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October 21, 2006

Bestsellers, okaysellers, and slippery figurative language
Posted by Patrick at 11:40 AM *

Over at BoingBoing, Cory Doctorow blogged Teresa’s post about how the news media exaggerates the role of the bestseller in modern book publishing. Here at Making Light we love us some Cory Doctorow, and we always enjoy the spike of traffic that comes from a BoingBoing link, but in this case, by headlining his post “Publishing isn’t bestseller-driven” and going on to summarize Teresa as saying that “publishing isn’t driven by bestsellers, but by ‘okaysellers,’” I think Cory accidentally misrepresents what Teresa was trying to say.

The fact is that book publishing is indeed “driven by” bestsellers. Okay, “driven by” is a figurative and slightly imprecise term, but it’s entirely reasonable to observe that book publishers’ tactical and strategic decisions are to a non-trivial extent affected by whether they have bestsellers and what kind of bestsellers those are. Having bestsellers on a regular basis makes an profound difference to what a publisher can do in connection with all their books, bestsellers and “okaysellers” alike. Teresa and I have worked at publishers where nothing was bestselling, and we’ve worked at publishers where books were landing on the New York Times list every month, and we can assure you that the latter is better in the same way that winning the lottery is better than having bone cancer.

What Teresa was trying to get at, and she’s absolutely right, is that while book publishing may be greatly driven by our need for bestsellers, in the same way that many American policies are “driven by” our national need for easy access to petroleum, we don’t in fact spend every second of every day wandering around in a frenzy obsessing about bestsellers, any more than everyone in America spends all their time invading Middle Eastern countries or grovelling at the gas pump. When the Wall Street Journal writes that “publishing is becoming a winner-takes-all contest” and says that “when a book doesn’t sell right away, the large chains sweep it into the back room, making space for the next aspirant,” they’re grossly misrepresenting how most of book publishing works. We may be driven by a need to have some books that “bestsell,” but our daily life is far from dominated by work on bestsellers to the exclusion of all else. To the contrary, smart publishers know that publishing is more like gardening than it’s like factory-farming; if you want giant successes, you’d better have a whole lot of little experiments going all at the same time. We need bestsellers. But we don’t spend all of our time on them, and we don’t sweep non-bestselling books (or their authors) off to the glue factory. We need all the other books as well. Because you never know.

Comments on Bestsellers, okaysellers, and slippery figurative language:
#1 ::: mattH ::: (view all by) ::: October 21, 2006, 12:37 PM:

It's being a fox and not a hedgehog.

#2 ::: Raven ::: (view all by) ::: October 21, 2006, 12:58 PM:

Or like a rabbit — species survival strategy depends on high number of offspring, rather than just a few.

#3 ::: James D. Macdonald ::: (view all by) ::: October 21, 2006, 01:07 PM:

"I have many tricks," said the fox.

"I have only one," said the hedgehog, "but it's a good one."

#4 ::: BSD ::: (view all by) ::: October 21, 2006, 01:10 PM:

For instance, was Angels and Demons a huge seller before its sequel came out?

#5 ::: Mark DF ::: (view all by) ::: October 21, 2006, 01:53 PM:

Yes, exactly. Publishing simply isn't a widget business. In an ideal world, a publisher would love just to publish books they love that all become bestsellers. It makes life easier as a business. But publishing doesn't work that. People in publishing know that. People who only think they know publishing don't.

#6 ::: Greg London ::: (view all by) ::: October 21, 2006, 03:03 PM:

That paragraph by the WSJ that Teresa quoted is all metaphors and slippery language. It isn't surprising that some confusion arose in rebutting it.

It would be interesting if someone who knows what they're talking about in the publishing industry (Patrick/Teresa/Bueller?) could write a 80-100 word paragraph that could be spoon fed to reporters when said reporters feel obliged to make comments on the state of the industry as a whole.

That bit from the WSJ feels like it was something the reporter just cut and pasted. completely generic, could be used in just about any article about publishing, and full of emotive language and inaccurate metaphors.

Which might be the problem. Reality often doesn't boil down into neat 100 word blurbs that can be used everywhere. oh well.

#7 ::: Greg London ::: (view all by) ::: October 21, 2006, 03:06 PM:

Publishing simply isn't a widget business.

Hey, lemme tell ya sumtin, it aint easy in da widget bidness, either. knowaddamean?

#8 ::: Anthony Ha ::: (view all by) ::: October 21, 2006, 04:07 PM:

Greg London: It would be interesting if someone who knows what they're talking about in the publishing industry (Patrick/Teresa/Bueller?) could write a 80-100 word paragraph that could be spoon fed to reporters when said reporters feel obliged to make comments on the state of the industry as a whole.

I like this idea, but I'd prefer if someone could just convince those reporters that making such broad statements about the "state of the industry" is pretty problematic, or at least a lot more complicated than they make it sound, and shouldn't just be tossed off with a boilerplate paragraph.

#9 ::: Farrell McGovern ::: (view all by) ::: October 21, 2006, 04:20 PM:

I know a fair bit about the publishing industry, but I know a lot more about the music industry...but they pretty much do the same thing, selling works of art for profit to the masses.

A best seller, or hit record are, as you said, winning hte lottery. But the problem with the record industry today is that they are *only* trying to win the lottery, rather than have a steady source of income.

Up until the late 1980s, an artist could be considered successful even if they never hit on the Billboard chart, as one example of a measure of having a "hit record". What they needed was back catalog sales...that is, their albums continued to sell years after they were released. They thus provided a steady stream of income to both the record company, and the artist. If they had a hit album, that was a bonus, and it would also drive the sales of their back catalog up, so there was always an incentive to aim for hit albums.

But starting in the late 80s, as record companies were snarfed up by larger and larger multinational corporations, the quarterly balance sheet became more and more important, with the stock prices being driven by the quarterly reports. Slow, steady streams of income did not give the same percentage "return on investment" that hit albums did, so the push came to concentrate on hit albums, and the concept of a back catalog slowly began to disappear.

I know a number of record store managers, and others who have worked in record stores, and they tell me that compared to back then, the number of unique titles carried in a store is a fraction of what it used to be. More and more shelf space is given to the latest hits, but if you want to explore the back catalog of some artist that just had a hit, you end up having to go on-line to find it...if it is still being pressed.

Of course, never mind how hard it is to find good music today, it is even worse for the artist. Read this article on how the music industry treats them from Salon magazine (you don't need a Salon subscription to read it, either), it every enlightening, in a shocking way.

http://archive.salon.com/tech/feature/2000/06/14/love/

My fear is that the publishing industry is going to go the same way...and I feel sorry for readers like myself, and writers.

#10 ::: Charlie Stross ::: (view all by) ::: October 21, 2006, 04:57 PM:

Farrel #9, the publishing industry went through a gigantic wave of consolidation in the 1980s, just like the music industry. For some reason(s), the insanity doesn't seem to have been contagious.

(Actually, we can probably make that for several reasons, but I think we could be here 'til the cows come home if we start trying to figure out why one industry continues to work, more or less, while another chowed down on its own seed corn then started suing its own customers.)

#11 ::: Farrell McGovern ::: (view all by) ::: October 21, 2006, 05:07 PM:

re: Charlie Stross

I hope it doesn't! But many times I have looked for books by authors I've read a book by, and would like to read more of, but I can't find anything else in any store by them. Going on the net, I find they may have many books published, but few in print. Many classics are hard to find new, and it seems like it takes the death of the author to bring them back out. :-(

#12 ::: Dave Bell ::: (view all by) ::: October 21, 2006, 05:32 PM:

Charlie, I think one answer might be the CD. Or, at least, it might be an emblem of the answer. Music was hit be a new distribution format, with all the opportunities for the companies to re-sell the back catalogue.

And it also made music digital, which as computer tech developed brought up the spectre of the perfect copy.

In a sense, a book is digital, but it isn't also meant to be machine readable.

So the music industry took a second bite at the best-sellers of the past, and coincidentally made them easy to copy.

It's a long way from being the only reason why the music industry went one way, and book publishing another, but it does seem an obvious difference.

#13 ::: Bruce E. Durocher II ::: (view all by) ::: October 21, 2006, 06:06 PM:

Anthony Ha:

I like this idea, but I'd prefer if someone could just convince those reporters that making such broad statements about the "state of the industry" is pretty problematic, or at least a lot more complicated than they make it sound, and shouldn't just be tossed off with a boilerplate paragraph.

And then we'll work on getting the UK Press to change it's definition of anorak.

#14 ::: Linkmeister ::: (view all by) ::: October 21, 2006, 07:04 PM:

Bruce @ #13, you forgot the ponies.

#15 ::: Kevin Brennan ::: (view all by) ::: October 21, 2006, 11:31 PM:

All I know is, few people were aware that my novel existed.

Parts Unknown

It seems to me that publishers are hopelessly compulsive gamblers. They bet on lots of ponies, but they quickly forget the ones that don't pay.

#16 ::: Bruce E. Durocher II ::: (view all by) ::: October 22, 2006, 12:25 AM:

Linkmeister: Ponies? As in "And I'd also like a pony?" Or as in 25 pounds? Or as used in Cockney Rhyming Slang? I'm confused...

#17 ::: Stanford Matthews ::: (view all by) ::: October 22, 2006, 01:06 AM:

It seems to me what publishers do and what I find on the shelves at most bookstores have little in common with each other. I will typically not find a solution to my reading requirement by browsing a bookstore. Even the bestsellers are a small slowly changing inventory. But I don't look for bestsellers. I look for what I need. I have more success browsing titles and offerings at publisher's sites where things I need have been found before. Although I know little of the publishing business, I would expect they generate more revenue from repeat business from those seeking particular types of books than from bestsellers. But that's just me.

#18 ::: Linkmeister ::: (view all by) ::: October 22, 2006, 01:28 AM:

Bruce, you said "getting the UK Press to change it's definition of anorak," which seemed to be a sardonic remark about an event which would be unlikely to occur. So I thought of asking for ponies, another promise that's unlikely to be fulfilled.

#19 ::: Patrick Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: October 22, 2006, 01:35 AM:

"I know a fair bit about the publishing industry, but I know a lot more about the music industry...but they pretty much do the same thing, selling works of art for profit to the masses."

This is true, in the same sense that Aung San and Richard Cheney are "pretty much the same thing," both of them being featherless bipeds in species Homo Sapiens.

#20 ::: AlphaGeek ::: (view all by) ::: October 22, 2006, 02:55 AM:

While I have been a regular reader of Making Light for Internet-aeons, and an admirer of PNH and TNH for much longer, this is my first post here. (End of obligatory newbie intro.)

It was worrying when the posts abruptly ceased earlier this month, and so I am very glad to read that the hiatus was for good cause and that everyone is well.

Regarding Patrick's post: The subtle difference lost in Cory's post is that between 'driven by' and 'sustained by'. The book publishing industry may be driven by the desire for regular bestsellers, but my feeble understanding is that it is sustained by the 'okaysellers'. (OT: what a great new wordlet!)

AG, signing off, still thrilled to discover that my editorial heroes are thinking progressives...

#21 ::: sdn ::: (view all by) ::: October 22, 2006, 09:12 AM:

we don't in fact spend every second of every day wandering around in a frenzy obsessing about bestsellers

yes, you do. I SAW YOU

#22 ::: Patrick Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: October 22, 2006, 09:55 AM:

Dang. Busted! My fiendish plan for global domination has been FOILED AGAIN.

#23 ::: A.R.Yngve ::: (view all by) ::: October 22, 2006, 10:47 AM:

But suppose the book distribution technology changed radically? There's this talk about instant POD (Print On Demand) becoming available to shops in the near future. What if retailers could print each copy instantly to each customer in the shop, instead of ordering pre-printed copies from printers?

Would the publishing industry then go ape, just like the music industry did? "We must control rampant Print-While-U-Wait piracy! Sue the readers!"

Not saying this will happen, but it might...
;)

#24 ::: James D. Macdonald ::: (view all by) ::: October 22, 2006, 11:08 AM:

There's this talk about instant POD (Print On Demand) becoming available to shops in the near future.

There's been that talk about the POD machines in shops "in the near future" for the past 15 years at least.

Let's examine it. First: "Instantly." You can't even photocopy a single sheet of paper instantly. Let's say that you could, somehow, create an entire book in 30 seconds, though. Now imagine a line at that machine at Christmas time, with ten customers, each wanting five books.

The last customer in line will wait 25 minutes to get his.

Okay, multiple machines. How many? At what cost?

Any time the machine isn't running it isn't producing income. How about nights? What are you going to be doing with them then? Probably pre-printing the bestsellers, and perennial sellers, to make them available for faster fulfillment. How's that different from right now, except with no economies of scale?

Next, reliablity. How often does the repair service get called for your office photocopier? Are there more things that could go wrong with a print-on-demand machine? What happens to the bookstore's business when the machine is down?

Perhaps a shop could have such a machine to print up deep-backlist and obscure books. But will it be cost-effective to own it?

#25 ::: Faren Miller ::: (view all by) ::: October 22, 2006, 11:27 AM:

Perhaps a shop could have such a machine to print up deep-backlist and obscure books. But will it be cost-effective to own it?

Not as long as used copies are available via the Internet.

#26 ::: Tim Walker ::: (view all by) ::: October 22, 2006, 12:11 PM:

When I read Teresa's original post, and again reading this post, the phrase that came to mind was "portfolio theory." Smart financial investors (individual, institutional, whatever) do this by taking on a range of calculated risks. Their portfolios will include some investments that are quiet, slow gainers, safe as houses; these will probably never "pop" like a bestseller, but they are highly likely to reap strong returns over time. General Electric's stock would be an example. I would compare this to, say, John McPhee's influence on Farrar Straus's catalog: he's not going to rocket up the bestseller list with his next "Uncommon Carriers," but I'm sure it doesn't hurt FSG's feelings to keep all of his books in print and have so many copies of them on the shelves of so many bookstores across the country. Financial managers will also try to latch on to some big gainers -- the Googles of the week, year, or decade -- that will rain down riches upon their houses. In Farrar Straus's case, the Google's name is "Tom Wolfe." He comes out with a new book, and boom!, FSG gets to take more risks on unknown could-be-okaysellers -- just like financial managers take risks on some companies (or other appreciating assets) that seem sound but are as yet unproven.

TNH and PNH: Does this match your experience?

#27 ::: Bruce E. Durocher II ::: (view all by) ::: October 22, 2006, 12:28 PM:

Linkmeister: That's what I thought you meant at first, but since I'd brought up the UK press I began worrying about the other definitions for a pony available in the UK. Just wanted to check...

#28 ::: Emma ::: (view all by) ::: October 22, 2006, 02:23 PM:

The talk about POD has always reminded me of the talk about "paperless" libraries. I have been a librarian for 27 years and for 20 of those people (usually administrators who don't want to spend money on building renovations/expansions) have been telling me that "soon" everything will be online and there'll be no need for shelf space for books.
I recently printed a book I purchased online, and it took 15 minutes to print on a high-speed laser printer. I can't imagine it would work very well in bookstores.

#29 ::: Linkmeister ::: (view all by) ::: October 22, 2006, 02:30 PM:

Bruce, Occam's Razor was defined for a reason; frequency of occurrence.

#30 ::: Paula Lieberman ::: (view all by) ::: October 22, 2006, 02:36 PM:

That wasn't a true high speed printer, then. Avery Dennison and Xerox make direct-to-print systems that are probably over 100 pages per minute printing by now. Of course, they cost more than most people earn in a year, but those are the serious printing systems.

#31 ::: Clifton Royston ::: (view all by) ::: October 22, 2006, 03:04 PM:

Hmmm. The veering of this discussion has given me an interesting idea. (Walks off muttering to self...)

#32 ::: Gary Townsend ::: (view all by) ::: October 22, 2006, 06:43 PM:

Now I've a question that's somewhat related: Given that first-time novelists' books rarely earn back the advance paid to the author (or so I've heard), how does a publisher go about deciding whether to stay with such an author or not?

#33 ::: P J Evans ::: (view all by) ::: October 22, 2006, 06:50 PM:

They keep talking about 'paperless' offices too, but we've found that we need paper copies: we mark things up as we work. We have lots of printers.

#34 ::: Mickle ::: (view all by) ::: October 22, 2006, 07:04 PM:

That makes sense - we retail booksellers work the same way.

It's beyond useful - it's in fact essential - to have those log lasting bestsellers, whether they be The Da Vinci Code, Harry Potter, or The Purpose Driven Life.

But it still takes all those extra little bits to keep from going in the red, so it's not like you can ignore the good - and sometimes good - selling books either.

#35 ::: Stanford Matthews ::: (view all by) ::: October 22, 2006, 10:17 PM:

For the POD comment, #24:
I will hazard a guess that every published book in recent years was at some point committed to a digital copy, perhaps for printing, and that copy in this digital age could be offered for download and read from the utterly unromantic literary contrivance known as a pc. Has POD not happened? Or is it just that we can't get what we want by that transaction.

#36 ::: Gar Lipow ::: (view all by) ::: October 23, 2006, 12:11 AM:

Let me ask you this. Suppose you had author who produced solid midlist books. (Let's leave aside whether you loved them or not; I'm trying to get a feel for the business end.) Suppose you were convinced that this author would stay solid midlist - never drop below that, but never have a bestseller either. From your point of view as publisher is this author an asset? If so how much of an asset? (Assume middle of midlist. Assume whatever definition of midlist you use in your day-to-day work.)

#37 ::: A.R.Yngve ::: (view all by) ::: October 23, 2006, 09:51 AM:

There are no "sure bets" in publishing, not even for okaysellers. (What if the "solid midlist" writer suffers an unanticipated dry spell?)

Inasmuch as I like to poke fun at the publishers who rejected J.K.Rowling (Ha ha!), I will say this in their defence: Who knew?

This insecurity must drive the bean-counters up the wall. If you're in that business for profit, it's just not worth the ulcers.

#38 ::: rhandir ::: (view all by) ::: October 23, 2006, 10:40 AM:

in #24 ::: James D. Macdonald wrote:
There's been that talk about the POD machines in shops "in the near future" for the past 15 years at least.
Let's examine it. First: "Instantly." You can't even photocopy a single sheet of paper instantly...

Having worked with assorted production model xerox copiers, I assure you, printing a book quickly, even with the setup perfect, is not quick, takes up a large volume of space, is noisy, and is prone to breakdown. That's before you get to the binding step. Moving midsize bits of paper around, from a stack, wrapped around a drum, coated, baked, flipped to the other side of the drum, coated, baked, spat out, lined up, trimmed, glued, crimped, and cooled is not a trivial engineering exercise when you are trying to do it at a rate exceeding 1 page per second. A rainy day can throw things off: paper expands when it is slightly damper than bone dry (even claycoated laser paper), and a stack of paper moves quite a bit.

What would you need to run a POD copier? A place to put it. A copier of (barely) sufficent speed, like a xerox DC480 takes up a 3'x6' spot, plus another 3'x6' altogether for clearance to get at it (to get at all the hatches for part replacement, paper stocking, etc. and somewhere to stand.) Add a trimmer/gluer/binder, and you'd need another 3'x6'. Where do you put the pallet of paper stock? that's 6'x6'x6', and you can't put anything on top of it. Assume another 3'x3' for fuser oil, extra rollers (replace every 15,000 double sided pages) and a single day's toner to be generous. Replacement xerographic module? 2'x2'x3', boxed. You'll want two. Any booksellers want to comment on what money you could make with 129 square feet?

This doesn't even get to the question of where to put the trash, but you get the point. A reliable POD site looks more like a cinnabon or starbux in footprint and enginnering requirements than a bookstore. Starbux makes it's money off of assembling flavors, hot water, and milk, using simple machines* with few moving parts. Ditto for cinnabon assembling starches. What would be comparable for books? Oh, I know! Having a heap of pre-assembled bound volumes by f/l/a/v/o/r/s/ authors who are market-tested to be liked by consumers. You know, the pyramids of bestsellers.

If POD-ing books in the mall was as profitable as making coffee, don't you think we'd be doing it already?

-r.

*okay, there's nothing simple engineering-wise about a cappuchino maker, but thanks to the miracle of steam power there's blessed few moving parts, and basically no user-serviceable parts at all. Next time you have a cappuchino, think of Girl Genius - steampower is all around us!

#39 ::: Doug ::: (view all by) ::: October 23, 2006, 10:47 AM:

#37 I dunno, if you're not in that business for profit, chances are that you're not in that business for very long. I think book publishing shares with newspaper publishing the joke about how to make a small fortune.

#40 ::: rhandir ::: (view all by) ::: October 23, 2006, 10:56 AM:

in #37 ::: A.R.Yngve wrote:
Inasmuch as I like to poke fun at the publishers who rejected J.K.Rowling (Ha ha!), I will say this in their defence: Who knew?

Sometimes even picking J.K.Rowling doesn't help: didn't Scholastic get into trouble by overprinting HP #5? I'm having trouble finding a source to cite (harry potter web spam? yup.) but I recall reading that they actually didn't make much money off of that one because they printed one copy for each person who concievably could buy one. That could just be the simple tricks and nonsense of publishing accounting inaccurately reported by the mainstream media.

That said, I did find an interesting essay called On the Survival of Rats in the Slush Pile, but I don't know how seriously to take it - it seems to be a variant on the "this business is hit-driven and therefore statistical rules of randomness determine success" meme*.

-r.

*I really wish we had a shorter name for that meme. I first noticed it about a month ago in an article on Techdirt on the lack of coorelation between paying a big star a lot of money and the blockbuster status of the film made.

#41 ::: P J Evans ::: (view all by) ::: October 23, 2006, 11:10 AM:

Doug @ 39:

The joke applies to farming also. 'Farmers are the only people who buy at retail and sell at wholesale.'

#42 ::: JESR ::: (view all by) ::: October 23, 2006, 12:16 PM:

PJ Evans, the whole description goes "Buy retail, sell wholesale, and pay the freight both ways."

My original observation, after a lifetime farming on the edge of suburbia: farmers share the same relationship to bankers and real-estate developers that elephant seals have with great white sharks.

(Washington Voters: my brother-in-law the pig farmer? He's voting against 933).

#43 ::: Lisa Goldstein ::: (view all by) ::: October 23, 2006, 12:38 PM:

rhandir @ 38 -- Finding space to put the thing might not be that important -- you just use the space where all the books used to be. You'd keep one copy of each book on the shelf, and people could look at them and decide which one(s) they want, and the clerk would fire up the POD machine.

That's the way I'd always imagined it, anyway. The rest of your arguments are pretty compelling, though, so I don't think it's going to happen.

#44 ::: GlendaP ::: (view all by) ::: October 23, 2006, 01:30 PM:

rhandir @ 38 -- How much space does a one-hour photo lab occupy? Sure, they're hurting now from digital cameras, but they were obviously a viable mode for many years. And I believe those have a few moving parts. Why wouldn't that be a business model for POD? Pay $X for a book if you come back tomorrow to pick it up, or $X+Y to get it in an hour.

(lurker jumping in)

#45 ::: P J Evans ::: (view all by) ::: October 23, 2006, 01:43 PM:

The one-hour photo equipment needs space ... the one I went to had a machine that was ell-shaped, at least 6 ft on the long side and five on the short side, plus access space (it was a while back). Figure a minimum of 8 by 10 ft.

#46 ::: xeger ::: (view all by) ::: October 23, 2006, 02:01 PM:

#12 ::: Dave Bell pondered:
In a sense, a book is digital, but it isn't also meant to be machine readable.

I'm not quite sure how to read that. A book is surely digital, and machine readable - and sheet music is arguably digital, but isn't also meant to be machine readable.

So the music industry took a second bite at the best-sellers of the past, and coincidentally made them easy to copy.

I don't think making them easy to copy really has that much to do with it - if anything, it seems to have exposed more people to a broader spectrum of music.

It might be interesting to look at the idea of ownership as it relates to things like master copies of music and films, carefully locked away in vaults though. Do publishers have the modern equivalent of engraved plates locked away in perpetuity? It's certainly (these days) pretty easy to copy a book - and for many people, books are much less of a repeat experience than music.

I have a somewhat more vague than I care to admit recollection that Lessig wrote something about the difference between paper and digital media in his book on copyright, but it's nowhere near handy to me right now.

#47 ::: pyrephox ::: (view all by) ::: October 23, 2006, 02:12 PM:

Digital books are when the book industry will hit the same conundrum that the CD industry currently is. And by 'digital book', I mean a device which looks like a book, has about 800 pages that can be flipped through, and displays digital copies of books as text that can be read and flipped through while lying in bed, on the subway, on a plane, or whatever. A HD included that can hold about 50-100 books, and those books can be downloaded to other devices for extra storage.

Because that's the only time when the /experience/ of reading a book will be perfectly copied as the experience of listening to a CD currently is. POD is awkward and doesn't give you the same good-book feel. Reading on PC through .pdf files just isn't any fun, and you either can't do it portably or you have to squint to get the text from the screen. No digital copy of books has yet proved reliable competition, even /with/ search features and hyperlinks, because the experience of reading a book is a very singular and unique one.

#48 ::: Greg London ::: (view all by) ::: October 23, 2006, 02:18 PM:

A book is surely digital, and machine readable

A book may be machine readable, but it isn't digital. If it were, it would be nothing but a collection of numbers, perhaps the numeric ascii values of the characters it contains. Digital means "numeric".

And don't call me Shirley.

#49 ::: Alex R ::: (view all by) ::: October 23, 2006, 02:32 PM:

Patrick, it seems to me that there is some difference -- at least of emphasis -- between what you are saying and what Teresa is saying.

There is a difference between saying "Most of our business is okaysellers, and that's okay, because okaysellers make money too" and saying "Most of our business is okaysellers, and that's okay, because you need to publish a lot of okaysellers to get the bestsellers you need to make money". (Gar Lipow's hypothetical about a known quantity okayseller author gets at the same point.) Your closing couple of sentences suggest that the second is more true than the first.

I think that this difference may be significant in choosing books to publish -- if you have to choose between a book with an audience which is small but nearly guaranteed and a possibly weaker book that has a chance of catching on with a very broad audience, you might make a different selection depending on how many sales you need to make your first dollar.

So I'm genuinely curious: Do you publish "okaysellers" because they make money on their own, or only because "you never know" which book might hit it big?

#50 ::: rhandir ::: (view all by) ::: October 23, 2006, 03:16 PM:

in #43 ::: Lisa Goldstein noted in reply:
Finding space to put the thing might not be that important -- you just use the space where all the books used to be. You'd keep one copy of each book on the shelf, and people could look at them and decide which one(s) they want, and the clerk would fire up the POD machine.
Granted. This is the weakest part of the arguement, anyway, since 139 square feet isn't a whole bookstore by a long shot. I could resort to the whole "opportunity cost" of devoting the square footage to POD vs. regular books, but that seems like a cheap trick that ignores some important variables.

The rest of your arguments are pretty compelling, though...
God bless you, that's the nicest thing anyone's said to me all day!

And in #44 ::: GlendaP asked me
Why wouldn't that be a business model for POD? Pay $X for a book if you come back tomorrow to pick it up, or $X+Y to get it in an hour.
That's a pretty good model, actually. I'd love to be able to pick up a book the next day if it wasn't in stock.

I think we'd need to see automated warehousing/shelving be used to accomplish it though - waiting a day for a POD title vs. waiting two or three for Amazon to get it to me feels about the same, but the physical quality of mass produced books is better.

The one-hour-photo places now do one-hour-or-much-less digital printing, so they really shouldn't be hurting for business. I get my photos printed up at Target from time to time, and they are usually ready by the time I'm done shopping. Did you know that you can upload your pics to them and pick them up the same day? Nifty. To a degree you can already do this with Borders online inventory system. You can find a title in inventory (you can check any store's inventory!) and have them set it aside. Sadly, this can take about a day, and isn't implemented as an easy one-click thing. They really need to fix that.

By the way, I didn't intend for my observations on the problems of POD-on-site to be terribly snarky. I like the idea of POD-on-site, I really do, but I don't think it makes sense for retail. It would, however, make sense for kinko's and whatnot located in business parks, conference centers, and convention centers, for business-centric trade, but I'm pretty sure that's available in the form of short run printers. However, short run printers and copy shops tend to do a really poor job of packaging their services in a way that an ordinary human can understand. (That's not really their fault - printing isn't simple anyway.)

-r.

#51 ::: P J Evans ::: (view all by) ::: October 23, 2006, 03:28 PM:

You can get some idea of the equipment needed for small-scale printing if you go to a printing trade show (frex, PrintFest in LA). (It's fun to do, even if you don't want to be a printer.)

You can get bookbinding equipment that will fit in your garage (about a car's worth); it will also cost, total, about as much as your car. The press, on the other hand, you won't be able to do that way, unless you want to go high-end inkjet, which could handle the covers. (Cost: another car. Space: the other car.)

#52 ::: Kelly McCullough ::: (view all by) ::: October 23, 2006, 05:32 PM:

Comment 47 mentions this: Reading on PC through .pdf files just isn't any fun, and you either can't do it portably or you have to squint to get the text from the screen. as a reason that electronic text is not a serious competitor with the book. I'd say that price is a more significant factor over the long run. My generation (thirty-something) already has many people, myself included who are perfectly happy to read text on a screen including books. In some ways I prefer it. If I didn't have to haul around hundreds of dollars worth of fragile laptop, but rather a device in the fifty dollar range that could hold dozens of books and wasn't likely to fry itself if I jar it too often, I'd do it in a minute. The students my wife teaches at the Unversity level are even more etext oriented and many of them won't read anything that's printed on dead trees unless they have to.

email: http://www.kellymccullough.com/mail.html

#53 ::: Greg London ::: (view all by) ::: October 23, 2006, 05:46 PM:

a device in the fifty dollar range that could hold dozens of books and wasn't likely to fry itself if I jar it too often,

Wow, you don't want much, do you?

;)

Display technology is currently the showstopper for this little wonder from happening. someone needs to come up with a cheap display design that is robust and can be mass produced. Maybe with big screen TV's pushing the designs for displays into the several-foot wide range, the smaller handheld stuff will get cheaper. The other thing is you'd want it to be somewhat dedicated in it's operation. like a Play Station Portable or something that can only do certain things, rather than have an entire operating system attached (although that's getting solved too). A way of getting content to and from the device is also needed (memory stick of some sort of wireless). Then you're all set.

Hm, when the one-laptop-per-child project ever gets finished, they might actually have something close. I think they were shooting for under a hundred bucks a pop. But the display might be a bit small for a book. Not sure. Plus I think you needed to buy in volume to get that price.

What's the current ratio of number of laptop owners versus total planet population?

#54 ::: GlendaP ::: (view all by) ::: October 23, 2006, 06:46 PM:

Right here on the front page of Making Light there's an ad for the Sony Reader. It's not in the $50 range, but one might hope the price would come down if it catches on. Having the right device has been the showstopper for me where ebooks are concerned, and this looks interesting enough that I want to see it in person.

#55 ::: JESR ::: (view all by) ::: October 23, 2006, 06:59 PM:

Although I'm not in the generation which learned to read on the computer (my kids are, though) I now do almost all my reading online for reasons of hand damage after I hyperextended every joint in my hand when a wooden fence panel fell on me. More choice of pay-for-read online would be great; as it is I'm running out of (BtVSverse) fanfic.

#56 ::: joann ::: (view all by) ::: October 23, 2006, 08:55 PM:

The good thing about Amazon vs. going back to the POD store is that I don't have to make that second trip.

#57 ::: A.R.Yngve ::: (view all by) ::: October 24, 2006, 07:21 AM:

Think of the Sony Reader as the digital-book equivalent of a very early TV set.

Don't be like the movie-industry execs of the early 1950s: "Look at how clunky it is, and the screen is so small, and they're darned expensive. And it hasn't even got color! Television will never catch on."
;-)

#58 ::: Victor S ::: (view all by) ::: October 24, 2006, 09:18 AM:

A quick thought as I dash off to work -- one difference between the book and the music industry is that the music industry has had a long period of inflated sales as people replace their old vinyl or cassette copies 'Hat Trick' and 'Fourth Tower of Inverness' with CDs.

That replacement has probably been played out pretty well at this point, but the music industry may be... overbuilt without those sales.

Books haven't had any such windfall, yet. E-books for sale have a lot in common with the early days of CD -- very high prices, popularity only in niche markets, rentals [think Safari by O'Reilly]. What they don't have so far is the greater durability, quality, and ease of use which drove the replacement of vinyl.

#59 ::: Greg London ::: (view all by) ::: October 24, 2006, 09:24 AM:

I wasn't being like the 50's movie execs. I was saying that to get down to the $50 range is going to take some doing on the engineering side. Either new designs or new ways of manufacturing, to get the price down to 50 bucks.

Otherwise, at several hundred dollars, most casual readers probably won't buy it when they could just pay $5 for a paperback and toss it when they're done.

To get over that hump, the thing will probably need to handle multimedia, so folks can use it to play movies, music, games, and books. That plus get the price below $100, and you might see the book industry shift.

Oooh, better yet, build a cell phone into it, and you can give the hardware away for free and make up for it on a subscription basis.

Or if you're really enterprising, don't make ita cellphone, but give it away for free anyway as part of a user agreement and then let them play all the media content they want for one flat fee per month. Sort of a "Rhapsody" model, but with portable hardware.

#60 ::: Lisa Goldstein ::: (view all by) ::: October 24, 2006, 02:17 PM:

rhandir @ 50, about my comments -- God bless you, that's the nicest thing anyone's said to me all day!

Wow. Rough day?

#61 ::: rhandir ::: (view all by) ::: October 24, 2006, 02:41 PM:

Lisa @ 60,
Not so much; I usually hang out in fora that have a really high "You're wrong and you're an idiot" content. Now that I think about it, why do I do that? That doesn't make sense. *trundles off to make changes*

#62 ::: Skwid ::: (view all by) ::: October 24, 2006, 03:44 PM:

Greg, in #59, is falling prey to convergence-itis. I already have the device he's referring to, it's called a Treo, it cost a lot more than $100, and I luuuurve it. And yes, I have read books on it, although mostly I read News of the Weird or The Onion on it. But most people don't actually want a device like that...at least not yet.

Sony's E-Ink Reader would be a step in the right direction, if only it weren't
A.) Sony
B.) Expensive
C.) Laden with proprietary crap, and
D.) Sony.

#63 ::: Greg London ::: (view all by) ::: October 24, 2006, 05:47 PM:

Except Treo's and crackberries and cell phones have displays that are too small for most people to read books. It has to be big enough that you can read without getting distracted. You want to be able to maintain that trance state while you flip the page. YOu don't want to fumble for the proper button to scroll the page down the right amount, oop, too far, back up again, nope, not quite, gawdammitimgonakillsomeone, wait, stop, almost there, thisfingmachineisdrivingmefingCRAZY!, GAAAAHHH!!!

(frisbees the device against the wall)*

The reason displays are small is because bigger displays are expensive and they don't fit in your pocket nicely. So, convergence-itis of several key features is also being repelled by certain economic forces and pocket-designs that keep them from merging into a nice, easy to use, electronic book.


*Or maybe I'm the only one who's ever experienced this?

#64 ::: Doug ::: (view all by) ::: October 25, 2006, 02:45 AM:

Over at Crooked Timber, Eszter Hargittai is showing an object lesson in the differences between trade and academic publishing, along with the differences between marketing and non-marketing. Whether this will soon translate into the difference between bestseller and okayseller remains to be seen.

Kati Marton wrote a book on nine Jews who escaped Hitler and changed the world. Istvan Hergittai wrote a book on five Jews who escaped Hitler and changed the world. Marton's book is published by Simon & Schuster; Hargittai's by Oxford University Press.

Marton had a NY Times op-ed on the 50th anniversary of the Hungarian revolution, which mentioned the book; her book was blurbed by people like Tom Brokaw; it's been covered on ABC's web site. All of which is to say that the publicity people at S&S have been doing their job. Of course since Marton was once married to Peter Jennings and is now married to Richard Holbrooke, it won't have been too difficult.

Hargittai has blurbs from two scientists (the subjects of his book are all scientists), admittedly Nobel winners, and a flyer. Which is to say that OUP doesn't do publicity.

Which one is the better book? Couldn't say; haven't read either. Which one is likelier to become a bestseller? Not such a difficult question...

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