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Mike Shatzkin Says That There’s no Market for Anything Other Than Narrative eBooks – I’m Not Sure I Agree

Mike Shatzkin Shatzkin-MIke-4-300x268[1]has a post up today that I wanted to bring to your attention.

In this post he argues that there is no market for any type of ebook other than well, novels:

We have proven beyond any reasonable doubt that digital versions of narrative immersive reading — which I define as books you read from page one to page last — if made reflowable will satisfy the vast majority of the book’s print audience.   …

However, the complementary fact is that we have not yet found a formula that works for any other kind of book. (And with all due respect to Philip Jones of The Bookseller, whose piece on this subject is much more “on point” than the other three, pointing as he does to what Pottermore has done and can do is hardly a prototype for a dedicated book publisher.) How-to books haven’t sold well as ebooks. Reference books haven’t sold well as ebooks. Cookbooks haven’t sold well as ebooks. If you dip in and out; if you rely on illustrations (which maybe should be videos); if your book is just filled with pretty pictures; then there is no formula for a digital version that has demonstrated mass commercial appeal.  …

I first heard Mike say this when we met at BEA 2013, and based on what I had seen I thought he was correct.

If you look at how Vook pivoted from making enhanced ebooks into ebook distribution, or how Coursesmart is propped up by the publishers that own it, or how Kno failed and was sold off for scrap (just to name 3 examples) you tend to get the impression that there are a lot of niches in the ebook market that aren’t working out (or I just fell victim to selection bias, which is another possibility).

In fact, I originally sat down to write a post which agreed with Mike’s point and called it out for emphasis. But I won’t do that, because I’m not sure we’re looking at this from the same perspective.

Here is where I disagree with Mike. This is the last sentence of the paragraph snipped above:

There have been successes, but they seem to be novelties (e.g. Touch Press) or on a much smaller scale than would warrant major publishers getting into this business (e.g. a small art press like MAPP Editions can claim success with 1,000 copies sold).

While I agree with Mike in the broad strokes, I’m not so sure that it should matter whether one publisher’s success can be replicated at scale by the major publishers. I would be curious to know if success in a niche can be matched by a competing publisher, or by several publishers, but the major publishers are not relevant to my point of view.

To put it another way, let me ask you which is more important: the half dozen largest fish in the publishing pond or the hundreds of smaller fish?

When it comes to the health and viability of a market niche, I tend to think that the latter group is more important – especially when we are in an untried and new era like ebook publishing.

appleii-right[1]To say that there’s no market today for digital products like cookbooks, textbooks, and the like would be like saying in 1978 that there was no market for PCs in the home or school simply because there were only a handful of truly successful models, none of which came from one of the major computer manufacturers (Wikipedia).

Just because IBM’s first several attempts at a PC were only marginally successful doesn’t mean that someone else, namely Apple, didn’t find a market for a PC in 1978. And it’s that someone else that we need to be looking at today, not the major publishers.

Or to give you another example, consider the ebook market in 2006. Mike would say that there was no ebook market in 2006, while in reality Baen Books, Fictionwise, and a handful of other pioneers had carved out a market.

Just because (to name one example) Macmillan couldn’t figure out how to handle the business of ebooks until early 2009 (that’s when they finally started catching up with releasing their backlist) doesn’t mean there wasn’t an ebook market before 2009.

If someone wants to posit that a market doesn’t exist they’re going to have to come up with a better argument than "it’s too small for the major publishers to bother with". That is simply the wrong scale to work from.

But that’s just my two cents; what do you think?

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Greg Strandberg December 5, 2013 um 3:13 am

I’ve got 2 books in a small niche and a 3rd on the way. English as a Second Language (ESL) certainly won’t make me rich but does make me a little money and ensures I get overseas sales each month.

From an authors perspective, one who wants to diversify their offering of books, then putting a few niche books out is a great idea. They don’t have to be long and if you’re writing about what you know you’ll quickly find they pretty much write themselves.

Perhaps what’s happening, and maybe why there’s all this talk of doom and gloom, is that so many sites and businesses are giving away short niche eBooks to gain inbound marketing leads. If I’m a gardening site having a 20 page PDF how-to is a great way to endear myself to users, but also anger my competitors that rely on that income.

Nate Hoffelder December 5, 2013 um 7:32 am

"Perhaps what’s happening, and maybe why there’s all this talk of doom and gloom, is that so many sites and businesses are giving away short niche eBooks to gain inbound marketing leads. "

Yep. Business models based on something other than directly selling chunks of content can contribute to a market while not actually generating the revenue that pundits are looking for. In other words, free is still a market.

fjtorres December 5, 2013 um 7:48 am

Not all profit is dollars and cents.
There’s other currencies.
As somebody or other often says; "If you’re not the customer, you’re the product."
Google makes non-trivial money that way.
Corporate publishing is so hung up on making sure people pay for even looking at their conteng they miss out on most alternative options.

Destination Infinity December 5, 2013 um 4:02 am

I think that depends on the value a how-to book or non-fiction book provides. If a non-fiction book can save tons of money on a trip (it can), it can very well sell for a higher price to fewer people and still make a decent margin.

Secondly, the length of so-called novels is coming down and will come down even further in future (I think). Specialized eBooks will slowly start converting people who don’t read novels into reading some form of writing and that’s where their main advantage will lie.

The current eBooks have just converted the print-book readers into eBooks. That just covers a small segment of the entertainment market – there is more potential there and elsewhere.

Nate Hoffelder December 5, 2013 um 9:34 am

Value, indeed.

Just to prove your point, I got an email from one reader who pointed out that there is a thriving market for computer programming books "for all the obvious reasons: rapid obsolescence, ease of cut-and-paste and searching, quite often frequent updates etc." Mike might brush this off as being one of the exceptions to his rule but I think that one to many exceptions defeats a generalization.

fjtorres December 5, 2013 um 7:18 am

Mr Shatzkin' s "beat" is corporate publishing so his outlook is pretty much defined by the axiomatic belief that it’s not real unless it fits in with the BPH’s business.
Over at ThePassiveVoice it was persuasively argued that just because a product is not packaged in retail-sized commercial chunks doesn’t mean there is no market in it. Many of the digital equivalents of traditional print products have evolved into websites, apps, and blogs instead of ebooks and mags.
Others are waiting for an enabling technology or business model (which is why watching startups and niches is important) or simply likely to evolve in a non-commercial direction, which should scare the bejesus out of the corporate types. This is most clearly a possibility in the textbook arena, where the high prices and generally limited usable lifetime has long been moving consumers to seek alternatives to playing by corporate publishing rules. (Used books, piracy, sharing copies, etc)
I think Shatzkin was most accurate in the first quote: nobody in corporate publishing has yet figured out how to digitally package certain classes of content. That is clearly true. What is not necessarily true is that those classes will never be packaged by somebody else or that some other form of digital delivery is not an option.
The reality is that entire chunks of the print book business are going to migrate away from the grip of traditional publishers and into the online and software publishing arenas. More, the process has been ongoing for ages.
We’re all familiar with the example of the special focus commercial websites that have displaced many classes of consumer guide publications, like this one:

But with the emergence of low-cost PC grade tablets, the door is now open for other approaches, long-established on desktops, to really shine. Just one decades-old example:

Let’s just say that not all books are going to stay books. Some will evolve into ebooks, some will evolve into websites, and some will evolve into apps. Just a whole other can of worms for corporate publishers to fret over. 🙂

Robin Brooker December 5, 2013 um 10:50 am

In my area of interest (photography) the publishing houses often scan the individual pages and offer that as an ebook. Because illustrated print books offer a double page spread to its readers then the pages are designed in that way. Scanning individual pages often means that some of the pictures are cut into two parts. Also it is often the case that while the size of text is OK in a printed book to read it on a tablet often means enlarging and manoeuvring the page to read it. To create an attractive ebook from the same content would involve a total redesign and therefore, for larger publishers, not a viable proposition.

Will O’Neil December 5, 2013 um 5:05 pm

I’ve bought a number of reference books and software and photo manuals in e-book form, which I have found quite satisfactory. It’s not a medium for every every such book, but it can work well for many of them if they’re written and laid out with e-publication in mind.

Diane December 5, 2013 um 8:56 pm

Due to a lack of space, I would like to replace my print cook books with e versions. So I’ve been buying some cook books. Most of them have been disappointing and frustrating to use. The linear nature of ebooks doesn’t work well for cook books so it is absolutely crucial for there to be a linkable table of contents and index in a cook book. It would also be nice if each recipe had a link back to the TOC/index. I’ve only found one cook book that has a linkable TOC and index. It also has links at the end of each section. If the Betty Crocker Cookbook – 1500 recipes… can do it, why aren’t the other publishers doing this?

The point is that at this time, non-linear reading can be frustrating on an ereader, but that doesn’t mean that those limitations can’t be overcome as in having clickable links. Amazon’s Page flip also sounds like a step in the right direction. There are solutions, someone just has to have to will and imagination to make them happen.

Greg Strandberg December 6, 2013 um 3:10 am

For the longest time I had a TOC but no link to it. It took me awhile to realize I had to to put a bookmark in Word where called "TOC" for Amazon to pick that up and allow users to use it.

It’s a pretty simple thing and I also notice that many authors don’t do it, probably for the same reason as me – they just don’t know.

Ben December 6, 2013 um 12:58 pm

All Mike is saying is this, no big publisher has figure out a formula yet because typical ebook conversion isn’t commercially successful outside of linear text books. Success in book apps are few so far, and at this rate, major publishers won’t find the answer anytime soon because they are not thinking outside of their business model nor are they willing to invest to innovate.

txvoodoo December 9, 2013 um 10:52 pm

Err, no. (to him, not you) As a knitter, crafter, and cook, ebooks have become my (virtual) library. The ease of access, the ability to highlight, increase font size, have author updates for errata, and, oh, so many other factors make them so useful. And not only self-pubbed, but from big publishers (and small). And I see this more and more within my circles of friends who do these things.

Wile Reports eBook Revenues Up 40% – The Digital Reader December 10, 2013 um 3:51 pm

[…] But the important detail is that Wiley’s digital book revenues increased by $9 million (from $22.4 million to $31.4 million). And that’s not all; Wiley also reported an additional gain of $3 million in revenue from WileyPlus, their online learning environment. This runs counter to the belief that the ebook market is flattening out; it also tends to cast doubt as to Mike Shatzkin’s claim that there is no digital market for nonfiction ebooks. […]

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