E-Book Boom Changes Book Selling And Publishing
NEAL CONAN, host:
This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan, in Washington.
A year ago, at the end of a panel on the future of reading at Duke University, our own Lynn Neary stood up to say that printed books will always be around because parents will introduce their children to reading with richly illustrated, physical books. In a moment, she'll explain why she wouldn't say the same thing today. We'll also talk with Peter Osnos, founder of Public Affairs Books, about how e-books have changed publishing.
How have e-books changed what you read? Our phone number, 800-989-8255. Email us, email@example.com. You can also join the conversation at our website. Go to npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.
Later in the program, a participant at last week's Tribal Nations Conference on what the Obama administration says on Native-American issues, and what it actually does.
But first, Lynn Neary covers books and publishing for NPR. Her series on the future of books and bookstores ran last week on MORNING EDITION - and joins us now here in Studio 3A. Lynn, thanks very much for coming in.
LYNN NEARY: It's great to be here.
CONAN: So what's changed? Why wouldn't you say that same thing today?
NEARY: Well, so it's funny that you bring that up because - well, what's changed is that in a year, we are now seeing that with the advent of the iPad and other kind of tablet devices, you can have what they call now enhanced e-books. And that is, you can have e-books that can embed pictures, can embed video.
Barnes & Noble, which has the NOOK e-reader, has come out with the NOOKColor, which also you are able to do that with. And so you can have children's books with pictures. And people are beginning, in fact, to introduce their children to books via digital devices.
CONAN: So in the world of retronyms, we now talk about physical books or traditional objects. Now, you have to talk about traditional e-books?
NEARY: That's right. As I was reporting that series that you were talking about, I was talking with a woman about cookbooks, and I was asking her, you know, what's available out there in cookbooks?
And she said: Well, you can start with the traditional e-book. And I thought: We've come to that? Within less than three years, it's the traditional e-book, which means an e-book that just pretty much takes the print and transposes it to a digital device, and so you just are reading the print.
Now we have, in addition to the traditional e-book, as I said, we have the enhanced e-books and, of course, apps for books as well.
CONAN: And later, we're going to be talking about a realm in which people thought printed books would always rule supreme, and that is the art book. Maybe not. Hang on for that.
But joining us now is Peter Osnos, the founder of Public Affairs Books, former vice president of Random House, with us from the studios at our bureau in New York City. Peter, nice to have you on the program with us today.
Mr. PETER OSNOS (Founder, Public Affairs Books): Hello again, Neal.
CONAN: And you tell a story in a piece that you wrote for The Atlantic about on a rainy Sunday afternoon, you decided to read Antonia Fraser's "Must You Go? My Life with Harold Pinter," and that, a few years ago, you would have either had to go down to the bookstore to see if it was still there or, you know, order a copy on Amazon and wait a week.
Mr. OSNOS: I think the psychology of how we access books has changed profoundly in the last -particularly in the last two years, but especially in the last year.
The notion that you can have the book instantly in front of you in a device and read it, is a really big change. I think that one of the things about books has always been that for a lot of people, there was an obstacle to be overcome. You had to go to the store. You had to ask for the book. And if the book wasn't there, you had to wait for the book.
No longer is that the case. You think you want to read it. If you have a device, you can be reading it within a minute. And that's what I did, in this particular case. I must say, I spent a very pleasant afternoon and evening reading a book that, had I had to go out on a rainy Sunday afternoon, I might not have done it - and moved on to something else.
CONAN: Did you feel like a traitor to your cause? You've been a publisher...
Mr. OSNOS: Oh, no, no, no, absolutely. I'm a big fan, as a publisher, a big fan of the e-book. I think the e-books are in the process of transforming the way we do what we do.
I think the thing to remember, and I'm sitting here talking to you on the radio, let's face it: If, you know, 35, 40 years ago, I told you that radio was going to be one of the country's most popular, most influential sources of information, you'd have said I was nuts.
CONAN: No I wouldn't, but I'm in radio.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. OSNOS: But then, Neal, you and I were in radio 35 years ago.
CONAN: That's right.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. OSNOS: But the point is - that what's happened is that we now know that you can get a book; read it when, where and how you want. And I use a phrase, which is: Good books any way you want them, now. That's the essence of it.
The essence is that the reader gets to choose the means by which they will access the book. That doesn't mean there won't be printed books. Printed books will, I think, be around forever because they're wonderful to have. They become part of your life.
But I've noticed, for example, my wife, who is an inveterate reader - and we have, as you can imagine - as a publisher and readers - we have a house full books. Four out of five, five out of six - these are books she wants to read but not necessarily own.
And the Kindle allows her to do that. I don't use the Kindle because she uses the Kindle. I have the iPad. Both of us have made a choice that on certain kinds of books, we will download it. It sure makes it easier to travel.
Now, you say: Well, is this a serious problem for the bookseller? It was. But it's beginning to change because the booksellers are beginning to join, basically, the parade. They understand the need to serve the customer in all the ways the customer wants to be served.
If somebody comes in and asks for a book, the last thing they want to be told is: You can't have it. So what I think is developing is a sense that every transaction that takes place in a bookstore or online can be closed - that if you think you want to read a book, the odds are, overwhelmingly, you'll be able to do it, sometimes, usually in under a minute.
CONAN: And Lynn, in your series, yes, they may be a threat to booksellers but to different booksellers. It's now the behemoths of the industry, the Barnes & Nobles and Borders, who seem to be in trouble, not the independent booksellers, who - those who survived the decimation of the past decade.
NEARY: Right. I mean, there are still independent bookstores that are in trouble as well. But one of the points that some of the independent booksellers that I spoke with made, was that there is a role for the small bookstore now because there's a kind of buy-local kind of movement that began with food stores, but it's moving to all kinds of stores, including bookstores - a real emphasis on support the stores in your community, support the local bookstore.
And those small stores do a lot of curating. They understand their customers. They know what they want to do. They know what they want more than the big stores. So they feel they can sell that point, as well as now with Google Books, they can also get into selling e-books from their websites, via this new Google Books. So they've got the two things now.
What I thought was interesting - I did speak to Len Riggio, the chair of Barnes & Noble. And he said that what they want to do is to get into selling devices more and more - and not just their own NOOK devices, but other digital readers and other devices as well, and that that - the sale of those kinds of things - will support the sale of books.
CONAN: And we should again note: Physical books still make up 91 percent of the market - though the numbers for e-books, Peter Osnos, are staggering.
Mr. OSNOS: Well, they've doubled or tripled. They were - I think it's up to about 10 percent. I recently moderated a panel with the heads of some of the largest publishers, and they were predicting 20 percent in the next year or two.
The truth of the matter is, it's an exploding market. And the reason is that people are finding that it is so convenient. And the range of devices has increased.
One thing about Barnes & Noble: Barnes & Noble - actually, I think probably uniquely, certainly among the big book chains - they are both a brick-and-mortar store; they have an active B&N dot-com; they have a device, called the NOOK, in various versions. So they are beginning to encompass all the ways in which the consumer might want to read a book. And that's an impressive thing.
I mean, there was a reason why Publishers Weekly chose Len Riggio as its person of the year. It wasn't just that they thought he was a swell fellow - it's that he has, I think, more than any other of the big moguls in the book world, he has figured out how to integrate all the different ways in which people now choose to read, and provide them through his many stores, his online bookseller and his devices.
CONAN: Let's get some callers in on the conversation. We're talking about e-books. How have they changed the way you read; 800-989-8255. Email firstname.lastname@example.org. Kathy's(ph) on the line, calling us from Binghamton in New York.
KATHY (Caller): Hi, good afternoon.
KATHY: So far, they haven't changed the way I read, but that doesn't mean anything. Last night, I was reading a 1966 classic children's book to my daughter, who just turned 13, called "Mouskin's Christmas Eve," and it was a book I picked up at a, you know, a junk store some years ago. And we look at it every year.
And she was turning the pages in a way that, you know, by the light of the Christmas tree and the little light on the mouse, it was just - there was no way you could replicate that with an e-book - which, you know, doesn't mean that the e-books aren't going to revolutionize things. But it's nice to just remember that books have done for humanity something important in the physical form.
CONAN: I don't think anybody denies that. But Peter, as I understand it, the iPad, the turning-the-page thing is quite similar.
Mr. OSNOS: It is very similar. There - the quality of the reading experience on the iPad is very high. It's quite different - I mean, think of it. The Kindle is a - really, very essentially - static device, but it works. You read it. You can carry it with you. It's small enough and comfortable enough so that you can put it, you know, in your briefcase, in your pocket. The iPad is a larger device.
But I would say to the caller that I have grandchildren, and let me tell you, I am so pleased to be able to read them the same "Ferdinand" that I read to my kids, and that hasn't changed.
I mean, the experience of reading certain kinds of books to your children, to have them nestle in your lap - or your grandchildren - that's a wonderful thing that can't be changed.
But, you know, we've been through technology as it - you know, to many kids today, the screen, whether it's the television or the computer or the iPad, is a - it's a device, it's a spectrum. And they don't make distinctions in any of those things. What they do know is the difference between sitting in the lap of grandpa and having him read you "Ferdinand."
NEARY: You know, let me just point out, too, going back to the idea that you said earlier, who would have predicted that radio would survive television. I was reading an article in the New York Review of Books by Robert Darnton of the Harvard Library, and he said: Remember that manuscript publishing continued to thrive for three centuries after Gutenberg, and that's because it was often cheaper to produce a small edition by hiring scribes than by printing it. So...
CONAN: Well, the scribes union put an end to that.
(Soundbite of laughter)
CONAN: Thanks very much for the call, Kathy, and it sounds like you're already having a wonderful holiday.
KATHY: Thank you. You, too.
CONAN: We're talking about the future of e-books, and how they're changing the reading experience, with Peter Osnos, founder of Public Affairs Books; and Lynn Neary, NPR correspondent who covers books and publishing; 800-989-8255. Email us, email@example.com. Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
(Soundbite of music)
CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.
This year, many of you may find an e-book in your stocking: Amazon's Kindle or Barnes & Noble's NOOK, or an iPad - or an iPhone with an app to download and read what used to be paper and print.
These e-books are changing not only how we read but also what's available to us. Our guests are NPR correspondent Lynn Neary, who covers books and publishing. Her series on the future of books ran last week on MORNING EDITION. Also with us, Peter Osnos, who founded Public Affairs Books, and previously served as vice president at Random House.
How have e-books changed what you read; 800-989-8255. Email us, firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.
Email from Lisa(ph) in Kansas: I love my Kindle. I would not part with it. But I also would not part with my ink-and-paper books. The book-buying change that my Kindle has made in my life is for the secondhand bookstore. I don't buy or sell books there anymore. Those are the kind of books I buy for my Kindle.
And Lynn, there's any number of people I talked to who said: You know, those page-turners I used to buy at the airport and read in the waiting room on the way to get onto the plane? I download those now, and they don't clutter up my library.
NEARY: That's right because a lot of people would buy those books - as you said - as you were traveling, read them, and throw them away. And - I don't know, Peter might be able to get in on this, but this is a big problem for the publishing industry, this whole idea of what do you do with books that don't sell, and the fact that they have these return policies where if the stores can't sell them, they send them back to the publisher. And then the books basically get destroyed.
And this has been a problem that's been sort of haunting the publishing business for a while, and I think Peter probably knows more about it than I do. But this will help deal with that problem, would it not, Peter?
Mr. OSNOS: Oh, absolutely. Remember, you know, unlike so much else in the media, you know, we never had advertising. So that wasn't a problem. We didn't have subscribers or members. That was not a problem.
Our biggest problem is managing inventory, putting the books in the places where people want them, in the numbers that are likely to sell. Really, the important innovation that the e-book provides is an ability to make the books available on demand.
And I think that, in a sense, is the most positive aspect from the point of view of the publisher - that for the first time, we're not going to have, if this process continues and people really do integrate e-books into their lives in the ways that we think they will - we won't be printing books. Print 10, sell six; you know, as Lynn says, get rid of four.
That's a huge plus. It's a huge plus for the publisher. It's a huge plus, I think ultimately, for the author. And I think, you know, readers like to choose what they want, and whether they keep it or leave it behind is a choice they make.
Remember, this is all about choice. This is all about the capacity of the consumer to decide where, when and how they're going to read a book. And that is, in fact, an enormous plus, I think, long term for the reading public and for publishers - and eventually for booksellers as well.
CONAN: Let's get John(ph) on the line, John with us from Portland.
JOHN (Caller): Hi. Yeah, I'm an author-educator. My area is in the expertise of edible wild plants. And I've written a book that is laid out in a certain way so that when you look at the spread - which is, for those that don't know, it's the two pages that you look at when you open a book - when you look at the spread, the pictures are set in different parts of the spread, and there are captions under those pictures. And then I've got sidebars that explain details that don't belong in the text.
Well, when my book became an e-book, too, they got rid of all of that. Everything is put into one column, and so everything is out of context. All of the captions and the sidebars are part of the text, and there's nowhere that it shows that it's a caption or a sidebar. It just sort of - you get this irrelevant text within the content.
So everything's in a column. So for a book like mine, if somebody buys that book, they're getting a totally different experience, and they may not know it.
CONAN: Well, Lynn, it seems to me this is a problem of old technology that may soon be overtaken.
NEARY: Well, I was just wondering what kind of e-book it is because it seems to me if it's one of these new, enhanced e-books - and I don't know what the criteria is for deciding to publish a book as an enhanced e-book - but enhanced e-books can do quite amazing things, actually, with visuals.
I did a story on textbooks. And enhanced textbooks can give you 3-D visuals, for instance, of a cell, that kind of thing. It can give you really - it can embed a video. It can embed a video of a lecture, for instance, in a textbook.
So it would seem yes, that possibly your book in a more advanced e-book could - would look good.
JOHN: Well, and the problem is that I think - well, mine was put into the Kindle format, for sure.
NEARY: Which probably didn't work so well for what you're...
JOHN: Yeah because, you know, again, it's all in one column. Now - and also the size of the device makes a difference because I think this e-whatever-system that they have, they want that to work in every single device - from a tiny phone all the way to an iPad.
And so if they're going to do that, it has to be the same format. But this enhanced thing you're talking about, I don't know about this and, you know, I'd like to contact my publisher about it.
CONAN: An angry note, perhaps.
JOHN: Well, yeah.
Mr. OSNOS: Or an angry email.
JOHN: You know, I mean, I'm sure they have to do certain things just to be in the market.
NEARY: I was going to say: Don't get too angry because it's moving so fast, really the enhanced e-books started coming in with the iPad. Now there are some other enhanced e-book readers available. But that was last April. Just think about that, OK?
(Soundbite of laughter)
JOHN: Yeah, yeah, things are moving very rapidly.
Mr. OSNOS: I would say that...
JOHN: But it really did take everything out of context now.
CONAN: We understand that, John.
Mr. OSNOS: I would say that part of what's striking to me is the speed with which things are happening. I mean, if I'm not mistaken, the Kindle was released sometime in late 2007. I mean, it's really very new.
If you go back and, you know, think about the first time you had a Walkman, I mean, I remember that experience. To me, I was listening to music unlike music I'd ever heard before.
Well, a Walkman of 1982 or '84 really seems like an old Model-T. The machinery that we're looking at today is the first, maybe the second generation. It'll be a matter of a year or two.
We are in a universe dominated by engineers and salesmen. And the engineers are brilliant. And the salesmen and marketers, the Jobses and Bezoses - Steve Jobs of Apple and Jeff Bezos of Amazon - have done really, quite a remarkable job of making us feel like we need to have the latest devices.
And it has moved, I have to say, at a much, much more - quicker speed than anybody could have possibly predicted. I think, as I said before, the e-book sales a couple years ago were like, .3 percent. Then it was 3 to 5 percent. Now it's 8 to 10 percent. Next year, it's 20 percent.
There are days - I saw a Random House statistic yesterday that said that a number of their best-sellers sold more e-books in the first week than they sold printed books. This is particularly true of certain kinds of thrillers. People want them instantly. They want them - you know, they want to hold them and get them done in the next day or two - and so that we're really seeing - there's no question we're seeing a fundamental shift.
And again, it's in the psychology of the consumer, which is that if I have the instinct to read a book, I can get it immediately - or as fast as I want it. And that is a profound change from the days in which you thought getting a book was something - there was obstacles to be overcome: going to the store, buying - for it, waiting for it, all those things. That's changing, and that is a profound transformation in the way the book world functions.
CONAN: Lynn was mentioning enhanced e-books. Well, Paul Chan is the publisher of Badlands Unlimited, a press that specializes in art books, both in paper and e-book form. And he joins us on the line from New York. Nice to have you with us today.
Mr. PAUL CHAN (Publisher, Badlands Unlimited): Thanks. Thanks for having me.
CONAN: And you would think the art book would be one realm that would be - well, left to paper.
Mr. CHAN: Yeah, you would think that. And it will always be left to paper and physical forms. But I think what your other guest echoed, which I agree with, is that the real excitement about e-books is that you can really expand your audience.
And as a small publisher and an artist myself, I think one of the things I saw, was difficult, was that you would make - let's say, 500 or 1,000 beautiful catalogs, and there only existed 500 or 1,000 of them because we didn't have money to publish any more.
Well, with the advent of publishing e-books, we can not only make a paper version of it but - as well as an e-book version of it. So it drastically expands the potential of people experiencing your artwork in a book form, whether it's paper book or an e-book.
CONAN: Can you explain a little bit about your business model? How, exactly, do you make money? It's hard enough when you're just selling 500 or a thousand...
Mr. CHAN: Oh, it's a good question. I think we started, basically, in June. We launched in November. And I think our model is to waste as much time and lose as much money as possible.
(Soundbite of laughter)
CONAN: Oh, that's traditional in publishing, yes.
Mr. CHAN: Yeah, I think so. And I think it's been a real pleasure because in losing as much money as we have and wasting as much time, we've really explored the possibilities of what an e-book can do.
I think for us, we're not as invested in the term enhanced e-books. What we're interested in is publishing what we call books in an expanded field. And what that means is that not only does it expand the field of readership - like your other guests have talked about, how you can instantly download an e-book onto your Kindle or onto your iPad - but it also - this e-book format expands the potential of us as designers and artists, in terms of composing books that are interactive, that are connected to video and audio content, and to provide a different kind of reading experience.
I think reading is a very specific kind of experience. And the pleasure of reading, I think, for me, it may - perhaps for other people - is the kind of unique focus it gives you.
Mr. CHAN: And so we don't want to get rid of that, in fact, but we just want to change that just a bit so that in - so that through video, through composition, through audio, through images, you can have that same focused experience, but with an e-book format.
CONAN: Well, given that - all those expanded things you could do with an e-book that maybe you can't do with the printed book, do you see a future for books?
Mr. CHAN: Oh, yeah. I think I agree with the other guest that books will never go away. I mean, books have been with us since - well, I mean, since I've been alive. And so I think we'll always learn from and cherish books.
And in fact, in my press, we have to make paper books, because as an art book publisher, people really want the physical object of books. We still learn - in a strange way, we learn by touching things as well. And by touching and reading a book through touch, you get something out of it. You get something else out of it.
But with the advent of e-books, here's another chance of reaching new audiences, and here's another chance of creating another kind of reading experience that may not be the same as paper books - different but hopefully, complementary.
CONAN: Complementary in which way?
Mr. CHAN: Well, you know, we're about to find out, I guess. We just started the press, we just launched in November. We're getting some feedback about our first offerings on iPad and the Amazon Kindle.
One of our books, for instance, has video content embedded in it, while the paper version, the soft-cover version, doesn't have video but only has stills from the video. And so we're trying to get a sense of how they'll work with and against each other. And we've also noticed that people who buy the paper version also will buy the e-book version to see how the e-book version looks, and how it functions differently from the soft-cover version. So I think in many ways, this is a new avenue that we're looking into. I mean, I'm not a publisher, I'm an artist who wanted to explore the potentials of e-books as a art form, and as a publishing venture - to sort of expand the readership of art and art history and art criticism. And so I'm learning about it as much as anyone else.
Mr. OSNOS: You know, Neal, I think what's going to happen is that probably there'll be what we call bundling. You may buy the book as a printed book, and in it will be a URL that will enable you to access the book online and some of the enhanced material that's available - that can be accessed either on the Web or through the iPad or an app.
In other words, there are ways in which the expansion of the experience -which includes print; which kind of include video; which, in some cases, can include audio - this is all now very much on the horizon. You know, this is not some science fiction fantasy that we're going to see in five or 10 years. The truth of the matter is, it's all going to happen in the next couple of three years.
CONAN: Paul Chan, good luck with your project.
Mr. CHAN: Thank you very much.
CONAN: Paul Chan, an artist, the founder of the publishing company Badlands Unlimited. His artwork can be seen at the Museum of Modern Art and the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York City. And he joined us by phone from New York. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
And I wanted to go to some of the emails that we've gotten. And this from Steve: E-books have changed me both as a reader and as an author. As a reader, I now can carry a classic library and best-sellers along with me on my Kindle. As an author, I'm making sure my stories and books are available in e-format, largely by converting and posting them myself for Kindle and other formats.
This from Carol: I'm both an author - five books - and a Kindle enthusiast. I love my Kindle because I can carry research, trash, academic articles and other stuff in one place at one time, any time. I buy far more books than I was buying before.
This from Lynn in Grand Rapids, Michigan: Do you foresee a time when I can get an e-book from my local library? What will the move to electronic books do to our libraries?
And Lynn, we've had a lot of inquires about those who, well, can't afford a Kindle or a Nook or an iPad.
NEARY: Well, that's an interesting question, and to be honest, I don't know the answer - that libraries would start lending them out. I think you can download books from libraries but - not on a Kindle, but on some of the other devices, you can. But as far as lending out an e-reader, that I don't know about.
Mr. OSNOS: Well, I can answer the question as far as my local library in Connecticut. You can easily access e-books. Now, you won't get them for the Kindle because that's a proprietary system. But now that there's a...
CONAN: That's if you have your own reader, though.
NEARY: Yeah, he...
Mr. OSNOS: Yeah, you can read it as a PDF on a reader, or you can put it - actually convert it into - and use it on your iPad or on your Sony Reader. There are - the range of choices is expanding enormously.
CONAN: Joining us now is Abigail, Abigail calling from Wilmington, North Carolina.
ABIGAIL (Caller): Hello. I had a comment that I kind of wanted to bring to the table. I'm a blind individual, and I am a big reader. And I love the progress that the iPad and the Kindle and the Nook have made for technology. But currently, the Nook and the Kindle, as I am aware of at the moment, is they are not accessible for blind individuals.
But the - I'm a more recent Apple user before I was solely a computer person. But one thing I love about Apple products is that they're accessible for blind individuals out of the box. They have a program called VoiceOver, which is a screen reader. With most computer or PC-based programs you have to buy up to $200 worth of software to navigate electronic text. So Apple is kind of being an innovator in this.
But I'm excited to see things like the Kindle and the Nook and the iPad, and all the software that's involved, because they are furthering the way for electronic text and getting them easily. E-books can sometimes be a pain for blind individuals because a lot of e-books have images and these videos and things that are embedded, which are great for visual audiences, but for someone who is using a screen reader, that program is navigating text ...
CONAN: Abigail, thanks very much for the point. It's an interesting one. Our thanks to Lynn Neary and to Peter Osnos, too.
This is NPR News.
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