Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Authors & ebooks: 11 points to ponder

Ebook developments can be difficult to keep up with because of the continual software and hardware changes. Since digital book sales appear to be increasing in a steep curve, authors and their readers can’t help but wonder how the book biz will change and how quickly. Some of my colleagues are dipping a toe in the waters or diving headfirst into the pool, so soon it may be sink-or-swim time for all of us. After digging around online, emailing with other authors, and reading a lot of blogs over the last few months (not books or magazines, interestingly,) here are the issues that seem most relevant.

#1 Definition

What is an ebook, anyway? A PDF; a Kindle book; an iPad story app; an iBook; an EPUB; et al. If a book is in digital form, it can reasonably be called an ebook. However, the wide diversity in formats often requires clarification. For example, do you know the difference between an iBook and a story app for the iPad? (An iBook is usually a fairly straightforward conversion of a traditional book while a story app can have extra interactivity from changeable illustrations to simulated 3D pop-ups.) The terminology, the acronyms, even the spelling (e-book or ebook?) can be a problem.

#2 Production costs

Digital books require no paper, no ink, no binding, no warehousing, no packing, no shipping, and generally speaking, can’t be returned by customers. If this isn’t a fundamental change in publishing, I don’t know what is. Books in the form of story apps require new (to publishing) skill sets such as writing software code, which may be costly depending on what’s involved. However, porting an existing title with few changes over to a digital format shouldn’t be too pricey.

#3 Reader expectations

...for ebooks may be quite different versus paper books. For example, readers may demand to pay less due to the perceived lower production costs and the intangibility of books in electronic form. Maybe much less, if the sheer number of complaints on the Internet about overpriced ebooks are any indication.

#4 Devices

Ereaders are proliferating but there are two main types. Some are optimized for reading text (e.g. black and white “e ink” types such as the Kindle). The tablet-types can show full color images, generally have touchscreens, and can do much more in addition to displaying ebooks. Surprisingly (to me), many people read on their phones or other smallish devices. You don’t necessarily need a separate device, though (see #5).

#5 Different Formats

The most popular ereaders have non-interchangeable file formats, which is a production headache, obviously. For example, an iBook can’t be read on a Kindle, as far as I know. However, it's good (if a tad confusing) that you can read Kindle and NOOK books on the iPad, PC, Mac, Blackberry, iPod, and so on with a free download (click for Kindle reader apps, or NOOK reader apps).

#6 Images

Picture books, graphic novels, and many (most?) nonfiction titles need images. Authors and illustrators need to know which device/format will support what kind of image. For example, most people know that Kindles are only black and white thus far, including any images. However, did you know that if the Kindle book is on a computer or other color device using a Kindle reader app, images will be in full color? (That is, assuming the original image was full color.) Another issue with the various devices/formats is whether the artwork can be “full bleed,” meaning the image fills the screen rather than having a white border around each page.

#7 Interactive or not?

A big factor in ebooks for children is the level of interactivity. I’ve heard that some young kids are disappointed if a tablet ebook isn’t game-like, i.e.with movable components, animations, sound effects, and other media enrichments. My take is that an ebook can be reading-oriented OR game/movie-like OR something in between...but I don’t think every ebook must have jumping, jiggling, jangling elements to be worthwhile. Someone who wants to be completely immersed while reading may prefer zero interactivity. Ultimately, the market will decide.

#8 Roles

Who’s involved in designing the interactivity? The developer...? Personally, when I think about creating an interactive book, an adaptation of an existing book almost seems more difficult than starting from scratch...guess it depends on what the interactive components turn out to be.

#9 Competition

The technological barrier to creating a digital book is getting ever lower, depending on what kind it is (text-only being the easiest.) And since 80% of Americans supposedly want to write at least one book, there are going to be many, many more ebooks. Whether they’ll be worth reading is another issue(!)

#10 Search

Finding a particular ebook is a bit of a Catch-22 situation at the moment. If you already know the title or author, it’s fairly easy to find it on whichever ebookstore. The question for authors is, how will people know your your title even exists amidst the bazillion others?

#11 Business as usual?

If ebooks are priced lower, they may undermine the sales of traditional books, a huge problem for most publishers (and naturally authors.) The impact on libraries and bookstores, how schools will utilize ebooks, the affect on textbooks, the split authors get versus the various middlemen, how ebooks will be reviewed, the rise of indie publishing... whew, must stop now.

These factors and more are the reason it’s daunting for all involved, from authors to publishers to people who just want to read. We’ll muddle through it together, hopefully sooner rather than later. If you’re interested in how one group of authors (including me) are navigating these waters, please check out our brand new blog, e is for book.

One of my aspirations is to create interactive book apps and ideally I’d rather create the whole thing myself. A word processor plus drawing, painting, and layout software are the tools I currently use to make my I’m hoping for a reasonably easy app-creation tool that doesn’t require me to learn a computer coding language. Maybe one will come out next week, who knows?

Many authors may be waiting for their publisher to take care of everything, hard to say.
I’m no expert on these issues, just am trying to be informed (despite the fact that much of this post is subject to change.) I'm pretty sure that paper books aren’t going away...many of us prefer them most or all of the time. What’s clear is that the book biz is being reconfigured all around us, right now.


Unknown said...

Wow! Terrific post, Loreen. It's a lot to keep track of. Thanks for all the research! Part of my vision for Ink Think Tank is that we become an online multimedia publishing company. I'm waiting for the video component of the iPad to be resolved (they fighting with Adobe over Flash. I promise that we will be very author friendly.

Rosalyn Schanzer said...

This blog is a must-read for all children's book authors...for better or for worse, The Times They are a-Changing. You've addressed lots of the questions we've been asking ourselves and it will be interesting to see where this goes.

Melissa Stewart said...

Great post, Loreen. Things are changing so quickly that it's hard to stay up to speed. Thanks for so much clear and usueful information.

Unknown said...

You’re welcome...knowledge is power!

Cheryl Harness said...

A completely terrific, fizzy, & informative post, Loreen, for which I thank you. You've done a great service here. Still, it leaves me feeling, in part – a very small part, I promise – hoping that I die soon.

Unknown said...

Awww Cheryl, don't say that! There just are different formats for people to read BOOKS, what's wrong with that?

Maryann Cocca-Leffler said...

Great Post Loreen (go Eisfor book!).
One thing I think about is the divide between the publishers and the author/illustrators in regards to ebooks. (maybe it's just me). Publishers seem to be scrambling...holding rights...offering low ebook royalties etc. Everything is so new...there is no "plan"or direction. Perhaps they are waiting for the dust to settle. The big question can paper books and ebooks compliment eachother instead of fighting for sales? I do think these picturebooks are way overpriced...12.99? I don't know the answer, but I still think both formats can co-exist. Maybe I am dreaming!

Maryann Cocca-Leffler said...

...and that was 12.99 for an ebook.

Anonymous said...

I'll go with Maryann on this. I think both can co-exist in part because of your point 2: expectations.

Even for a non-author this is a very thought-provoking, helpful post.

rglaser said...

Thanks for the info. Just to weigh in from a publisher perspective: we don't know what to do! Just like publishing paper books, ebooks will have to be profitable in order to keep publishers in business and able to hire authors, editors, designers, etc... It makes sense to me at an adult consumer level, but for children's nonfiction--I see traditional books being used a lot longer in schools. But we are expected to jump on one of the many ebook bandwagons.