iPad as a reading device, and a
publishing target for text

At Publishing Perspectives, Edward Nawotka has an interesting post on why the Apple’s iPad, precisely because it’s doesn’t support Flash or multitasking, might be a great device for reading – as in, focused reading, which is the only sort worth buying an e-reader to do. In the course of things, he also makes a couple of other interesting points.

First, few readers want “enhanced books” or “vooks” or any other text-plus-multimedia content packages, the likes of which publishers want to sell via the iPad. Readers want to read – they want text, which may not be perfect for everything, but remains the ideal medium for conveying information and narratives in a way that supports a immersive and highly active content-consumption experience. O.k., he doesn’t say that, but he implies it – I take his anti-puffed-up-e-book stance as based on this premise, a version of which I articulated in a post I wrote a couple of years back.

He’s right, and not just because he agrees with me. After all, why else have three million people bought Kindles, which do nothing but reproduce text – while no one has managed to make much hay (or money) selling “enhanced-text” products using any of the other various media that have been available for years, including CD- and DVD-ROMs, and websites?

Second, he points out that Apple is poised now to become a publisher, if it wants to do so. Amazon already does this, and I can see Apple going this route too – or at least threatening to do so, if it can’t get the big book publishers to agree to cut their e-book prices. After all, Apple’s interested in volume sales, and volumes will only rise if e-book prices go down. Working directly with authors, it will have a lot of leverage to get them to price their e-books reasonably, in exchange for favorable royalty rates – duplicating Amazon’s strategy. Perhaps Apple can soften the blow, for the big book houses, by letting them charge whatever they want for their “vooks,” in exchange for keeping prices low on text-only books. If vooks sell, to iPad users, great – everyone wins. If not… everyone will still win, with volume sales making up for margin cuts on text-only e-books.

$499 and a detachable keyboard

Those are the big surprises, for me, from today’s iPad announcement. I was disappointed not to hear anything about books-by-subscription, or low e-book prices. But those could come later. A $499 iPad with a detachable keyboard isn’t as good as a more expensive iPad with a built-in keyboard – but it’s close.

1) How easy will it be to store and carry the keyboard with the iPad? Will they ride easily in the same, standard case? And will the detaching and reattaching be smooth and easy?
2) Will Amazon retreat downmarket or upmarket, i.e. will it make the Kindle cheaper, or better?
3) Will Apple allow the Kindle app onto the device?
4) How far will notebook computer prices drop, to compete with this device?
5) Will Apple or Amazon be the first to get text publishers make their books available in subscription-access libraries, via iPad or Kindle?

UPDATED 2:04 PM PST: Wait, the thing doesn’t multitask? Sheesh. That makes it not a credible computer. (Also, and I should have noticed this before too, the basic model has only a 32GB hard drive.) So either it’s a phone that’s too big to fit in your pocket, a fancy Kindle. Is either of those things worth paying even $499 for?

More appropriate formatting, lower prices,
and bundling will sell more e-content..

…not a new device, iPad or whatever. Apple, though, may revolutionize text publishing by using the iPad’s launch to rope text publishers into making the changes they’ve needed to make all along. Namely, increasing their publications’ substance-to-fluff ratio, by publishing more stuff in articles (non-fiction) and stories or novellas (fiction) rather than in books. Setting prices in accord with demand, rather than tradition. And letting users buy content in bundles, via subscriptions, rather than forcing them to buy each item by the piece.

The new-new colonialism

The Economist thinks Bill Clinton should be made the ruler of Haiti. By whom? The editorial doesn’t say, the implication being that the UN should do the dirty work.

Is this a monumentally stupid idea – one that, if carried through, would lead to an orgy of useless spending, turning Haiti’s existing institutions, not to mention its leading businesses, into rent-seeking appendages of the UN’s leading powers, destroying Haitian society in the process? Or is it just so cool, that someone as smart and powerful as Bill Clinton would take the time and trouble to save Haitians from themselves? Hmm… Either way, the fact that this idea’s out there, in a respected journal, indicates that the ball is now rolling toward some form of US annexation. Why not let the Haitians help themselves, by letting them immigrate to the US?

Back of the envelope: where Electric Literature
has gone, and how it can come back

I went looking for the new issue of Electric Literature, and couldn’t find it. EL launched late last summer to a ton of fanfare, its editors saying they’d publish every other month. The first came out in August, the second in October, and the third… the third… Well, in place of the third, I found various mentions, on the EL site, of the mag being a quarterly. No mention of this being a change, though it is – and no mention either of the pub date of the next issue, or of whose work will be in it.

Putting out a literary publication is a lot of work – I know because I’ve been doing just that, with several friends, for ten years now. So I can empathize with EL‘s editors if they’re feeling overwhelmed by the task they’ve taken on, and I don’t mean to make light of their publishing hiccup. Especially because they, like we at failbetter, are doing it all for fun, i.e. not making a dime or expecting ever to be able to. And in the process, they’ve made a good start at making a great contribution to the literary landscape.

Has EL gone belly-up? I wouldn’t be surprised, if they were telling the truth when they claimed to have paid $1000 to each of the ten contributors to their first two issues. These payments are beyond extravagant, by the standards of literary magazines, very few of which pay contributors anything. But they were money well-spent, at least from a PR point of view – they brought EL‘s founders a ton of publicity, by enabling them to claim that their publication would “save literature,” breaking even or perhaps making a bit of cash, while paying fees that would enable its writers to live by writing alone. No one had done this before, they said, because no one had grasped the new economics of literary publishing. They would keep initial outlays to an absolute minimum, by not taking salaries, and publishing EL in various formats that entail little by way of upfront outlay, and no warehousing costs. As to distribution and print-production costs, EL would incur them only once a copy was sold, generating enough revenue to cover those costs and then some. Once EL had shown this model could work, other publications would follow its lead. The upshot would be a forest of profitable – or at least not not-profitable – litmags, and a bunch of happy, well-paid authors.

I don’t know anything about why EL‘s being so slow with Issue 3, but I’m guessing money has already become a big problem. We can see why if we look a little closer at its business model, plugging in a few numbers as we go.

EL sells in several formats, but I’m guessing only the Kindle and paper editions sell in any kind of bulk. So let’s consider only revenue from Kindle and print sales, and whether it’s enough to keep EL afloat.

Making and selling a Kindle book doesn’t entail incurring traditional warehousing or distribution costs, but Amazon takes a cut of sales revenue. When EL launched, that cut was 70%. Its first two issues sold for $9.95 price, meaning EL netted $2.99 on each sale. (Note that the price of both issues 1 and 2 has since dropped to $4.95. I don’t know when EL made this change, but I’m assuming it did so quite recently, to qualify for Amazon’s new 70% royalty rate. If this is the case, the price chop’s unlikely to make an appreciable impact on the sales of either issue.)

EL‘s print edition also sells for $9.95, a price that, I’m presuming, covers printing and shipping, and nets EL a little chunk of cash to pay honoraria. How much? I’m not sure, but to my understanding, it’s hard to make more than a couple bucks a copy off sales of POD books. Let’s give EL‘s editors credit for being savvy negotiators, and assume they’ve found a printer that gives them a full $2 on each sale.

Not so many people have Kindles, so let’s assume that sales run, say, four-to-one paper-to-print. Let’s assume too that EL‘s first issue did unbelievably well for a literary magazine, selling 800 print copies, and 200 Kindle books, each at the full retail price. Issue 2 sales, of course, were probably lower – Issue 1 got all the fancy publicity. If everything went well, perhaps EL sold 600 copies of Issue 2 in paper, and 150 in Kindle, all, again, at $9.95 apiece.

Gross revenue, for Issue 1 and 2, assuming all the above figures? $17,412.50 – $13,930 from print sales, and $3482.50 from Kindle sales.

Net revenue? $3844.75 – $2800 from print, and $1044.75 from Kindle.

Net shortfall, assuming honoraria costs of $10,000? $6155.25!

Perhaps my numbers are wrong – indeed, they’re almost certainly wrong, what with being guesses. But EL likely isn’t doing any better than this. Indeed, it’s probably in worse shape, because it probably sold fewer copies, and made less money from each print sale.

When EL launched, I did a back-of-the-envelope calculation that looked a lot like the one I just ran through. I concluded that the boasts about being able to break even were just for show – meant to get publicity of the sort the NYT article provides – and that EL would rely on regular cash infusions from a friend, family trust fund, or patron who prefers to keep his name out of the papers. (Should I note in this context that in the photo accompanying the NYT piece, EL co-founder Scott Lindenbaum appears to be wearing a shirt that retails for $330? Hmm…)

Now that EL has cut back its publication schedule, without saying when its next issue will be out, I realize that I might have been wrong. EL‘s founders might well have believed they could do what they said they could do. In that case, they need to rethink their strategy, right now, to avoid going under.

First off, they should adjust retail prices. Not up, because sales would fall too much, and this would be lousy PR, but down. A price cut would probably have a positive effect on revenues, if it’s done right – why else would Amazon be pushing print publishers, so relentlessly, to cut the Amazon.com retail prices of both their paper and electronic books? Though in the case of the print edition, unfortunately, a price cut might not be possible, because of the fixed costs of printing and shipping each copy. So let’s assume EL‘s limited to cutting the price of its Kindle books, to, say, $3.95 apiece. How many more copies of each will sell? Who knows? Let’s be wildly optimistic, and say Kindle sales would double, to 300 per issue. At the 70% royalty rate, EL would make $829.50 off each Kindle edition. Assuming print sales stay at 600 per issue, netting $1200 each time, net revenue, on each issue, would be $2029.50.

Which brings us to the need for a much bigger strategy shift: radically cutting author honoraria. EL could do this and still get very good content. After all, as I’ve pointed out before, most of the better US literary authors don’t need to make money off their writing. They make a living – and not a bad one – by teaching writing.

I suspect EL‘s editors will hesitate to take this step, because they staked their credibility on their ability to pay authors at a specific, very high rate. If they cut back as much as they need to on honoraria, without having a credible excuse, they’re going to look like fools. Still, the numbers suggest that they’re going to have to do so, and soon. Let’s say they figure out some way to spin this – perhaps they’ll blame the recession, and promise to raise payments once the economy picks up, hoping no one will call them on this. More than likely, they’ll get away with it – the MSM, and the literary community, desperately wants to love EL, and will forgive them having been extravagant in their initial claims. (Note in this context that no one at the New York Times seems to have done anything by way of making a realistic assessment of those claims, when EL‘s editors made them.)

Where will EL be then? It will be able to pay each contributor $400 per story, assuming it sticks with publishing five stories per issue. Even if we adjust all the above numbers, to reflect a less optimistic view of EL‘s sales, perhaps it can still pay authors a hundred or two a story. That’s still pretty good – again, very few litmags pay contributors at all.

Will EL‘s editors make these changes? If they can’t find a patron, they’ll have to. And I hope they do, because I enjoyed the first two issues, and hope EL won’t go the way of other well-done, and sadly now moribund journals like Swink and Land Grant College Review.

What is the typical New Yorker
short story, anyway?

Mark Athitakis gives us a quick, and amusing, rundown of various attempts to define the animal. My favorite is Roger Angell’s, given in response to a writer’s query:

“Are you looking for the typical New Yorker story?” someone… asks. “Sure lady,” I want to answer back. “The one that’s exactly like Borges and Brodkey and Edna O’Brien and John O’Hara and Susan Minot and Eudora Welty and Niccolo Tucci and Isaac Singer. That’s the one, except with more Keillor and Nabokov in it. Whenever we find one of those, we snap it right up.”

Poker is the new chess

Fascinating NYRB article by Garry Kasparov. Nut graf:

Perhaps chess is the wrong game for the times. Poker is now everywhere, as amateurs dream of winning millions and being on television for playing a card game whose complexities can be detailed on a single piece of paper. But while chess is a 100 percent information game—both players are aware of all the data all the time—and therefore directly susceptible to computing power, poker has hidden cards and variable stakes, creating critical roles for chance, bluffing, and risk management.

Apps for the Kindle, Apple, and the
e-textbook market

My friend @sf_billallison pointed out to me that, contrary to my snarky Tweet, Amazon is probably more interested in getting developers to create applications for the multiplatform Kindle app, than for the device proper. Other devices – computers – have far better displays, input devices, and responsiveness, all of which developers can leverage, in adding interactivity and other features to AZW ebooks and other econtent that can be consumed in the Kindle app. These features could give a lot of people a lot of reasons to buy this content from Amazon – which, presumably, Amazon would make them do, to make full use of these apps.

Will this strategy work, in helping Amazon keep its stronghold on the growing retail market for e-content? I’d bet we’ll find out by seeing what happens with e-textbooks. As a number of observers have noted, e-textbooks could have a lot of advantages over their paper versions – consider the value to students of in-line note-taking and -sharing, access to reference material, and so forth. If Apple can convince leading educational houses to publish leading titles as rich-featured Tablet-format e-textbooks, Apple could use them as a means of getting a lot of students to buy the device. (Of course Apple, to cover itself with public-school administrators, will have to make them accessible to students who can’t afford the Tablet, but it will still be able to format them, and set up its e-content store, in such a way as to make buying and using much easier on the Tablet than on a computer, Kindle, or whatever.)

If Apple can make a strong e-textbook play, it won’t just corner this market, but also have a leg up on selling ebooks to 15-to-22 year-olds. Publishers and authors, knowing that a lot more of these folks own Tablets than Kindles, will have powerful incentive to go with Apple, rather than Amazon, as a partner in publishing trade books that appeal to this age group. And as these folks get older, they’ll be inclined to keep buying ebooks and other econtent for their Tablets, rather than switch to another device. A decade from now, Apple could well have muscled Amazon out of its leading position in both the e-reading device and e-content markets.

Amazon can’t counter this effort by trying to drive textbook publishers, readers, and developers to the physical Kindle. But the Kindle app is another story, for the reasons I outline above. Moreover, the app can be adapted to run on any future device. True, Apple might keep it off the Tablet. Or it might not let Tablet users access the Amazon.com store, refuse to let its etextbook partners sell their titles via this store, or simply undercut Amazon on (content) price. If it does any of these things, Amazon will have to work to get the Kindle app onto some future, better tablet-form e-reader (one with a real keyboard!). More than likely, that device will be put out by a company that doesn’t have either Apple’s level of experience selling content, or care about getting into this business. If Amazon is smart – and I think it is – it’s already working with other would-be e-reader manufacturers, to make sure their devices include a souped-up-with-apps Kindle reader, with direct access to Amazon.com. I’d imagine it’s also in close talks with textbook publishers, trying to sign them to exclusive publish-and-retail deals before Apple can, or at least to ensure that if they put out their leading titles in Tablet format, they’ll put out AZW versions as well. These efforts, combined with letting developers create apps that work with the Kindle app, are Amazon’s best hope to keep its position as the dominant e-content retailer.

Will the Apple tablet repeal
the laws of ergonomics? Or will it have
an innovative slide-out keyboard?

Those are my questions after reading Luke Wroblewski’s post on the possible multitouch features of an Apple table, and how they could enable users to perform a broad range of tasks that, until now, have required a physical keyboard or mouse.

All this stuff is great, but a physical keyboard is necessary for the thing to have full computer functionality. Without which, as I’ve argued before, no one is going to buy it, at least not at a price anywhere north of a hundred bucks.

Everyone blathers about how the keyboard is outmoded, but heavy-duty text entry is, and will long remain, the primary input action, for anyone using a computer. And a physical keyboard is necessary to do it – not the virtual keyboard that will be part of the Apple tablet.

A physical keyboard is far more responsive than any existing virtual keyboard, and much easier to type accurately on. And to support intensive use, any keyboard, real or virtual, needs to sit on a plane parallel to the user’s desk or lap. It also needs to sit at roughly a 95- to 100-degree angle to the screen of attached device. An onscreen keyboard can’t do the first, but not the second.

Imagine you’re using the Apple tablet to read a course textbook, while taking occasional notes. The tablet should be o.k, if not ideal, for this. You can read with it sitting on a desk, or on a stand, and type while it’s on the desk or on your lap. But neither position is great for typing. Which means you certainly won’t be able to use it to write a term paper – you’ll have to use a traditional-form computer for that.

I could see Apple integrating some sort of slide-out-and-under keyboard, that would make the new tablet ergonomically suitable to intensive text entry. This keyboard would be ultra-thin, and sit, during normal use or non-use, flush against the back of the tablet. The user could then slide it down the tablet’s back, then around the tablet’s bottom edge. It would lock in place, at roughly a 95- or 100-degree angle to the screen – and then serve as both a laptop-style keyboard, and a stand to hold the screen upright. Keyboard-device signals could pass through small contacts on the bottom corners of the device body.

(Thanks, @NQuizon, for the pointer to LukeW.com!)