Monday, September 05, 2011

Major Major Major Major: A Book Love Story

 The laziest column being written in the Mainstream Press these days has to be the “Even Though I Own a Kindle/iPad/Nook I Still Like Print Books Better” lament.
 Generally written by an aging Baby Boomer, the columns always start with a nod to the convenience of eBooks and the wonder of having thousands of different eBooks at hand with the tap of a button at all times (“I’m with it, I’m hip,” you can hear Dr. Evil insisting).
 Having established “street cred” the columnist then moves on to lament the loss of the tactile nature of a paper book being held in one’s hands; the inability to dog-ear pages and underline sacred passages; and, most of all, to reclaim the time and “space” (a revoltingly overused word in these things) the reader occupied when he or she first discovered a particular book, because digital books don’t possess the nostalgic combination of visual and olfactory clues that paper books provide.
 “It was ’63 and I was reading On The Road…” is how the last sentence usually begins.
 Teeth-grinding and unpersuasive they may be, but these columns are so prevalent that a conspiracy theorist might suspect a concerted rear-guard effort by the doomed printing industry to create a counter-trend among us Baby Boomers’ children and grand-children such that old-fashioned books appear cooler/hipper/trendier/more worthwhile than the electronic kind.
 And while I do read the print version of the Wall Street Journal cover-to-cover for the serendipity of finding interesting stories that can be overlooked on the Journal’s iPad app, and have, in fact, published an actual old-fashioned print book, the “Why I Still Love Print Books” stuff strikes me as more like the grumpy manifestation of a certain demographic seeing their lives flash before their eyes than anything else.
 After all, the digitization of words is, to our times, what Gutenberg’s printing press was in his times: a radical reduction in the cost of shared knowledge.
 That’s because the printed book business has to be—and this is from experience, not casual observation—the least efficient form of production ever created outside Soviet Russia.
 Here’s how print book publishing works in the real world:
1.     A book publisher bets on a bunch of books in the form of advances to various authors whose book proposals have passed muster: the bigger the advance, the more confident the publisher is in the ultimate payoff—the distorting effects of which will be felt at the time of publication, for reasons that will be made clear later on here;
2.     The authors set about writing their books, with the help of editors, meeting or missing various deadlines along the way;
3.     Meantime, the book covers must be printed because the publisher has to line up production slots ahead of time, so even though the books are not finished, and in some cases are not even mostly written, blurbs praising the books must be obtained (think about that next time you read a blurb on a brand new book);
4.     All during this phase, the publisher’s sales force is running around trying to interest various book sellers in its books based mainly on the authors’ reputations and short summaries of what the books will say, none of which matters anyway because none of the book sellers can take risks on a book whose author they never heard of;
5.     The books continue to take shape through a series of edits and corrections, none of which will prevent mistakes or typos from getting into the final printed copies because of the back-and-forth nature of the work;
6.     The book is finished, but a year or more has gone by, and publishers discover that the world has changed: stuff has happened, national moods have changed…and while you would think publishers would adjust marketing plans based on which books now seem more timely than they did a year ago, the fact is publishers hate to do that because they are mainly interested in recouping the advances they already paid to the authors (the larger the advance, the more marketing the book will get, no matter what); thus the books will be published and marketed based mainly on the basis of how much of a sunk cost each book represents;
7.     The books are printed, the covers are added, and the finished product is boxed and shipped to stores based on orders that have no bearing on the likely demand for the books given the swings in national moods, current events etc.;
8.     Oh, and the books, which have been printed after a maddening series of corrections and edits, nearly always have typos and errors in the final copy anyway.
 That’s just the way it works.  It’s amazing great books by then-unknown authors (classics like Catch-22 and A Confederacy of Dunces, to name just two that almost never saw the light of day) ever make it into the hands of a single reader.
 Now, this is not a criticism of the individuals involved in the book publishing industry.  For one thing, they universally love language, and they know good writing when they see it.
 And they really, really love books—printed books.  They care about what the cover looks like, how the text appears on the page, and what the final product feels like in their hands.
 But their business model is the functional equivalent of going down to the track and placing bets on a bunch of horses that won’t race for a year, in track conditions that nobody can imagine yet.  (In fact, it’s more like placing bets on horses that haven’t even been born, because most advances are paid before the books have actually been written.)

 So along comes the eBook model, which not only democratizes the demand for books by making them available to anybody with an Internet connection, but also democratizes the supply by lowering the cost of production and speed to market.
 In fact, an eBook (a good one, on a meaningful topic—not one of those “Death of a Legend” hurry-up books that get churned out after some Hollywood star gets killed by a drug overdose) can be conceived, written, edited and published—mistake free, because it costs nothing to correct the text—in one tenth of the time, start to finish, of an equivalent print book, merely by reducing the friction of the printed book process.
 So, yes, I’ve kept the old blue paperback English Lit 101 copy of Catch-22, which I re-read every few years just to get to the Major Major Major Major bit (“I have named the boy ‘Caleb,’ in accordance with your wishes...”) not to mention a cool, thin, beautiful Great Gatsby and a fat, funny Confederacy of Dunces, plus my first Thurbers and all those Dave Barry collections.
 But I have ‘em all on the iPad, too, just in case I want to read one of them, wherever I happen to be.
 I love books, period.


Jeff Matthews
Author “Secrets in Plain Sight: Business and Investing Secrets of Warren Buffett”
(eBooks on Investing, 2011)    Available now at Amazon.com


© 2011 NotMakingThisUp, LLC
                                                             
The content contained in this blog represents only the opinions of Mr. Matthews.   Mr. Matthews also acts as an advisor and clients advised by Mr. Matthews may hold either long or short positions in securities of various companies discussed in the blog based upon Mr. Matthews’ recommendations.  This commentary in no way constitutes investment advice, and should never be relied on in making an investment decision, ever.  Also, this blog is not a solicitation of business by Mr. Matthews: all inquiries will be ignored.  The content herein is intended solely for the entertainment of the reader, and the author.

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7 comments:

Kevin Gao said...

Hi Jeff, loved this post. We're a venture-backed, SF-based startup building a digital publishing platform that aims to be, as you mentioned, literally 10x faster and cheaper than traditional publishers.

Our goal is to enable "anyone with interesting knowledge" to publish a book - and we have creative processes/technologies that eliminate even the need to write it yourself!

I'd love to chat with you to hear more of your thoughts - as well as share more details around us. Feel free to email me (kevin@hyperinkpress.com) directly.

Thanks!

Kevin Gao
Hyperink founder

Rich said...

Great article. The same can be said of greeting cards (Hallmark is lucky it's private, otherwise the bleeding would be occurring in front of everyone) and our wonderful Post Office. Luddites, all!

Capitalism is not always pretty but it works and it sure beats the alternative.

Hank said...

Interesting post, as always. But I am not following your logic, aren't reasons 1-7 identical to the production process for an ebook?
Ebooks get written, edited, designed, proofed, blurbed, and marketed as always. I guess a person could self-publish and cut out all of that, but then it sounds like writing a blog.

Jeff Matthews said...

Hank,

No, because the physical printing of a book takes up to a year under normal circumstances and costs a lot of money, while, once complete, an eBook is "printed" in a second, costs nothing to "print" and if mistakes are found the text can be corrected and reposted in another second. And the editing process shrinks time-wise, quite dramatically, because it's all virtual.

JM

Colin P said...

Jeff, In a typical eBook sold on Amazon for say $9.99, what is the standard portion that is going to Amazon, the author, and any other parties involved in the production of the book?

Colin P

Jeff Matthews said...

Colin,

Amazon takes 30%.

And to follow-up on Hank's question about whether publishing eBooks isn't the same as publishing printed books: the best part comes after the book is published. No obscure, months-late royalty statements from the publisher with all kinds of bizarre accounting: you get a check and you get it fast and you can look at your sales almost in real time.

JM

Anonymous said...

Jeff,

I apologize for posting this in a spot that is unrelated, but I was wondering if you were going to have a post on Buffett's investment in BAC?

I have been checking daily to see if anything is posted and would appreciate your thoughts.