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« Winners, losers and fonts in the eBook revolution

A couple of weeks ago I bought a Kindle, Amazon’s dedicated eBook reader device. This enabled me to carry a whole bunch of reading around with me in a compact form and way less than a pound of weight. This has been a great convenience, because I have been taking the bus to and from work since moving to a new house recently (though I miss the convertible), and I’ve been traveling a lot and like to read on the plane, such as on a recent press tour I did in my day job at Extensis (Portland > Minneapolis > Denver > SF Bay Area > Portland).

I love many things about books as artifacts: the variety in their appearances/​layout/​typography, the smell of paper and ink, and the refined look of printed type. Yet I am quite certain that within a decade, the majority of what was once print publishing will be electronic (some estimates are as high as 75% by then). The advantages and economics are just too compelling… although of course physical books have their advantages as well.

My interest was initially sparked because, like web fonts, eBooks are a growth area for fonts and typography, while the traditional print usage continues its inexorable slow decline. It’s clear now that after years of false starts, eBooks are finally taking off. Amazon says they’ve sold 40% more eBooks than hardcovers over the last three months, and in the past month it’s been 80% more eBooks than hardcovers.

Now of course, that’s hardcovers and not paperbacks, and that’s units and not dollars. (Some books in the Kindle top 10 non-​free list cost as little as $1.16.) If one looks at the data from the Association of American Publishers, which includes all retailers and not just Amazon, it seems in the month of May, eBooks were more like 4.4% of all book sales in the USA. or for “trade books” 8.5% year-​to-​date, up from 2.9% fir the same period last year. (The AAP figures are based on dollars, not units, by the way.) That may not sound like much, but factoring in the growth rate, we’re looking at the beginning of the explosion. eBook market share of all books three years ago, rounded to the nearest whole percent, was zero.

In that same time the price of eBook devices has plummeted. The original Kindle was $399 when it came out in November 2008. Now the third-​gen Kindle, announced July 28, is to come out in late August for $139 (wi-​fi only) or $189 (3G and wi-​fi). Many of these prices are set in response to similar pricing/​drops on the price of Barnes & Nobles’ “Nook” eBook reader. Then there’s the Borders/​Chapters Kobo, Sony’s Reader, and perhaps most importantly the iPad…. Even if prices don’t drop for Christmas, you could see a lot of these things under the tree for Christmas. Next year? I’m thinking in 2011 you could easily see, in terms of US sales in dollars, 20% of trade books and 10% of all books in general being eBooks. Maybe more.

Given the usual topics of this blog, I would be remiss not to comment on eBook fonts and typography. Generally, I’m impressed with the current crop of eBook devices in their display and font choices. All the dedicated eBook devices (but not the iPad) use eInk tech for screen display, which is currently limited to B&W (plus greyscale), but has the advantage of using a lot less power than LCD or even LED, and not requiring any power to maintain an image on the screen. It’s also reflective rather than transmissive, making it more “paper-​like” and meaning the screen doesn’t wash out in bright sunlight, though you’ll need a night light to read in bed

On the font side, slab serifs are in, with the occasional sans or Dutch-​English oldstyle. Apparently the new Kindle has the same PMN Caecilia typeface (slab) as the previous editions, and adds a condensed version of Caecilia, and an unspecified sans serif option. The Nook uses Amasis (a slab), Helvetica Neue (sans, and a horrid choice for on screen legibility), and “Light Classic” (serif). Sony’s Reader uses Dutch 801 (a Times knock-​off) as the default, with Courier and Swiss 701 (a Helvetica knockoff, again an awful choice) as options. Apple’s iBooks on the iPad offer a bunch of serif faces (Baskerville, Cochin, Georgia, Palatino and Times New Roman) and one sans (Verdana). Kobo offers Baskerville Georgia, Verdana and Trebuchet. With all these devices there are a bunch of complications around whether font embedding is respected (mostly not, unless it’s a PDF) and such, but that’s probably for another post. See also here for font support details.

Many of the eBook reader devices have limited language support, often just for western European languages. The newly-​announced Kindle’s bundled fonts are a dramatic improvement in this area. Now they have Latin, Greek, Cyrillic, Chinese (simplified and traditional), Japanese and Korean. Given the rest, I’ll bet the Latin is extended Latin that covers central/​eastern Europe, Baltic languages, the Balkans, Turkey, etc. One can reasonably expect competitors to take similar steps, of course.

One thing that fascinates me about the eBook revolution besides fonts is the economics of it. One thing most people focus on is “which device will win?” What’s interesting is that the e-​stores and devices are not always tightly tethered to each other. The eBooks I buy via Amazon for the Kindle, I can access via Kindle software on either my iPhone, the just-​acquired iPad from work, my home Windows laptop, or my work Mac laptop—and other devices I don’t even have around. Same thing goes for the Nook, by the way (B&N is currently rebranding its eReader apps to share the same name as their hardware device, like Amazon has been doing for a while.)

Side note: I have surprised myself on several fronts with my own preferences in reading eBooks. I thought I’d like the Kindle DX (the oversize model) better than the base model, but the opposite is true: I didn’t find any real advantage of bigger pages in reading mostly fiction, and the lighter weight of the base model (240 to 290 g, 8 to 10 oz.) was quite important to me. The iPad is heavier (a pound and a half, or 680 to 730 g) even than the Kindle DX (540 g, 19 oz) though of course far more versatile… so it’s further from my ideal reading device. I was particularly shocked to discover that, if I was already half-​way through a Kindle book and into it, I didn’t find it problematic to read it on the iPhone, either! I would have thought the tiny iPhone screen would have made that unpleasant. Clearly the big screens will be helpful for more highly structured content, such as textbooks and some kinds of reference works, but I think the dedicated eReader device folks got the size/​weight tradeoffs about right in their standard models.

Anyway, with all these different delivery vehicles for a single eBook store, it’s possible that either Kindle or Nook eBooks could be dominant without the same being true of their corresponding hardware. I wonder if Apple’s iBooks will do the same, allow other devices to run the software? I expect they’ll do it like iTunes, and restrict it to Apple devices, plus full-​blown computers (Macs and PCs).

The companies who I expect to lose out in all this are publishers and authors’ agents. Not for all kinds of books, and not at all levels of the industry, and not eliminated completely. But for your basic fiction novel, these entities may sometimes be “disintermediated,” cut out of the middle.

In fonts, we see this with, where the server is a giant aggregator. The folks who make fonts can directly put their fonts on MyFonts, and take a big slice of the revenue, while 95% of the process of getting the fonts up there is automated. There are some advantages to folks banding together as a foundry, because of collaborative work, specialization of font production tasks (including testing), and marketing. But they no longer have to, or they can do so without handling distribution and marketing.

There are similar advantages to having an agent and/​or getting your book in with a print publisher—most notably the potential for physical publication, which will still be where most of the money is for a few more years. Some authors also benefit immensely from having a relationship with an editor to help refine their books.

But eBooks reduce the friction in the system and grease the way from author to reader. So last week we saw mega-​agent Andrew Wylie eliminate the publisher entirely for a bunch of classic novels, cutting an exclusive eBook deal with Amazon under his new agent-​owned imprint, “Odyssey Editions.” Publishers such as Random House are freaking out, and understandably so.

Yet there’s nothing stopping the authors from bypassing the agents as well. It’s just a matter of time until folks like Amazon set up a route for authors to self-​publish eBooks… nope, wait, I just checked and to my lack of surprise, they already have, and they offer royalties of 35% or 75%. I am not sure whether publishers or agents will go away entirely, because they can in fact add value. But I am sure that some authors will bypass them in favor of a more direct route to the reader, with a better percentage of the revenue pie.

[Small update on writers cutting out publishers, from the authors of Draculas.]

That’s the future for books and fonts both. Aggregators like Apple and Amazon for books, MyFonts for desktop fonts, or (my own employer’s) WebINK for web fonts are the only thing really needed besides the creators. Yet just as we see many surviving vendors for fonts even in today’s all-​digital era (as in, few people buy fonts on disk today, unless it’s a huge collection), I expect we will continue to see several major vendors for eBooks as well. Somebody with an iPad might have iBooks, Kindle and Nook apps all running on one device, allowing them to access even the content that is exclusive to one or another e-​store. Similarly, even if the market settles out at some point, there’s room for multiple major vendors of eBook reading devices.

And… what about the consumers of books in all this? Sure, we can be sad about the loss of book-​as-​artifact. But for mass-​market paperbacks, the artifacts were not that exciting, and relatively undifferentiated in appearance, beyond the cover. There are some advantages to print, but not enough to stop the rise of eBooks: consumers will find the advantages compelling and will vote with their money. Freedom from the costs of printing (whether economies of scale or the higher unit costs of one-​off print-​on-​demand) will cause a huge explosion in the number of different works available. I know some folks writing hyper-​specialized academic works with huge page counts and short print runs, which cost hundreds of dollars for a single copy today. That can now change. Similarly, books out of print for decades or centuries have come back in print as eBooks.

It is a great time to be somebody who enjoys reading.

5 commentsto “Winners, losers and fonts in the eBook revolution”

  • August 3, 2010
    Chris wrote

    It’s tempting to dive into the new technology, but what’s holding me back is the “disposability” of a paperback versus the shiny value of a new gadget. In an environment that’s dusty/​dirty/​wet like a beach or pool, or perceived to be dangerous, like the seedier parts of cities/​late night public transport, I’d be wary about flashing my new gadget, while a paperback seems a lot more robust and more disposable.

    [Yup, that’s certainly true and fair. As a reasonably big guy I mostly don’t worry as much as most people about seedy parts of town. But I’m probably not as cautious as I should be, either…. – T]

    Also, how fast do you read? Surely the advantage of storing 100s of books in one device is somewhat negated by the fact that you’re likely to be “back to base” by the time you need to reload (pick up another book).

    [For a typical fiction book, I read about 60-​100 pages an hour. So even a fairly thick book, I’ll finish it on one flight from Portland to the east coast, at least by the time I get to bed that night. Then I need another for the way back. Newspapers are bulky and awkward, though admittedly more easily browsed in paper form. Most eBook readers weigh quite a bit less than a paperback, and take up less space than even one of them. On my recent trip, I not only had four separate legs before I got home (with attendant airport waiting time), but I also spent a bunch of time on BART and CalTrain in the Bay Area. Having an appropriate device, in my case a Kindle, was truly awesome for this trip. – T]

    Separately, and more on topic for this columns, do any of those devices allow you to install your own fonts?

    [Mostly not, at least not without some serious hacking of your device. I have a bit more research to do on the topic to make sure I have it all down, though. More on that some other time. – T]

  • August 4, 2010
    Chris wrote

    On my recent trip, I not only had four separate legs before I got home…”
    Yes, I’ve had journeys where I felt like I had four separate legs when I stood up!

    Horses for courses I expect – probably the paperback won’t die off any time soon. I treat the charity shops at holiday destinations as libraries, buying something odd for a small amount, and then giving it back after it’s finished.

    [It’s important to note that the doom-​and-​gloom predictions for print are about sales of new books and what format they’ll be in. I fully expect that the “installed base” of paperbacks will be with us for decades to come. Prices may drop a little in response to the eBook competition and reduced demand, but it’s not like the installed base of paperbacks will vanish any time soon. – T]

    Which leads on to another key difference with e-​books – how easy is it to lend someone a book?

    [Easy and hard. If you just share an account (or several), you can have up to six devices registered to one Kindle account (I currently have a Kindle reader, two laptops and an iPhone all sharing the same Kindle account). But obviously that doesn’t work so well for just loaning stuff to a friend. The Nook apparently has a whole infrastructure around lending, but it can be allowed/​disallowed on a per-​item basis, and I gather most publishers disallow it. Of course, if the eBook is non-​DRM in the first place, you can just download it on your computer, and then potentially distribute to your reading device(s) and those of your friends…. – T]

    Interesting process.

  • August 11, 2010
    Richard Fink wrote

    Terrific post. Wyllie’s move caught my eye, too. What tickles me is that the publishing contracts didn’t provide for anything but print as a medium. Hence, agents can now become digital publishers.
    Also – from a strategic business standpoint – the e-​reading devices are irrelevant. Which device “wins” is irrelevant. What Amazon is offering is a service, dependent upon e-​reading devices to be sure, but delivering to all of them except those that they can’t penetrate like the Nook.
    In other words, the devices aren’t the thing to watch, who’s got the most books deliverable to the most platforms is.
    Amazon acted first and innovatively. And they are one step ahead, as usual.
    [No arguments there. I find the devices competition also interesting, but I tried to make the point that I think it is substantially (though not entirely) orthogonal to making money on the sales of eBooks. – T ]

  • December 16, 2010
    Jeb wrote

    The prices are really coming down. Have you seen how many places offer free texts to download? There an amazing amount of ebooks in the public domain. Australia has a really great site with all the classics and there are all kinds of out of print books available on torrent.

    It really is a great time to enjoy reading.

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