To e- or not to e-

Two UK experts on digital publishing talk about the present and future of ebooks

You and I both know that the days of the newspaper, as in the loose bundle of sheets you're holding in your hands right now, are counted. In fact you may already be reading this on your computer screen. And most people do not lose too much sleep over that fact (unless you happen to work in a newsroom...). And yet, when the shadow of extinction hovers over books matters get a lot more thorny. And yet, things like Amazon's Kindle and Apple's iPad, or even smartphones and netbooks, are being heralded by some as “book killers.” The latest fad? A new world? Countdown for our beloved codex?
Peter Collingridge and George Walkley are certainly two of the right people to ask. Collingridge is currently at the helm of Enhanced Editions, a publisher specializing in digital projects for the iPhone and iPad that augment the reading experience: at the push of a finger, the text on the screen (and it could be Charles Dickens, or Nick Cave, or Philip Pullman, or even Stephen King) may be accompanied by the voice of the author reading the book, or a soundtrack, or a short video that complements a scene. Walkley is responsible for the digital division of the Hachette UK group. An entrepreneur on the cutting edge of reinventing the reading experience and the captain of a fleet of 40,000 titles on the treacherous seas of digital, two different approaches and the same passion for books. And, just to ease your angst, yes, they had their iPhones and Macbooks on the table as we spoke, but also a couple old-fashioned hardcovers.

What attitudes towards digital publishing did you find among local publishers?
Peter Collingridge: What's interesting is the interest more than what we've seen. There's very much a sense from publishers and public that this is coming, but it's like an early warning – even in Britain, electronic reading is a very small percentage of the market compared to what it is in the US.
George Walkley: This Book Fair reminded me of the London Book Fair a year ago. The conversations were on the whole about six months behind where we are in Britain. We've also met some people who are doing more advanced things, so the market is here but not evenly distributed yet.
PC: There's also a sense that's what's happening will certainly affect Argentina but will also have a wider impact on Latin America and Spanish-language publishing as well. An extremely literate country such as Argentina is going to have its own rate of adoption, but how that affects the Spanish language industry is gonna be huge.

Being six months ahead of our learning curve, what's coming here next?
GW: We were having these same conversations until last August, when the Kindle was officially launched in the UK and they began marketing it. By the first week of December it was very difficult to go anywhere without seeing adverts for the Kindle – and I remember coming home after Christmas and every train I rode, every public place I visited was full of Kindles, it suddenly seemed to have exploded and there was this mass market moment.
PC: That, and also the announcement and launch of the iPad. A lot of their marketing was visualizing people reading. Apple and Amazon's aggressive marketing was the tipping point in reading: it became mainstream. I was in Italy, Russia and Spain in the last six months, and without a Kindle it is definitely slower to adopt because the iPad is a general entertainment device whereas the Kindle does one thing very well. The Kindle is driving 60 or 70 percent of electronic reading.

And yet your company is betting on a much more sophisticated reading experience than what the Kindle offers.
PC: We are pretty pragmatic about that. We invested in apps, but we've also done projects which are purely for Kindle, and what we're very interested in is understanding the new reader and what this new reader likes, whether they want audio and video or just very beautiful text or nothing at all, but also exploring how ebooks are sold, recommended, discussed, shared, the whole ecosystem.

How does a mass market publisher like Hachette deal with these two different devices?
GW: There are two layers here: the product level and the platform level. On the product level, 99 percent of what we sell in both the US and UK are very straightforward e-books, a replication of the print book with very few enhancements. That's what consumers are buying in large quantities, and so our immediate focus has been on getting a very broad range of those available. Having said that, we do expect consumers' taste to change over time, and this is where we came up with a platform: we started off with simple platforms that did one thing, but increasingly now there are also extras on the side like social features, being able to recommend a quote from the book on Facebook, and we see those becoming more important. The majority of e-readers now have a network connection, can connect to social networks and do all of those interesting things. In time, I think, the sort of work Peter's company does will become much more normal and will be seen as the rule rather than the exception. We've done projects like that and will continue to experiment, but also as a very commercial house we keep an eye on where the mass market is, where we can get sales in the short to medium term while we plan innovation for the medium to long term. Five years from now multimedia will be much more accepted and people won't see it as much of an interruption. In the past we've seen really good multimedia alongside the text and sometimes that was seen as an interruption and something readers did not want it. But we're moving to a world of richer, across-platform experiences: I've seen research on how teenagers and young people consume television, and the interesting thing is that they check social networks while they're watching. That's a change that happened to TV over a 10-year period, and over time I think people will read and use social media while they read.

This seems like a high-speed replica of the natural process of reading a book and talking it over with friends, a reading circle, etc... Is this speeding up creating something new?
PC: Everybody does things at their own pace – I'm currently reading about 7 or 8 books at different speeds, some of which I'll finish, some of which I won't. I just signed up to a private feature of a new social reading service which allows me to share that reading with my friends – that's built on platforms rather than products. The sort of stuff that we're doing and the social things are currently very much on the outer edges and the innovating end of publishing, but companies like Apple, Amazon and Google do innovating stuff very very quickly and with it reach millions and millions of people.

I was thinking of the difference between the Alice in Wonderland app on the iPad and the enhanced editions you do: Alice feels like a game with text more than a book.
PC: It's a wonderful game, but if you've ever given it to a child they play the game and don't read the book. With us, what we want to do is to not distract the reading experience but take people deeper into it. Having the author read the book to you in their own voice, in the case of the Nick Cave book having a soundtrack, all of that stuff is meant not to add bells and whistles onto a work of art but to take you deeper into the work. At a time where consumers' attention is under assault from so many different media at the same time, reading (which has always been seen as a luxury pursuit) will manifest itself in interesting ways.

Working for a mass publisher, how do you sell the notion that we've published this book in print, it's sold well, but now we have to do all this other work for the electronic edition?
GW: Editors and publishers are pragmatic people, they see that there's a new market and they want their books and their authors to be part of that market. Taking our existing list and making it available for e-readers is straightforward: it's an issue of volume and engineering but it's not fundamentally difficult. With the more enhanced material, we take a very selective view. We have about 40,000 titles in our care, of which so far 6,000 are available as straightforward e-books and in time that will rise to 20,000. We're doing several thousand standard e-books a year, while we might do a dozen enhanced projects in that period. We pre-select the projects carefully, only those where the author and the editor will be supportive, and it's generally an easy sell because they're keen by definition.
PC: We don't see what goes on behind the scenes, but people who contact us tend to be editors and publishers. In the past it was marketing directors, but now there's an enthusiasm for digital coming from the editorial department and that's a very welcome change because those who are responsible for the creative direction of the book will also be safeguarding its transition to digital.
GW: The publishing business is fundamentally one of relationships – our relationship with the reader, our relationship with Amazon or Apple, but mostly about our relationship to the author, and in most cases that relationship is embodied by the editor. A publisher recently told me he's currently employing more editors now than at any time in his company's history. This is a challenge for the industry and it's changing many things about the way we conceive the book and the way we're distributing the book itself, but very fundamentally it's a huge opportunity to do very interesting things with books, to take them to wider audiences.

How about an author like Henry James? Would you do an enhanced version of that?
PC: I wouldn't do that with Henry James. There are some enhanced ebooks which depend heavily on dramatizations: unless you are Ang Lee and you have his budget and production, it's just gonna be crap and really awkward. But there are interventions that could be made along the lines of a slightly more modern version of the introductions to the classic texts where the publisher curates a set of supporting material which goes into the contents of the book: the text, a version of The Turn of the Screw film with Nicole Kidman, the review of the time, social reading groups, a sort of optional multimedia annotation with things like “if you like this book you may like this other book by Guy de Maupassant” and introduce the first chapter of the book, things a bit more crazy than when you're limited by the number of pages you can print. Yet, a lightness of touch in enhancement is very important. Enhancement and distraction are two different things. One of the different challenges as an industry is how to sustain the interest of a new generation of readers courted by very appealing media.
GW: We're very used to the idea of our competitors being Random House or Harper Collins or Penguin: it's a change in mindset to think that our competitors are Angry Birds and Twitter and YouTube and email.

Are you jumping on Angry Bird land when you jump on the device?
PC: Yes, but we capture data from the use of our applications and we know that readers prefer audio to video – video in e-books is not very interesting to them, but the author reading to them is by far the most popular feature we have. The average time that any user spends in an app is about 30 seconds. In our applications on the iPad it is 30 minutes, but on the iPhone it's over an hour and 10 minutes. That demonstrates two things. Firstly, that people still like to read for relatively significant increments of time. But also, that they are distracted more on the iPad – more things to do, whereas on the iPhone you're much more conscious of having to switch between things. When you're on the iPad you're always thinking “what shall I do next?”.
GW: There's also this thing that my iPhone literally never leaves my side, but I don't always have my iPad with me. The iPhone is a very pleasant companion, so it's quite easy to spend a lot of time with it.
PC: The genesis of our company came from having an iPhone and finding that I was using it to read in the moments when I didn't have a book with me but I had nothing else to do – on the bus, the tube, the bank.

It's easy to get tangled on the bells and whistles: what do you want the apps to feel like?
PC: We don't want to reproduce the book in a kitsch: iBook on iPad is a kitsch, with side pages and the flipping gesture to turn pages. We rejected that, but we kept on to the better principles of the book: very elegant typography, and that the design should be invisible – as soon as you notice the interface is there, you've failed. User feedback is that they like flipping pages, but other feedback says that flipping pages is very tiresome because the screen size on a phone is little more than a paragraph.

Do you think there will be a moment where authors start thinking in terms of digital media from the beginning?
GW: Yes. There are electronic publishers who are thinking in bold ways, people in the academic sector who think about interactive narrative and have done a lot of work on this. It is primarily about the book and the text now, but I see the line being blurred between forms of media. Movie and TV companies have done transmedia stuff for shows like Heroes, Lost and Doctor Who: fantastic interactive narratives. But this is not going to come mostly from publishers. We are working with fantastically talented people who come up with lots of things, and what we help do is add value, help them deliver it, bring resources and scale, and to be blunt finance them. But we're not fundamentally the creative originators.

Amazon was at first a book company, but Apple and Google were never it. How do these players change the game?
GW: I'm a card-carrying Amazon fan in terms of the consumer experience, they do retail like no one else. They started in books, whereas Google and Amazon are newer players in the book world but they've dealt with other media so they're not completely unfamiliar with it. It's exciting to look at the pure start-ups who are coming in without any baggage of preconceived wisdom – from the mobile phone world, from games.

How about having only one distributor, in the case of the Apple store? Has it ever been a problem?
PC: Apple is very exacting technically and in terms of content about what goes on the store. We've had some hairy moments... Nick Cave's The Death of Bunny Munro is about sex and drugs and rock'n'roll – it took them three weeks to approve the iPhone app, but it felt like six months, we were very worried that it was going to get rejected. It was our first app, we tried to coincide the launch with a tour Nick Cave was doing at the same time, that was tough. Somebody who works in publishing in the US described it as farming on the side of a volcano, it's very fertile when you're there but something could happen: if they decide they're gonna do books now and all other books are out of the Apple Stores, for instance. It's the deal, we signed up the terms and conditions... One of the new complications of selling apps is that suddenly content which had never had any kind of level censorship at all was arbitrarily being assigned age ratings through a series of 12 questions and the answers were way too important.

Imagine you wake up 10 years from now and you want to access some content that today we associate with a book. What do you see?
GW: More. More of everything. First of all, more books: in the US market, the number of books published has increased tenfold over an 8-year period, and the majority of the new books published have been self-published. There have been over a million new books published in the US last year, and the tendency is more books. There will of course be more formats, and I don't think there will be a hard and fast right format for a book, it will depend on the book in question, on its intended audience and its intended purpose. We will have a scale: on one end we will have multimedia experiences that may not look very much like a book, and at the other end we will have very traditional forms. Between the two there will be a range of things, we'll certainly see digital disproportionately replace paperbacks, mass-market books, airport books, books which are read once and tend not to be read again. We'll also see things like print on demand, straightforward e-books, enhanced e-books, and then multimedia. We'll also see more business models: straightforward sale, lending and renting, Spotify-like subscription models, bundles where I order a book online and while it is shipped I have access to a digital edition.
PC: I see Blade Runner. I see backstreet illegal dens of iniquity where you can get hardback printed books and collectors seen as perverts (laughs). I think we will see a cherishing of print and the tactile: I buy all my music on vynil, even though I have a Spotify account.
GW: There's a William Gibson line that I adore, “The future's here, it's just not evenly distributed”.
PC: Quite right. There is something Gibsonian in the idea of the bookshop selling rare, scarce items.

Every time you talk digital you also talk MP3 and piracy. What's your take on that?
GW: We see a lot of filesharing by consumers. As an industry, we have the luxury of looking at sister industries like music and film and learn lessons from them. I'm pleased to say we haven't gone down the route of litigating against individual consumers, which I'm not convinced is a sensible approach. There are two things I am absolutely certain of: the first is that there is absolutely no way of eradicating piracy and filesharing, and the second is that the most effective way we can reduce piracy is by providing a high-quality, convenient, easy to buy product. The fact is I can get my computer and get any book in the New York Times Top 10 in about five or ten minutes through a variety of websites – it may be a good quality file, it may be a bad quality file that's been badly scanned and even rekeyed, I have no guarantee of quality. If, on the other hand, I can go on my Kindle and 30 seconds later I can have a really good quality ebook...
PC: But in contrast, if you go to Amazon and you try to find those Top 10 books as a Kindle or iPad edition you might not find them.
GW: The industry has to make sure that those books are available legitimately. It's very interesting that the Harry Potter books still aren't available as legitimate e-books but it's a trivially easy exercise to get all of them. Frustrated availability and frustrated consumers is a big driver of filesharing. The onus is on publishers to get the e-books available, make sure that the quality is great (something that publishers have struggled with but we're getting better at), and make sure that the price is reasonable. In the UK we typically set the price of the e-book at about half the price of the book, so the consumer feels that it is treated like a book and they feel it's a reasonable amount to pay. I think asking, regardless of the actual cost structure of e-books, there's an expectation from the consumer of e-books to be cheaper than physical editions, and we have to understand that.
PC: If your books aren't available, you're missing out on a potential sale. If somebody really wants that book for their new iPad and they're not gonna buy a print edition, we're training them on how to pirate stuff so that the next time it becomes easier and easier. They wouldn't normally do that, but until there's an alternative they probably will – I've pirated stuff because it wasn't available. I went to Russia, and they're absolutely terrified of piracy, but the industry's really bad about making their product available to the point where they've cataclysmically destroyed their chances of being able to emerge from the position they're in. They've got a massively fragmented market, everybody knows where to get books illegally, and as a result the chances of popping the genie back in the bottle are very small. That's because they've been late at going digital and they failed to meet the demand of the consumers.
GW: It's very important that publishers don't succumb to the conceit that consumers are in love with the delivery format or the business model: they're in love with the experience of reading and the emotions and the knowledge they take from it, not with the collection of paper and glue.
PC: The people that are buying Kindles are not the early adopters, they are the ones who bought stacks of print books before.
Publicado en el Buenos Aires Herald el 2/7/2011

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