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Market Insights: Richard Curtis, Richard Curtis Associates

May 17, 2011

The Real Kindle Killer

by Richard Curtis

Since the Kindle was introduced in 2007 we’ve seen scores of rival gadgets, all touted as a Kindle Killer. The Nook can do this and the iPad can do that and the Sony can do the other thing. And it’s true, they’re all wonderful in their own way.  But I want to talk about a reading device that I’m crazy about that I think has been neglected in this tidal wave of hype.

Behold, emerging from 500 years of beta testing, the real Kindle Killer. Like so many other reading devices it’s got a cutesy name. It’s called The Book.

Let’s review some of its features.

  • It’s really sleek. At five inches by eight inches, the Greeks would have appreciated the perfection of its dimensions.
  • It’s light. It weighs 15 ounces, placing it between the flimsy-feeling Kindle and the weighty iPad.
  • It’s flexible: you can roll it up without damaging it.
  • Its operating system is 50-pound paper stock bound on the left-hand seam.
  • It has no battery that we’re aware of, nor are we able to locate anything resembling a wireless antenna.
  • Its graphic interface is ivory-white and its surface packs so many dots per inch that we are able to read eight- or even six-point text clearly in ambient light.
  • There is no pixilation whatever.
  • How about surface reflectivity?  Unlike the Apple iPad, whose mirrorlike surface will blind you at the beach, the surface reflectivity of The Book is negligible.
  • It’s almost impossible so smudge. You can press your thumb onto the surface but you won’t see a hint of fingerprint.
  • You can drop the book on a concrete floor but when you pick it up it will still operate perfectly.
  • Bookmarking is a cinch. You just insert a small card to mark your place, and when you’re ready to resume reading you pick up where you left off without a moment’s delay.
  • Pagination? Instead of a progress bar, this gadget reckons your progress in consecutive numbers. Just like the Kindle.
  • The Book smells great.
  • It sound great, too. When you activate the page-turning feature (the technical term is “flipping the pages”) you will hear a satisfying pffftt. Just like the iPad.

There are admittedly a few design flaws.  The Book is not backlit and requires supplemental lighting in a dim room.  Another small problem is that it must be operated with two hands, one to support it and one to activate the page-turning mechanism. Also, The Book requires supplemental lighting in a dim room, such as a light bulb. And dictionary and thesaurus lookup are a little clunky, requiring offsite reference texts.

But these are petty annoyances, especially when you hear the price. Fully loaded, how much would you expect to pay for this baby? Three hundred bucks? Five hundred?  Would you believe $14.95?

******************

I may be a pioneer in the e-book business, but as far as I’m concerned the printed book remains the perfect reading device, and anyone who thinks it’s nothing but a fifteenth century artifact is in for a big surprise.

Right now we are totally infatuated with reading on screens, and there’s a lot to be infatuated about.  Everyone I know who has a Kindle adores it. And the Apple iPad is a miracle of modern technology.  But a time is coming when we’ll rub the fairy dust out of our eyes and discover serious shortcomings in the use of screens for the purpose of reading.  And some of those shortcomings are pretty serious.  When we realize that they are, we will take a new, good long look at printed books and we will realize that there is simply nothing comparable.

I can hear you saying, “Yeah, but by the time we do realize it, the book industry will be over.” Well, the book industry that I grew up with and that many of you grew up with – that industry may well be over.  In my own lifetime I have seen the number of viable trade book publishing companies shrink from around one thousand to around one dozen.

The remaining houses have been granted a stay of execution by digital technology, but even they will be unrecognizable a decade from now, because the paradigm shift will have completely altered the way printed books are published and distributed.  So let’s remind ourselves about how they are published and distributed.

As I just demonstrated, there is nothing wrong with books themselves. No creation of science and technology can match it for sensory pleasure.  It completely satisfies four out of five of your basic senses – visual, audial, tactile, and olfactory.  I’ve never eaten a book, so I don’t know how they taste.

It’s not just the books but the culture of books that I am so enamored of. From the collegial relationships of book-loving men and women to the wheeling and dealing to that unique blend of commerce and culture known as the publishing lunch – the environment of the old publishing world cannot be duplicated by that solitary enterprise known as self-publishing.  The narcotic excitement of discovering a new voice, of sharing it with others, of deal making – converting literary value into dollar value, seeing those great reviews and watching your discovery climb on the bestseller list, the adventure, the surprises, the fun, the love – many of my colleagues have described it as better than sex.

But I’m not going to overly romanticize that world, because beneath the surface of all that glamour and money, a disease has been eating the book business.

I said there’s nothing wrong with books.  That’s true. But everything is wrong with the way they’re distributed. About eighty years ago publishers and booksellers made a Devil’s pact making unsold stock returnable for full credit. That worked for a few decades, but after World War II the rate of returns began to soar. Today it’s not uncommon for 50% of any given printing to be returned to the publisher, and the industry never solved the problem of what to with returns. Now, you tell any business person that you’re in a industry where for every two units of a product you manufacture you have to eat one of them and they’ll look at you like you’re insane.  And the fact is, the publishing industry as we have known it is collectively…insane!

Preprinting hundreds of thousands of copies of a book on spec, knowing that you’re going to sell half of them – and you don’t even know which half, – could anything be madder? Shipping them on trucks around the country, storing them in warehouses the size of supertankers, returning them on more trucks, remaindering them at a fraction of your manufacturing cost or dumping them into a paper pulper – surely if an alien from another plant looked at our publishing industry he’d return to home base and report there is no intelligent life on that planet.

The returnability of books has poisoned the publishing industry, causing untold numbers of publishers big and small to merge with or be acquired by more powerful houses, leaving us with that handful of behemoths I told you about. And yet those behemoths are still hemorrhaging cash because the return rates continue to run as high as 50%. What’s worse, the returnability problem has seriously damaged literary endeavor. The big publishers want books that will guarantee low returns, and that means celebrity autobiographies, the sexier the better. So, if you want to know why you can’t sell your Great American novel, it’s because your publisher has just paid $12 million for a collection of spaghetti recipes by some notorious serial murderer.  The return rate on that book will be 10%, while the one on your Great American Novel will be 75%.

I’ve been haranguing publishers about this for thirty years and it’s clear they can’t change this crazy business model, or they don’t want to. And besides, it’s too late now, because there’s a new and better one. It’s called print on demand, and most of you understand the concept. Instead of printing books first and hoping to find customers, with print on demand the books aren’t printed until the customer has paid for it. The return rate on that business model? How about zero percent?  Go ask that businessperson friend of yours which model he prefers, the one with 50% returns or the one with zero.  He’ll give you a one word answer: “Duh!”

Why am I telling you this?  Because the print on demand industry is growing at a gallop.

David Taylor, President of Lightning Source Inc., arguably the largest POD press in the world, reported last spring that business was growing at a rate of 20% to 30% each year. Lightning prints, binds and ships 10,000 copies a day on machines that run around the clock. And that’s just one POD company. There’s another big one. It’s owned by a little outfit called Amazon. And while POD is soaring, bookstores sales are soft and getting softer. Borders is bankrupt and Barnes & Noble revenues are down. In the next couple of years you’re not only going to see bookstores close, you’re probably going to see whole chains close.

So, that’s one reason why I’m not writing off printed books.  They’re just fine, thank you.  But more and more they’re going to be coming to you from a print on demand facility and less and less from a bookstore. Oh, you’ll still be able to buy a book in a store, but it won’t necessarily be a bookstore. As we refine print on demand technology the POD presses like the Espresso will become more and more compact, and in time you’ll start seeing them in drugstores and supermarkets, Wal-Marts and Costcos and Starbucks. You’ll go up to a kiosk, select from a million books, swipe your card, have a cup of coffee and go back to collect your book, still wet and warm from passing through the birth canal. In fact, given how rapidly technology is able to miniaturize machinery, I wouldn’t be surprised if a day came when a print on demand press is reduced to the size of fax or photocopier.

There’s another reason you should continue to be high on print.  A growing body of research indicates that people, particularly students, either don’t like to learn on e-book devices, or suffer focus, learning and retention problems. This is particularly true in the field of text books, where students have serious issues navigating reference e-books as easily as they do printed one.

So, what’s the problem with screens? Anyone who’s spent more than ten minutes reading on one knows how easily distracted we are. Screens mean watching. We’ve grown up watching stuff on screens, websites and videos and movies. Now you look at text on that screen, just plain old black on a white background, and you say to yourself, Is that all there is? No color?  No interactivity? No instant gratification? Maybe I’ll just check out YouTube to see if there are some kittens walking on a piano or corgis running on a treadmill. Now, if you feel that way, you shouldn’t be surprised that your kids do, too, and their falling grades reflect that doing schoolwork on an electronic reading device isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.

Whether you’re an adult or a child, you want to immerse yourself in a book. It’s hard to immerse yourself in an e-book. It’s the difference between reading a book and watching one. Have you watched a good book lately?  Not the same thing!

There’s no question that the e-book revolution has arrived and arrived with a vengeance. Thanks to the convenience and low prices, the print book industry has taken a big hit.  But it’s still a 24 billion dollar business, and e-book sales represent only nine percent of the total.  There’s plenty of fuel left in print, and once the new model of business takes hold, one based on preorder and prepayment, a day will come when you’re as likely to see someone on a bus or train reading one of these devices called The Book as you are to see them reading a Nook or Kindle.

Richard Curtis is President of Richard Curtis Associates, a literary agency, and CEO of E-Reads, an e-book publisher. He blogs on www.ereads.com.

This article is adapted from the 2011 keynote speech at the Writers Digest Conference.Copyright © 2011 by Richard Curtis

14 Comments leave one →
  1. Lynda Williams permalink
    May 17, 2011 11:54 am

    I wonder if we might soon see an e-reading feature to lock down the ability of the reader to get distracted by kittens on utube, like the exam-lockdown for browsers.🙂

    Love tech. Love books. Makes me nuts the way people think you can’t do both. And hate the culture of distraction and inattention. That’s something else, again. Great documentary on CBC docs “Are we Digital Dummies” illustrates some of the research on the multitasking myth.
    http://www.cbc.ca/documentaries/doczone/2010/digitaldummies/

  2. May 18, 2011 1:57 am

    Nice. Just one point. Sophisticated, experienced users of THE BOOK can operate it with a single hand.

    Over at the Gutenberg Technical Institute, where we teach Manual Operations 101, we demonstrate the ‘palm-hold-and-finger-turn’ technique.

    This admittedly has its limitations, the chief one being that you need to determine the direction of your page turn in advance, as the action is quite “handed”. It is also difficult for some individuals with short fingers to implement (they need to be taught very precise palm placement), but beyond that, anyone can learn this technique.

    (We’re planning on introducing Manual Operations 101, in which we’ll introduce students to the controversial ‘center hold’ technique, but perhaps I’m getting ahead of myself.)

    FYI. You CAN work with one hand.

  3. May 18, 2011 5:58 am

    Lynda and I have gone around with this before ; ebooks supplement books, they do not and never will completely replace them. Richard Curtis is absolutely right about POD, and I am so glad to hear him talking about it. Maybe some writers are good enough at self-promotion to get away with self-publishing, but Richard makes a very good point about its loneliness. And the fact others have pointed out that traditional publishing gives a writer a step up in prestige; a professional has read their book and thought it good enough to invest money in.

    But the new digital/Internet paradigm means that the publishing industry has to reinvent itself to survive. It is horribly broken right now. People still want books and always will. But we have to figure out a delivery system that doesn’t bankrupt publishers or shut out new and diverse writers. Richard gives us at least part of the answer.

    • May 18, 2011 12:10 pm

      Interesting that you say the “professionals will invest money.” Most investments don’t pan out as 70% of books don’t make back their advance – and the amount of that advance is shrinking (on average). What does that say about the professionals who pick them?
      The best way of picking a book is by word of mouth. A friend says “I read the great book…” and then you read, judge and re-recommend accordingly. That is a model that plays well with indy authors, as the cream will rise to the top, the book never is out of print. Less money up front, but the cream will rise to the top eventually, and those writers will make their living. (Or some small part of it.) I hate to be an A$$hat here, but the one thing publishers used to be very good at – a distribution system – has moved from the house pushing to the reader pulling – instantly – samples on their Kindle. I can’t see how traditional publishing can survive as packagers of words on the page – but rather they need to evolve into the combers of content.

  4. May 18, 2011 8:18 am

    I kindly disagree – especially with the last section. I get lost in the tales in the Kindle as I do in a paper book. My friends and I have also discussed that we read FASTER on the kindle than on paper.
    What else can’t books do? They can’t read to me while I’m driving or running at the gym – My kindle can. Nor can the paper book change the size of the font. Several of the elderly memebers of my church wouldn’t be able to read any books at all if not for the kindle.
    I have more books I read over and over again on my Kindle than I do on my shelves. Also, I travel a lot, and couldn’t take all my favorite bound books with me.
    As an author, I can tell you that I make most of my royalties on my Kindle editions, not the paper – why? The paper costs 5-TIMES as much as e-versions. That’s why. I sell 10 times the number of copies in e-readers.
    I’ll keep my Kindle…

  5. Mishell Baker permalink*
    May 18, 2011 9:06 am

    I use Kindle (or some other inexpensive electronic format) to try new authors or to read books I don’t want to have sitting around on my shelf. I have limited shelf space. Once I am a fan of an author I like to get signed hardcovers and keep them around to display proudly.

    I could not do without either format, at this point. No digital format will ever satisfy a collector and connoisseur, because there is nothing to collect and display.

    Mass market paperbacks, though, I predict will go the way of the dinosaur.

    • May 18, 2011 9:10 am

      I have an iPad on order for work. So I’m expecting to discover the joys of reading on it among other things. Yes, I think there will always be paper books but it will be, as Mishell says, a mix. And the role of paper books will be different than it has been.

  6. May 18, 2011 9:35 am

    I love love love reading books on the iPad, and would probably love it even more on the Kindle, since you can actually read those in the daylight. But I would read neither in the bathtub. And I must say, the industry really needs to find a fix for the biggest problem with eBooks – sharing. The greatest joy of finishing a great book is giving it away to someone. So yes, totally agreed that there will be a mix. Though as a writer, the digital market does have a big appeal.

  7. May 18, 2011 10:07 am

    Two years ago I bought my then 81 year old mother a Kindle. She has arthritis and had stopped reading because it hurt her hands to hold just about any book. With the Kindle, she’s back to reading several books a month.

    I have an iPhone and an iPad and a startling thing has happened. I love those big, thick 900 page High Fantasy novels. But I won’t buy them in print anymore. I want them on my eReader so I can read those books while I’m on the treadmill or in bed or carry them around without the inconvenience of the physical book. I got into bed the other night with a physical book to read and I was ANNOYED that I had to turn on the light. With the iPad, that’s not necessary. I love books, but I’m finding that I’d rather have the eBook.

    The voracious reader has turned to the eReader because it frees up space in their homes and on their shelves. eReader owners buy more books.

    All the poetic glorification in the world about the benefits of the physical book isn’t going to change the ways in which a digital book offers a different, more convenient and yes, in some ways, superior, experience. POD isn’t going to affect that in the least.

    The sooner publishers accept that and stop impeding the digital book with restrictions and poor pricing, the better. But I’m not holding my breath.

    • May 18, 2011 12:48 pm

      The ebook is here. And taking over. One shouldn’t mistake nostalgia and affection for the physical object for a Luddite resistance to the inevitable. I think what Richard Curtis is doing here is gently mocking the ebook hype and praising the book in print as a much loved artifact under attack from its new-fangled digital incarnation. Ebooks = good doesn’t make print-book =bad. What’s good is circumstantial, and we can go on loving print books for their “thingness” at the same time we embrace e-books for their “non-thingness”. Methinks, at least. Maybe I’ve lived through one too many digital revolutions …

  8. May 18, 2011 11:00 am

    What is it with this SPACE thing? Books are SUPPOSED to take up space. This is one of things that keeps Ikea in business!

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