Monday, February 11, 2013

What About the Needs of the Reader?

by Elizabeth S. Craig, @elizabethscraig

file0001531630882Although I’ve enjoyed the amazing benefits of being a writer during this digital publishing revolution, I’ve frequently felt frustrated, too.

I  do enjoy bookstores.  I also enjoy writing for my publishers (working with good editors is a rarely mentioned benefit of traditional publishing…if you’re lucky enough to get one.)  And I worry that bookstores and publishers are frequently making poor business decisions—or forgetting the reader in the process of doing business.

I remember several years ago wondering what on earth Barnes and Noble was thinking.  I like the store.  I don’t mind buying books there.  So why were they running so few promotions (or promotions only for specific blockbuster titles?)  Why did they require an annual membership (of, as I recall, about $20 a year) to receive coupons?  No wonder readers were flocking to Amazon for print and digital book purchases.  They didn’t have to drive across town to pay a higher price for the same book.  The stores lose customers. Losing customers means that stores will need to close.  If stores close, the big publishers won’t have the shelf space that they depend on to connect readers with books and to showcase them.

So the bookstores are tied to a more expensive product.  Industry analyst and insider Mike Shatzkin in his post More thoughts about the future of bookstores, triggered by Barnes & Noble’s own predictions for itself states that Publisher Lunch creator Michael Cader:
….has also made the point that the physical stores are being made the last line of defense for book pricing. It is a virtual certainty that if a book has three different prices: print in the store, print online, and ebook, the printed book in the store will cost the most. This is not a formula to assure bookstore survival.
This is an instance where a reader need—competitive pricing—is being ignored…and jeopardizing both bookstore and publisher.

Another recent instance where the needs of the readers are discounted particularly irritated me.  To be fair, the site is Publishing Perspectives, not Reader Perspectives.  It’s supposed to look at issues from a publisher’s point of view.  But looking at things from a publisher point of view can be illuminating—when they don’t consider reader needs in their conversation. 

The article was 5 Academic Publishing Trends to Watch in 2013 by George Lossius, CEO of Publishing Technology. 
Publishers are fully aware of the benefits of e-textbooks; the ability to easily refresh out-of-date content, functionality that allows books to be dissected, more interactive content, metrics that can measure the usefulness and popularity of resources, and of course pricing. All of this technology is available yet end user adoption levels are relatively low. Is it merely a question of students having the right technology at their fingertips and institutions buying into this method of working, which is surely just a matter of time? Or is there a wider issue preventing adoption?
The issue was further discussed in a follow-up post on Publisher Perspectives, What is Delaying Widespread Adoption of Digital Textbooks?

Of course, the benefits that were listed in the article pertained to publishers.

And admittedly, I don’t know the industry the commenters on the post were in.  I’d imagine at least some of them are working with a publishing house.  The comments were all focused on the inability of kids to flip back and forth with a digital textbook, with the cost of the digital books and the value received, and the fact that the students end up with a non-interactive PDF instead of a real transmedia tool.

As a parent, I know the main reasons why kids want digital textbooks.  I know this because I drive kids around half the day, 5 days a week.  What they bring up in carpool is the fact that the schools don’t have the money (as they did in the past) for the students to keep one copy of a textbook at home for homework and one copy for classroom use.  Lugging a tremendous textbook back and forth (times 4 for their core classes) isn’t a lot of fun.   There isn’t even room in their huge backpacks for all the books, so they carry one book in their arms and the rest on their backs. 

Point number two that kids bring up is that when they inevitably forget their book in their locker, they’re stuck.  They can’t do homework because they don’t have their book.  If there was an online version, they’d have complete accessibility—on their home desktop, a homework laptop….heck, even on their phone.

It’s not all about the apps.  The kids don’t miss what they’ve never had.  It’s not the fancy stuff that the books could do. It’s more basic than that.

For adult readers, it’s more basic, too.  It’s convenience.  It’s price. It’s finding yourself in a full doctor’s office waiting room and pulling out your phone to read your book.  Sheer convenience is a huge reason why ebooks are so popular.  People are busy.  It’s quick and easy to download a book and it’s readily accessible.

DRM and retailer-specific formatting is another area where publishers aren’t considering their average reader.  The average reader would like to share their book among various devices in their home—on a iPad and a Kindle.  They’re not wanting to pirate their digital copy or share it with all 300 of their Facebook friends.

As Cory Doctorow put it in The Guardian 's article, Why the death of DRM would be good news for readers, writers and publishers:

(Dedicated readers) are the customers who amass large libraries from lots of suppliers, and who value their books as long-term assets that they expect to access until they die. They may have the chance to change their ebook reading platform every year or two (the most common platform being a mobile phone, and many people get a new phone with each contract renewal). They want to be sure that their books travel with them. When their books don't, they'll be alienated, frustrated and will likely seek out unauthorised ways to get books in future. No one wants to be punished for their honesty.

This DRM policy may hurt the publishers more than the readers. As writer Charlie Stross put it in his post What Amazon's ebook strategy means:

By foolishly insisting on DRM, and then selling to Amazon on a wholesale basis, the publishers handed Amazon a monopoly on their customers—and thereby empowered a predatory monopsony.

I’d love it if bookstores and major publishers could survive and thrive, despite all the industry changes and challenges.  I think they may have to change their focus to do it, however. And they need to adjust their mindset quickly.

So now I’ve aired some of my frustrations with the current state of affairs for bookstores and publishers. :)  What are some of yours?  DRM? The slow pace of publishers to respond to change? Ideas for how they can learn to adapt?  What’s your prognosis for the future (I think we’ll agree it’s going to be a bright one for writers, at any rate.)

Image: Morgue File: chrisof4