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Could the Kindle and iPad Kill Quality Content?

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Amazon (s Amzn) delivered today a beta version of its free Kindle for BlackBerry (s rimm) e-book app, a quick download that provides access to more than 420,000 books. It marks just the latest example of how the publishing industry is facing seminal changes. Will the end result be the death of quality content?

Amazon has been in the crosshairs of the traditional publishing industry for some time now, with regard to numerous issues. Its standard $9.99-per-title charge for e-books is the same kind of clear and present threat to existing business models in the publishing industry that the music industry faced as low-priced music became available on ubiquitous digital players. The music industry continues to reel from the effects of that revolution, and instead of reaching for workable digital business strategies, aims laterally for questionable solutions such as slapping a performance tax on radio stations.

I got into a discussion on a videocast yesterday with Dan Goodin, one of the best writers over at The Register, about the equally seismic shifts we’re seeing in book distribution and the publishing industry. He made the point that with the low pricing models for digital books, and more devices for reading them, the ultimate effect may be that the quality of written content suffers. Authors, in addition to publishers, stand to have their livelihoods threatened under the new e-book regime, he noted:

“Do we want to live in a world where content providers can’t support themselves? That is exactly where we are moving with the Kindle and the iPad because people suddenly want books for $9.99. I’ve got news: It takes about a year to write a book, you have to travel extensively, you have to do a lot of fact-checking. What Amazon and Apple are trying to do is significantly decrease the amount of money that publishers, and specifically authors, can make.”

“The quality of books and other types of published material is going to significantly deteriorate,” he added. He’s not the first person to allege that the sweeping changes in the publishing industry threaten quality content. Warren Buffett, for example, has predicted that with newspapers dying and reporters losing their jobs, widespread dishonesty will ensue.

I’m inclined to agree — up to a point — with both of them, and I say that as a book author who has always worked in the publishing industry. However, it also seems clear that new publishing models will arise amidst the carnage. For example, Mathew recently noted that some authors are signing exclusive Kindle deals with Amazon. One popular author, Stephen Covey, has struck a deal with Amazon where he gets about 50 percent of the revenues from his Kindle-delivered books, far above the royalty deals that most authors get. Perhaps the very providers of digital content and distribution devices will end up being the ones to make the publishing industry work again.

Let’s not forget that we’re seeing exciting new kinds of devices arrive for reading. I suspect that devices such as the iPad will be both a blessing and a curse for the publishing industry, creating short-term chaos but also long-term promise.  Om has noted that the instant he laid his hands on the iPad, he had visions of exciting new content types that will surely take shape for it. Apple (s Aapl) may also introduce higher pricing models for content on the iPad than we’ve seen from Amazon for the Kindle. For a visual tour of how the iPad might be a promising trend for publishing, I recommend watching the video below of Wired Magazine’s concept app for the iPad, which looks quite slick.

The ubiquitous availability of e-books may also usher in more reading, and it’s a fact that readers of e-books buy more books. As a BlackBerry user, I already like the free Kindle for BlackBerry app, and I can see myself using it to read on the train when I might otherwise busy myself with other things. One way or another, quality content will make its way to interested readers on digital platforms, and new types of rewards for authors will arrive, too. In the meantime, though, anyone who writes better prepare for a bumpy — though never boring — ride.

Related content from GigaOM Pro (sub req’d):

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35 Responses to “Could the Kindle and iPad Kill Quality Content?”

  1. I worked in the music industry for years. I don’t know a great deal about the publishing industry, but I would assume it is (or should I say was) set up similarly to the music industry. The fact is that artists made little to no money from the actual sale of their music, or in this case their writings. With the exception of the few huge players, most artists made their money through touring and radio play. What I see happening in the publishing industry is much of what I saw happening in the music industry. The digital revolution is making it possibly for the “little guys” to have a voice and get their art to the masses while bypassing the industry sharks (record labels/publishing houses). Independent bands were able to release music to the masses via iTunes and Amazon. I think the same thing will happen in the publishing industry. Writers will cease to need a publisher to get their works to the people, thereby lining the pocket of the people who deserve the credit. If publishers are smart they will find a way to work with writers and the new digital format or they will fade into obscurity like many record labels have.

  2. I think great writers will always write. I just set myself up with a kindle account so I could try to self publish some short stories and get myself started. I’m not a fan of digital distribution over plain old paper and bound books but it gives a writer a chance to try more than ever before. That said, to the people saying Itunes didn’t ruin music, I disagree heavily. There is not one new artist today I find to be relevant or worth listening to, and as an Audio Engineering student and amateur musician myself, I find I have to look to the past to find anything inspiring or pleasing to the ears. Senseless pop singers who use autotune to mask their lack of vocal ability fill the air waves. Where’s the sound of real music? Seems to have disappeared somewhere around 2003-2004. The mp3 is the most detrimental thing to sound quality that has ever happened. Ask anyone in the know about such things.

  3. “I turn on the radio at five o’clock every day and National Public Radio is still there, making the finest electronic journalism in the United States, and they’re still being supported by people who voluntarily pay…”

    “Let’s imagine two things about journalism. Let’s ask, first: Of all the great investigative reporting that newspapers ever paid for, how much did the publishers spike because it made a problem that he didn’t want to have? The Washington Post didn’t want the Pentagon Papers, and The New York Times didn’t want Watergate. And that’s the two they love to talk about, and yet 50% of them would have passed, each time.
    Let’s ask another question: How many reporters, compared to how many people selling advertisements? And: Where was the love, anyway?”
    ~Eben Moglen

  4. Sebastian, with the rise of independent publishing, we’ll see more content published, much as with the rise of blogging. With the increase in content, we’ll see more garbage but also more works of brilliance and significance that otherwise might never have seen the light of day. The power center of publishing will shift to authors, not to publishers. The growth of ebooks, combined with publishing and distribution platforms such as Amazon Digital Text and (my own) Smashwords, levels the distribution playing field for authors and allows all authors to compete on the merits of their content, not on access to distribution.

    Related to this, we recently crunched two sets of numbers that might interest you…

    1. At what price ebook might the author/publisher earn the highest total yield?

    2. When you trust customers to pay what they want, what percent pays, and how much do they pay?

    I consider both studies above preliminary. We’re crunch broader and deeper data sets in the months ahead based on real world sales at Smashwords.

  5. I am not sure that the Kindle and others will kill quality content just as itunes has not killed quality music. What the digital age has done is kill the artists and writers ability to have an encouraging path towards monetization. Great writers will continue to write because that is what they love to do just as young talented musicians continue to record. Hopefully in the future there will a “next generation” label and publisher that will create the marketing and distribution engines so these talented people can be found and make money.

  6. John Hale

    Good article. However, I hope Wired does a better job of producing a digital version than what PC Magazine did with Zinio. When they dropped their print version, I slogged through reading 2-3 of the Zinio issues, but I finally canceled my subscription. But that’s where an iPad, Kindle, or other such device may make the difference. With such tablets, at least the hassle of having to sit at a desktop or drag along a notebook to read the magazine is eliminated. Instead, they come as close as possible to the portability and flexibility of a traditional magazine and the benefits that brings. Add in design and layout geared for best reading with such devices, and the publishing industry could have a new revenue stream like they never imagined.

  7. The distributor’s cut will go to zero. You don’t need a distributor for ebooks.

    The retailers cut will be dramatically reduced. All the B&N’s and Borders and Amazon warehouses? All gone. Vanished. I’m not being too far fetched by saying every book can eventually fit onto 1 pc and be retailed from there.

    And that’s in addition to the savings to print the book and get it to distributor’s.

    Most of these hardcover books are sold for much less than the $25 listed.

    Go on Amazon. All the hardcovers are under $15 for the popular fiction novels.

    And what about sharing books? There is limited or zero sharing of ebooks. How about reselling them? How about the used book market? Zero of that as well.

    Piracy will be a concern and maybe that cancels out the no-sharing and reselling of ebooks. But you’ll just see more piracy if publishers price ebooks too high.

    PUblishers also need to realize impulse purchases will higher with ebooks and even higher with lower prices. You don’t have to go to the store and you don’t have to wait days for a book to be shipped. It’s in your hands in minutes.

    My ‘know enough to be dangerous’ take is publishers are greedy. They want as much money as possible and look at ebooks as a way to make more even more profit instead of a medium that is going to replace paper. That will be their downfall.

    They should embrace the medium. Look at ways to accelerate the move into ebooks. Get these things into consumer’s hands. And then start worrying about raising prices.

    Adapt or die.

  8. I’ve mixed opinions here. As Sramana has indicated, clearly the authors stand to gain, and perhaps significantly even.

    However, a communistic pricing will kill the possibilities for differentiation. For example, all books on Iceland will cost the same. And if you are planning a trip to Iceland, which of the several books (of widely varying quality) will you buy?

    What would happen if a car dealer told the manufacturers that you can have me sell any car you make (and yes, I’m damn good at selling cars), but only at $19999 per car? This would hurt the high-end car makers as much as it would the Tatas (for their famed Nano).

    Before my commie comment raises flames, let me say that I understand that the better books will become more popular, and hence the authors of the better books will earn more than the authors of the less better (less popular) books. So, this is not truly communistic. However, buyers of books will be confronted with the need to choose between books of varying quality and unlike in the past, they will have to do this choosing without the (notional?) benefit of relating price to value.

    • I think $9.99 will be the upper bound. There will still be differentiation between different kind of book. A best-seller will be priced at $9.99 but I guess nobody will be willing to pay so much for low quality works.
      My two cents.

  9. its purely a question of maths. What Dan Goodin is saying is

    1. Authors get X % of the sales of a piece they write. So Sales = Units Sold x Price, so his logic is that since the price decreases then the sales decrease and so the absolute revenue % number goes down. What he doesn’t think through is ( Or what he knows but doesn’t want to get quoted on )

    2. A Kindle or a Ipad with new content delivery channels and a soon to be wider reach work towards getting the number of units sold increased which would mean that though the price went down, the sales will go up. So the authors in the long run would reap positive benefits from the same and would easily carry on with —-“It takes about a year to write a book, you have to travel extensively, you have to do a lot of fact-checking. “

  10. Even before the Kindle and the iPad, the quality of articles in newspapers and stories in magazines like the New Yorker has been going down. The central problem is that most magazines and books are now published by conglomerates that look only at the bottom line. In the old days, publishing houses were privately held firms, usually family businesses, where profit was not the only motive. They actually helped writers develop their craft and paid well for stories. I don’t think we will see the 21st century equivalent of John Cheever, one of the best American short story writers in the 20th century. He managed to support himself and his family writing short stories! Imagine that.

    However, it is still too early to tell whether we will indeed see dramatically inferior writing (in news journalism, fiction, non-fiction, drama, poetry) over the next 50 years.

    • @ Esme — I note that you mentioned The New Yorker, where J.D. Salinger’s great short story “For Esme With Love and Squalor” once appeared. Yes, I agree that the general quality of published writing isn’t rising.

      @ Srmana — I, too, think it’s promising that authors like Covey are striking good deals directly with companies such as Amazon. I don’t disagree on that.


  11. I disagree completely. I think the recent changes are handing the power over to authors, who can now directly work with Amazon, Apple, etc.

    Publishers, increasingly, add no value to the process of marketing books by mid-list authors.

    I have done 4 books with Amazon. My royalty is 40%.
    I have done 2 books with Hachette India. My royalty is the traditional publishing royalty of 7.5%-15%.
    Kindle royalties are 35%, it is changing to 70% this summer.

    Books would not exist without the author serving as a creative source. It isn’t right for the author to not make money in the process and I’m pleased to see well-established authors such as Steven Covey and Jim Collins leading the way for change. Both are self-publishing.

    Self-publishing has also changed the publishing timeline. Through Amazon, I have released the first three volumes of my Entrepreneur Journeys series, Entrepreneur Journeys, Vol. 1 in October 2008, Bootstrapping, Vol. 2 in June 2009, and Positioning, Vol. 3 in September 2009. I also released a separate book Vision India 2010 in February 2010 and will release Innovation, Vol. 4 in May 2010, making that five books published in less than two years. This is just not viable for a traditional publisher right now, especially for a mid-list author. Hachette India has thus far published Entrepreneur Journeys in February 2009 and Bootstrapping in October 2009.

    I feel a sense of urgency to get the books out there for entrepreneurs who are trying to build companies in the midst of this great recession. I just cannot have manuscripts sitting around for five years. All of my books are born out of my blog and Forbes columns written since 2006, making this aggressive production schedule possible.

    You can check out the books here:

    I don’t understand why GigaOm is suddenly defending publishers who have been taking advantage of authors for decades.

    • This is exactly what I refer to regarding the reason investors and the business community needs to be concerned about the real value of publishers. They have their place! But, when the cost of publishing approaches zero as opposed to content creating which takes years, the dynamic shifts. What is the role in curating and aggregating content and what value does that supply?

      In education this value could be high. In popular music, perhaps less so. Publishing is a filter, and may be more akin to marketing in the future than product distribution.

  12. Constable Odo

    I don’t know why every time some new medium comes along it’s going to cause the destruction of something. It seems to me that digital distribution would be one of the finest things for the planet. So much knowledge can be held by nearly everyone and distributed more more quickly. Hundreds of books stored on one device is just so amazing. Just like the iPod didn’t ruin music, I’m sure the iPad won’t ruin journalism or whatever the creative part of writing books is called (authorship?). Even the poorest of people could own a batch of encyclopedias, dictionaries, cookbooks, great classic books, etc. on a handheld device. It really seems so convenient to have media in digital form rather than on paper.

  13. What a load! If you can print, advertise, ship, and otherwise handle, distribute, and place for sale a paperback book for $7.99 to $9.99 then surely everyone involved can still make money selling the one copy of bits and bytes that a digital publication consists of at $9.99. These people are just as greedy as the folks running the music industry.

  14. Most people who buy CDs don’t know Deutche Grammophone, but most classical musicians do. Most people who haven’t studied engineering don’t know Springler Verlag. Those publishers are way down the long tail. Their importance will grow, as will popularizers of critical and important content.

    Here’s the thing. The advertising industry has, in my opinion, forever been guessing at the influence of their products. So every market that is funded by advertising has been voodoo economics, including our notions about whom is ‘educated’ or ‘well-read’. Twenty years ago if you were trying to do appeal to the kind of person you might think wants to buy a new Jaguar you might spend many thousands for a billboard on Sunset Boulevard in Hollywood, and it would be ok to spend that because you were simultaneously spending for people who couldn’t afford it and glamorizing your brand.

    Today you know every current and prior Jaguar, Lexus and Hummer owner and advertisement is more scientific, and cheap. You will not subsidize anything but your narrow focus on the long tail. There is no glamorous spillover.

    Amazon will charge 99 cents for an MP3 of Vladimir Horowitz playing Chopin and 1.29 for Akon rapping through a vocoder. Only a class retailer who cares is going to carry the Horowitz. Maybe Amazon will have class, maybe just the next Pirate Bay will have class.

    There has always been a small minority of people who have been willing to go out of their way to find the better quality content. Today we know exactly how small they are, and that scares us. But when has it ever been different? I mean, really – how many people do you think they let in the Sistine Chapel? In a world of 99% literacy, everybody’s gotta read something, but most of it will be bad.

  15. I am not sure that the Kindle and others will kill quality content just as itunes has not killed quality music. What the digital age has done is kill the artists and writers ability to have an encouraging path towards monetization. Great writers will continue to write because that is what they love to do just as young talented musicians continue to record. Hopefully in the future there will a “next generation” label and publisher that will create the marketing and distribution engines so these talented people can be found and make money.

  16. @ Nicholas — yes, publishers have to completely reengineer their business models and be more lean — no question.

    @ francisaugusto — yes, paper, ink and all the rest are expensive. In the cases of most newspapers and magazines, it costs much more to print them than to buy them. I agree with that, but getting rid of those costs doesn’t automatically solve all problems, as many web site publishers learn.


  17. First, it would be interesting to note who actually owns the digital rights. Is it like the music industry for example? Secondly, we are witnessing hybrid models where for example, and independent artist cannot submit music to the iTMS. How do they submit materials to similar bookstores? Is it possible, and if not, why?

    Artists historically never made much from their published works, and copyright was supposed to solve that. My bet is that more are subject to servitude rather than payment. It is going to be an ugly decade for artists, because publishers have immense amounts of value to shed before they can make money in the models we see.

  18. Oh, come on. The decrease of books prices due those publishers deal with Apple, per se, doesn’t seem as a potential harm to authors. Why? Because that price cut certainly would reflect lower costs that are inherent to digital publishing! Things like price of paper, ink, printing, distributing, managing stock, etc. just vanish right away! So the question is, why should the price be the same when the product itself looses part of a significant factor that makes up its price?

    • @francisaugusto: This is a fairly common misconception, but one that does an incredible disservice to the book industry. Do some Googling: only about $3 of the $25 price of a new-release hardcover pays for printing and distribution costs. The rest encompasses the distributor’s cut, the author’s cut, and the publisher’s cut – and before you say it, we can’t just do away with the publishers, as they provide vital services to book production. Authors are well aware that they can’t do their own editing, design, and layout, and have been aggressive defenders of their publishers in this debate because they recognize the added value that they provide.

  19. Most of us know quality when it hits us and those who don’t are not looking for James Joyce anyways.
    If anything, I would be worried more of the Google Books service who will eventually steal income from authors as part of their “no (revealing) evil” policy.

  20. @ Kearns — I tend to agree that much of what we’ll see as this plays out will parallel what happened with music, where great artists continue to march forward. There is no question, though, that it’s a tough life for authors under the current conditions. There are about half as many journalism jobs now as there were 20 years ago, and I know lots of writers who are totally stymied by the environment.


  21. What a load of crap. Publishers long ago stopped looking for quality and just push out tons of crap, hoping something will hit big and pay for the rest. Low cost digital publishing platforms will, in the end, mean more money for the creative people creating the content and less for the middle men and distributors. In the short term it may be a bit chaotic while we all figure out how to find the quality, but the pioneers of digital formats (like music) will show the rest the way.