Digital Book Publishing
By J.D. Neeson, President, Marine Parts Express
Earlier this summer a friend sent me an article written by Alexandra Alter called “Your E-Book Is Reading You” and subtitled, “Digital-book publishers and retailers now know more about their readers than ever before. How that’s changing the experience of reading.” The article is nicely written and discusses how the various e-book content suppliers (Barnes & Noble, Google, Apple, Amazon, etc.) are not only tracking what readers are reading, but how they are actually reading. Then, using statistical analysis with other regression techniques, they are determining what people like and don’t like and are supplying this information to the authors.
This is way beyond scary, and when coupled with a few cases where Amazon removed books from customer’s units after they had already been sold (Amazon was feuding with the author or the author’s estate) means that us readers are completely at the mercy of these companies.
I wonder how long it will be until the powers that be will begin changing content on the fly. Maybe the Kindle version of the “Pentagon Papers” will end a bit differently with the United States reaching the hearts and minds of the Vietnamese.
Or maybe companies will be allowed to slip in product placements. I am thinking something like a coal company underwriting a version of “How Green Was My Valley” or Google supporting “Atlas Shrugged”—with only a few small textual changes, you understand.
Or even worse than having people subtly change a book I am reading, is having the government know what I am reading and keeping track of it. It means we all have to trust them a great deal and when the public has, in years gone by, believed the government knows best is when McCarthy had his power or Bush his weapons of mass destruction.
Although, I have to admit, there are some books that I would like to change the ending a bit or know more about a character or tighten up a plot line. I bet it won’t be long before a book comes out in multiple forms. There will be one version with the ability to click on a character to get his back story or maybe read about his ancestors, or there will be another version of the book that will have more descriptive prose or maybe more adult content (I read about a guy who successfully defended his PhD thesis that pornography drove all technological improvements, and I understand that romances and other more explicit books make up one of the fastest and most profitable sectors of the book world.).
And perhaps like Wikipedia, there will be group writing of books with people participating through the Internet or maybe an author would be hired to take over the editing of the inputs—sort of a ghost writer for the hoi polloi.
But nowhere in this brave new world of data mining does it address the quality of the work—rather it quantitatively measures the popularity of a work in a moment of time. Does this mean that books will be constantly re-written to reflect the changes in the population? Often I have re-read a book and found it seemed completely different from what I remembered from my first reading of it. And does this mean books like Sinclair’s “The Jungle” or Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring” that materially changed the world, but can’t really be described as a crowd pleaser, will never be written again?
However, I am a great believer that if you have given a book a chance and it doesn’t reach or entertain you, you should stop reading it. So is it any surprise that publishers are trying to pick books that will appeal to the greatest number of people. I suspect that the publishers of the past would love to have had the ability to quantitatively measure which books were going to be successful.
In the past, the publishers and editors had to trust their own judgment, but now with the proliferation of self-published books and the alternative forms of presentation, the publishers are feeling increasingly nervous that their business model doesn’t work anymore and what they do is becoming increasingly separated from what the public wants.
Just for an example, in the year 2006 there were approximately 274,416 books published in the traditional manner versus about 22,000 published in a non-traditional way (self-published, e-books, etc.). By 2010 the traditional was around 328,259 (20% increase) and the nontraditional was around 3,806,000 (a 17,351% increase)!
During the year 2011 publishers fought back by working with online and e-book suppliers to sell their original traditionally published books in new ways. While this did reduce the amount of non-traditionally published books (including a drop from Print On Demand books that were printing public domain tittles through the Web) by quite a bit, the difference from 2006 was still a 5,400% increase in non-traditional publishing.
This battle did help reduce the non-traditional publishing by having the publishers co-opt some of the methods that were used by the others, but it only increased the publishers’ share by 6% and it was very expensive for them to do so. E-books were approximately 41% of total books sold, but only 11% of sales, as the average e-book sold for $3.18 compared to $12.68 for a paperback.
No wonder the publishers are very nervous.
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November 1, 2012 / JD Neeson / 0
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Margaret Graham Neeeson
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