Digital Publishing vs. the Gutenberg press
It’s very simple. As of Friday, Borders joined Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and even Apple in the new self-publishing revolution. They’re all now offering cheap-and-easy ways to self-publish an ebook. In literally seconds, you can now convert the feed for a blog into an ebook with Borders’ new service — and even give it an ISBN number. (“Edit content and drag it into chapters,” explains their web site, “then congratulations … you’re an eBook author!”)

Its slogan is “Blog to ebook in minutes,” and Borders CEO said they were “excited to give new writers and bloggers an opportunity to reach an expanded audience.” They’re launching the service — called “BookBrewer” — next Monday (October 25), and it’s part of an unmistakable trend. Just last week, Amazon announced the launch of “Kindle Singles,” a separate ebook format which is also geared for shorter-than-a-novel texts. And if you want to self-publish your book in Apple’s new iBookStore, there’s a package available at Lulu.com.

But what does this all mean? “In some ways, it’s like the early days of the Gutenberg revolution,” Business Week argued Sunday, “when authors published short manuscripts and ‘chapbooks,’ and everything in between.” The first, obvious change is that more things will get published. (The article seemed to acknowledge that boundaries were shifting, asking in its headline: “When is a Book Not a Book?”)
But inevitably, this will also create more authors.

I mean, there’s a couple of obvious technical changes here. With no need to find an agent or publisher, “The advent of tablets and e-bookstores dramatically lowers the barrier to entry for these kinds of writers….” notes Business Week. And instead of paying a commission to that agent or publisher, they can break into the world of published authors for just a small upfront payment and an ongoing commission. But it’s more exciting to focus on the end result. When I fire up my Kindle, I’ll be seeing a new kind of ebook — and one that was much less likely to exist even a few years before.

It’s ultimately not about what it means for books, or authors, or publishers, but for readers. Yes, I’m pre-supposing that there’s a micro-market for these new authors, but I think the web proves that we’re endlessly fascinated by personal stories. If you take a close look, Facebook and Twitter are really just an endless stream of very short and personal moments. C.S. Lewis once quipped that ultimately the purpose of reading is “to know that we are not alone.”

eCommerce Times found a senior analyst at Simba Information who says major publishers may actually see this as a blessing, since they can scan the best-seller lists for ebooks to determine which authors are worth publishing. (“It’s just another part of the filtering process for them.”) I want to believe that someone will devise something entirely original in these new short-form ebooks, and then find a brand new market for it. I like the way it was explained by the CEO of Borders’ new BookBrewer service. “Everyone has a story to tell, pictures to share or advice to give.

“It turns out that those are exactly the kinds of things people want to buy and read as eBooks.”

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This was too good not to share. “I had an interesting/amusing experience today at the mall,” writes my friend Mike in Bridgewater, Massachusetts.

“Went into a Borders Express to see if I could find some titles that aren’t available for Kindle yet. I noticed that there was only one Leisure Horror title available. The cashier and I got to talking and she started complaining about e-books and how they were killing off the bookstores. I was the only one in the store. As I walked out, I noticed she went back to reading whatever book she was reading — on her Kobo.

“I was chuckling as I walked out of the store…”

Mike posted his comment in a Kindle discussion forum, where it drew an even funnier reaction from Andrew E. Kaufman, author of the ebook While the Savage Sleeps. What did he think of the employee at Borders?

“A clear case of e-denial.”

In his personal blog, Andrew also makes an interesting comment about the sales of print books. “Regardless of all the gloom and doom we hear about the publishing industry, there are still some authors who are ten feet tall and bulletproof.” (James Patterson, for example, was paid $100 million for the rights to his next 17 novels, and Stephenie Meyer will earn $40 million this year…) And according to Amazon’s own figures, no Kindle ebook has ever sold more than one million copies. (Stieg Larsson has sold a total of one million ebooks, but that’s for all of his titles combined, according to Amazon’s recent press release.)

PC World reported that Nora Roberts is just now closing in on 500,000 total ebook sales, though she’s already sold over 280 million print editions of her books (according to Wikipedia). And in the same article, PC World suggests Stephenie Meyer must be close to selling one million ebooks, though she’s sold over 100 million printed books. J.K. Rowlings has sold over 400 million print editions of her Harry Potter novels, and Robert Ludlum has sold more than 290 million books. Even the Goosebumps series has sold more than 300 million print editions — and they aren’t even the best-selling authors of all time.

Wikipedia offers an amazing rough list of the best-selling fiction authors of all time. Agatha Christie is tied with William Shakespeare for the #1 spot, with at least 2 billion books sold. Harold Robbins has sold 750 million novels, and romance novelist Barbara Cartland is somewhere between half a billion and an even billion. It’s a staggering amount of printed books, especially when you consider that for ebook sales, there’s only one author who has ever squeaked out of the six-figure range.

I’ve started to become skeptical of Amazon’s claim that the ebook is outselling the printed book. I’ll share more data in a few days, but it’s always exciting to hear stories from the actual bookstores. Maybe it’s the “front line” in the war between printed books and ebooks.

And if so, this next year will be very interesting!

Pinocchio is lying - when he lies his nose grows
Last week the Wall Street Journal ran a controversial opinion piece about ebooks. A former book editor and a business professor argued that publishers needed to sell advertisements in ebooks in order to offset their shrinking profit margins. “[A] digital book is far less profitable than its hardcover cousin priced at $25,” their article argued. But according to responses on the web, there’s a problem with that argument. It isn’t true.

“Baen, a publishing house that specializes in fantasy and sci-fi, mostly with a militaristic bent, says that they’ve found that e-books significantly increase profits,” responded one commenter at a technology web site, even though that publisher sells DRM-free versions of their ebooks “for substantially less than they sell dead-tree versions.” And then another commenter backed up their skepticism with actual data provided by the New York Times.

Publisher’s Profits Before Overhead
On a $26 hardcover: $4.05
On a $12.99 ebook: $4.56 – $5.54
On a $ 9.99 ebook: $3.51 – $4.26

This isn’t speculation. The Times based their statistics “on interviews with several publishers and consultants who work with the publishing industry.” eBooks eliminate many of the costs associated with stacks of hardcover books, including printing costs, storage fees, and the cost of shipping books (and then shipping back the unsold copies).

“That, obviously, is exactly what logic would tell you,” one commenter concluded. And the Times article suggested the publishers’ real motive might be simple self-preservation — they’re trying to keep up the demand for printed books. In a future with even more digital readers, lower ebook prices would mean “print booksellers like Barnes & Noble, Borders and independents across the country would be unable to compete… if the e-books are priced much lower than the print editions, no one but the aficionados and collectors will want to buy paper books.”

One publisher’s consultant even tells the newspaper point-blank that “If you want bookstores to stay alive, then you want to slow down this movement to e-books. The simplest way to slow down e-books is not to make them too cheap.”

So are publishers being honest about the costs of publishing a book? It’s a hotly-debated mystery, even to those people who are most affected by it: the authors who are actually writing the books! At the end of their article, the New York Times tracked down best-selling author Anne Rice, who admits that “None of us know what books cost. None of us know what kind of profits hardcover or paperback publishers make.”

Most of Rice’s books are available on the Kindle — though not her most famous book, Interview with the Vampire But as the publishing industry faces historic changes, it was nice to see that Anne Rice still remains firmly committed to the future of the ebook. “The only thing I think is a mistake is people trying to hold back e-books or Kindle and trying to head off this revolution by building a dam.

“It’s not going to work.”