another shelf, and here are some nice men’s sneakers. You pick one up, look at it, check the price tag, put it back on the shelf, and move to the next one.
There were people from several other startups there, and a couple of VCs, and everybody was going Ooooh and Aaaah. I remember feeling strange at being the only one there thinking to myself, boy, this is stupid!
If I want to shop in a mall, I go out to the mall. Why on earth would I want to do that from my PC? Where’s the advantage? If you’re going to digitize the shopping experience, why don’t you give me a quick way to search through the merchandise for something I want instead of requiring me to “walk” through the “store”? How about reviews, recommendations, and all the other goodies that any decent ecommerce site offered even back then?

Didn’t they read Marshall McLuhan? (they probably did, but never understood what they read…)
The problem of course is that the common reaction to a new medium is “great, how do we make it more like the old medium?”. But old media almost never die (video didn’t kill TV, which didn’t kill radio, and cinema didn’t kill theater), and new media thrive by making use of unique new advantages that weren’t available to the old ones, not by merely copying the old formulae over.

And now we finally come to the thing that prompted this long rant: almost ten years later, with the internet hardly a new medium anymore, the same stupidity is still among us.
In this post on O’Reilly radar, a pretty good blog otherwise, Peter Brantley, whom, according to his CV, is rather experienced in libraries, technology, and library digitization, is all appalled by an “extremely clever, and intuitively appealing” idea:

“Imagine keyword searching through a book database, only the results come back as a picture of library stacks where the book is highlighted in context, where serendipity and browsing could happen.

You could setup the stacks image up so that you can “walk” along the shelves as if you were walking the stacks across your computer screen. If the mapping was done well, you could zoom up toward the stacks and view the book on the shelf. If you did this at several libraries, both public and academic, you could flip between your book at the public library and your book in an academic library setting, browsing across both shelves.”

That’s even more stupid than the shoestore I described above – with shoes at least you care how they look, but who cares what the book’s spine looks like?
Searching online through a book’s text is a great idea, and I hope that Google’s project is successful, but if anything, it makes the experience of physical libraries redundant. For 99.999% of books in the world (i.e. barring some beautifully illustrated old manuscripts) we only care about the text inside, and that can be delivered very efficiently online, as in Project Gutenberg. When online, books are just files. They’re not stacked on shelves, they don’t have spines, and there’s absolutely no reason to treat them like anything other than digital files. The Dewey Decimal System is a necessary evil – it’s damn hard to find the book that you want in a big physical library, so a librarian called Melvil Dewey came up with a notoriously hard to learn system to order all those books on the shelves. That was back in the 1870s! They didn’t know better. “Computer” back then meant a person who computes
Now why oh why would anyone think that it’s a good idea to reproduce the tedious experience of walking along the shelves of a library in order to find a computer file?

Anyway, since we’re discussing libraries and stupidity, here’s a nice video:

April 14, 2007

How the book market should be: Author to Reader, Direct

Filed under: business,Copyrights,ebooks,economy — Elad Kehat @ 9:40 am

Chris Anderson points us to the long tail characteristics of the romance novel market.

What caught my eye was the following quote:

“One told me that at $4.99 she felt her novel was “priced wrong”. I nodded sympathetically at that shameful discounting. Wrong. She felt she was priced too high.”

Most of those $4.99 go to the retailer, the publisher and various other middlemen, so she probably makes $1 or less per novel sold, and still she things it is only right to go down further. Wouldn’t it be great when she sells those novels in digital format, from her website direct to her readers, for $.49?

Also worth noting is that in the current system the author has no control over the pricing of the fruit of her labor. It is sold for what some MBA thinks is “right”. A better system would leave that decision to the creator. Better still, if it is reached through a dialog between her and her readers.

April 13, 2007

Future of books: Objets d’art

Filed under: art,ebooks — Elad Kehat @ 1:37 pm

Cara Barer, a photographer, shows us what the future might hold for paper books.

She crumples them, soaks them in the bath tub, and photographs them in interesting positions.

The following quote is quite telling:

“In my parent’s mind, a set of encyclopedias was mandatory for a good education, and shameful not to provide it, and a trip to the library was the only way to research a paper. Now, however, that same sort of emphasis is placed on owning a computer, and connecting to the internet. A student’s research now can be done without ever leaving their desk. I have fully embraced that technology, and would not want to be without it, but, I also fear that it is slowly leading us to rely less and less on the reference books common in the last two centuries. “

April 6, 2007

Comic Books Quandary and Possible Solution

Filed under: Copyrights,ebooks,economy — Elad Kehat @ 5:48 pm

Steven Grant writes in “Speaking of bit-torrenting comics” about how downloads of scanned comic books through bit torrent hurts the business and jeopardizes the existence of many comic series that sell just enough to justify their continued publication. What Grant suggests is that artists beg file-sharers to go out to a store and buy a copy of titles they enjoyed, in order to ensure that the economics keep working.

I think he’s terribly wrong. When the economics turn against you, begging free-riders to shell out cash when they don’t really have to just doesn’t work. The first reason is that online consumption is free fast and easy, and you get instant gratification (or nearly instant, in the case of bit torrent). Going out to buy stuff adds the non-instant gratification (by actually requiring you to go out, or simply by keeping you waiting for delivery in the case of orders from amazon) insult to the cost injury. The second reason is that there’s so much content out there these days, that most consumers don’t really feel threatened by the idea that some title might go away – unless they’re true enthusiasts for the specific title (and as a rule these are the minority of customers) they can always find something else to replace it.

Instead, why not try to adapt to the changing marketplace and adopt a new business plan?

It’s clear that the market is still there – if people download and share the stuff then they’re obviously reading it. Moreover, the new medium opens up any comics title to a potentially far greater market reach. Finally, it seems that these people don’t mind reading the stuff off their computer screens (printing it in good quality would cost far more than simply buying).

See where I’m getting at? Why don’t comics artists put up a website and publish their own work there?

Here’s how the economics for you, the artist, might work:

You don’t need Marvel to publish your work, so you can cut the entire printing and distribution costs and the retailer’s margins. That has to translate to a serious reduction in price.

Put advertising on your site to generate revenue. If that doesn’t work, i.e. you don’t have enough visitors to generate significant revenues, try charging a very low price, i.e. an iTunes-like $.99 per title. As Apple had proved, it works. You could provide free access to the first few pages, to whet potential customers’ appetite, then charge for full access.

For your best fans who simply have to have a copy on paper, you could use a service like to print and ship the stuff.  If you look at the little they skim off the list price you have to realize that Marvel is screwing you.

You could even use bit torrent to promote yourself. Pick some of your works, add a first page that links back to your website and tells people there’s much more there, and start sharing it.

Maybe there’s even a business here for some aggregator  – a website that manages the whole thing and lets comics publishers publish their work thus. If there’s interest, I could build one 🙂

March 31, 2007

Free eBooks a Growing Trend?

Filed under: Copyrights,ebooks — Elad Kehat @ 6:40 pm

Seth Godin recommends two novels on his blog today, and I decided to check them out. I was surprised and delighted to find out that Geek Mafia‘s author, Rick Dakan, offers it as a free download! This means I can just go ahead and read it on my Sony Reader.

So far I’ve encountered just a handful of books that authors offer for free. Mostly the author is deep into the Creative Commons philosophy (e.g. Yochai Benkler or Cory Doctorow). The whole “give my work away for free” movement has been gaining strength among young musicians lately, but authors seem more set in their ways.

The big question that I’d really like to figure out though is why do authors give their books away for free? Musicians I can understand – they make most of their money from live shows anyway, and giving away the mp3s is probably the best way for a young musician today to create an audience that wants to come and see her perform. Not so for authors – selling the book is the only way I know of for an author to generate revenue, so giving it away cannot be a promotion for something else. Am I wrong?

Now in some cases it must be clear to the author that he probably has a very small potential readership and hence no publisher is willing to publish him. Getting some people to read the work you sweat for, even if you don’t make money from it, makes sense in this case. In a way it’s just like blogging. However, I don’t think that Geek Mafia falls into that category, so what gives?

Or maybe it’s just that authors assume (and rightly so, IMHO) that most people aren’t going to read the whole book off their computer monitor, and printing the whole thing costs more than just buying the book, so giving it away for free is likely to generate more sampling among potential customers, some of whom are going to buy the paper thing. That seems to me to be the most likely reason. However, as I said above, I’m going to read this on my Sony Reader – ebooks are just fine for me. In fact, I hardly ever read paper books anymore. So what happens when lots of people have some kind of e-ink reader? Is this going to have the same effect on book sales that mp3 players had on CD sales?

Interesting times…

January 7, 2007

The God Delusion – A Review

Filed under: ebooks,religion,society — Elad Kehat @ 7:52 pm

As a kid, I used to have an argument with a religious neighbor that went something like this:

Him: “Of course there’s a god – otherwise, who created the universe?”

Me: “But if god created the universe, who had created god?”


The main argument in Richard Dawkins’ “The God Delusion” is just a slightly more sophisticated version of my simple retort as a kid. Essentially, he claims that the theory of evolution provides a simple mechanism that can explain the amazing phenomenon of life – a prime target of the religious proponents of intelligent design theory. In order to choose between the two options laid above – whether the theory of an omnipotent, omniscient, etc. creator is an explanation or merely a complication, Dawkins suggests that we choose the much simple evolutionary principle and avoid the unnecessarily complex god hypothesis.

The apparent objective of the book is to try and win new converts to atheism. The very thesis of the book though – that religious belief at our age makes no sense anymore, should make it clear that the objective is futile. How can a religious person, who decides to ignore reason where it comes to the matters of his faith, be expected to listen to logic arguments and be persuaded by them? Still, maybe those who are unsure where they stand, or who have never given much thought to the matter, stand a chance to wake up to truth.

The beauty of the book though is in its readability, a quality that Dawkins the author is famous for. This, along with his exquisite British sense of humor, makes the book a joy to read – especially if you agree with its contents as I do, and it simply serves to strengthen you in your position with regards to religiosity.


December 19, 2006

Last week I got me a Sony Reader!

Filed under: ebooks — Elad Kehat @ 1:12 pm

One evening with it made it clear that it is a potential relationship killer, so the next day I got another one. Since my wife and I both have immediately begun in the process of ditching our antiquated paper books in favor of the immense wealth of digital content (which I diligently collected beforehand), only one device for the household would have meant constant fights over who gets to read…

In short, this is an instant success. I already read a few hundred pages on it, in different places and lighting conditions (train, airplane, couch, bed), and the screen is indeed the equivalent of paper in terms of ease on your eyes. Then there are all the added benefits – smaller and lighter than most books so it’s easier to hold, less bulky so it fits perfectly in a small bag or a woman’s purse, you can’t lose the page accidentally, you can save any number of bookmarks per book, hold many books on it at the same time and take them all with you anywhere…

Also, there’s no need to have a big piles of books on my nightstand any longer, and in the long run I’ll be able to clear a lot of shelf space from all those bulky antiques that I don’t need anymore. I said “in the long run” because right now I’m still emotionally attached to all my paper books. That’ll pass though. (more…)

November 8, 2006

Why books *will* become obsolete

Filed under: Copyrights,ebooks — Elad Kehat @ 11:27 am

A lot has been written about ebooks since Sony’s release of its ebook reader.

Most reviewers don’t see this as a revolution. David Pogue at The New York Times thinks that it’s a niche product best suited for gadget freaks and people with vast document stashes (aren’t we all like this though?). Walt Crawford at EContent also thinks that ebooks aren’t going to displace p-books anytime soon, since they “are a solution in search of a problem.”

Both reviews miss the whole point: books are just a medium for the delivery of textual content. So are newspapers and magazines – both of whose market has changed due to the internet. Books saw little negative impact (possibly even positive impact thanks to the likes of because computer screens don’t fit where they are usually consumed. The paperback-sized ebook reader, with its e-ink screen changes that.

While true bookworms just love the smell of paper, it is not really the physical book that we consume. It is the content.

Now look at what happens to industries where content can suddenly be consumed in digital form. Need I say Napster?

Messrs. Pogue and Crawford mention Sony’s new digital bookshop that supplies content for the reader. However, they may not yet be aware of the millions of ebooks freely available. One need only start searching torrent forums.

In a few hours’ work you could find and download a library’s worth of books. All for free of course. Sure, that involves copyright infringement, but when did that ever bother anyone?

If the iPod is any indication of how much hardware you can sell to young people when it plays free content, then Sony should do very well indeed. Since youngsters are the most likely to share digital files, it may yet seem fortunate, from book authors’ point of view, that young people don’t read books anymore…

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