Building the Perfect E-Reader

The ereaderspublishing world has been aflutter over the quick rise of the e-reader. With Apple announcing its forthcoming tablet, Amazon through three versions of the Kindle already, and Barnes and Noble dropping their Nook like it’s hot, there’s plenty of change, competition, and innovation. But when will they get it just right?

When the Kindle first came out, I had no intention of buying one. “I’m old fashioned!” I yelled from my rocking chair. “I need to feel the book in my hand!” *Ting* went the spittoon.

When I landed a job that required a few hours of reading, mostly from Word documents, a day, the Kindle suddenly made more sense. I sucked it up, laid down the $350 or whatever it was at the time, and was mostly happy. Sure, I was getting tons more reading done on the subway. Sure, I was breezing through submissions. There was a small part of me that wished I could take notes and edit, but who was I to gripe?

Well, I griped when Amazon lowered the price a month after I bought my Kindle. Now more people are griping as newer technology looks to make the Kindle a thing of the past, as Michael pointed out in a post from earlier this month. Now we have the Nook, which has some nice features, like a touchscreen, color navigation, and the ability to lend books to friends, which, honestly, is pretty huge. But they’ve also dropped the ball by not being able to view and open Word documents, meaning I’d never use one (to date, I’ve purchased one book for my Kindle).

So help me out here…whether you love ’em, hate ’em, or chase after them with torches and pitchforks, what would you like to see in your ideal e-reader?

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  2. You *would* ask this when I am supposed to be working. I’ve been thinking a lot about this lately, though, because my critique group is in full manuscript-review mode and we’ve each been spending hundreds of dollars on photocopies. We were thinking we could buy Kindles and come out ahead in the long run.

    But it’s really NOT a good device for editing. You can take notes and download them from the Amazon site, but they do not correspond with the original manuscript page and they’re separated from the context, so it can be hard to remember what the notes mean. That high school kid who got $250K when Amazon nuked his 1984 notes…unbelievable. He should return all but two cents.

    A really good e-reader would in some ways be superior because it would let me do what I currently do with books, but more easily and quickly. Sort of like the computer beats the typewriter and the digital camera beats the film one.

    The Kindle has serious deficiencies. The organization stinks. They strip away the page numbers of the original book. Stupid. What if a book club wants to talk about one edition and someone else bought it on a Kindle? It’s not a far-out user scenario and the numbers are in the data, so they’re just throwing them out. Also, if they ever want to make inroads into the academic market, that feature will be necessary.

    It’s also clumsy and slow when it comes to organizing books.

    Manuscripts I’ve read are mixed in with fiction which is mixed with nonfiction. You can poke around and organize stuff and save it to an SD chip, but what I really want is something that resembles my bookshelf, preferably with a touch screen.

    I want to see the spines of books, too. Not just their text.

    And speaking of text, what’s with the ugly font on the Kindle? You don’t see a lot of books in a slab-serif font and there is a reason for that. I’d like to see the book design preserved somewhat in the digital version. It’s about honoring the people who did the work. The Kindle doesn’t appreciate any of that, and you should *see* how some covers have been mangled.

    I do like the book-sharing features of the Nook, even if the name conjures all sorts of dirty images (Oh, I’ve got that in my Nook! Want to try it!).

    Anyway, our critique group isn’t buying in yet. The readers just aren’t where they need to be to justify the price.


  3. It’s not about Kindle or Nook. They’re transitional technology. The iPhone is the prototype. We’re going to want an everything device, not a device for this and a device for that. The closest thing so far is iPhone.

    Of course the iPhone is just an early stage everything device, improvements will be necessary.

    Amazon and B&N are performing an important function, weaning readers off paper. And I think they’ll eventually turn against the publishers and start doing business directly with writers.

    But the end-state is a direct author-to-reader delivery system that not only eliminates retailers, but publishers as well.

    I keep telling the same story because it’s prophetic: my son, when he was just 10, read my 600 plus manuscript for HUNGER on his iPhone. There are two important bits of data in that story: 1) Kids have no loyalty to paper, rather the opposite. 2) That was an example of the future business model: author to reader with no steps in between.

    The question is how to make money on that author-to-reader model. We either charge for downloads, go to a subscription model, or place advertising. My guess is all three models in different situations.

    Publishers, if they hope to survive, need to create new types of book. They need e-book formats that are editing heavy with video and music and all the add-ons that would play to a publishing company’s strength. Because if it’s just words then writers no longer need publishers.


  4. You know… I noticed that the Nook can’t open Word documents, BUT, when a simple print driver enables anyone to turn a Word document into a PDF in a matter of seconds, I figured it wasn’t that big a deal, since you can’t edit on there anyway.

    But then, you’re an agent, and I know how the seconds add up. (But you DO know that you can get these free print drivers that do this, right? I use PrimoPDF.)


    • Kathleen: I guess I’m just wary of extra steps, although, in the end, it’s all loads easier than printing manuscripts out, which I’ve never had to do in my agenting career. It’s moot anyway, since I already own a Kindle and it’s pretty good for my purposes. When I want to edit, I do so on my computer, anyway.

      Michael: I agree with your points. In fact, last fall I was reading manuscripts on my tiny Blackberry screen. In Japan, cell phone novels are incredibly popular and some have crossed over into mainstream publishing. You’re right–the model is shifting. My only hope is that if things do eventually go straight from author to consumer, there’s still a place for me in all of it. Otherwise, I better get writing.


  5. I would like to see a CHEAP e-reader because the only time I can ever see myself using one is on a long airplane trip. I’m not investing over $100 just for that one limited convenience.


  6. At the risk of incurring the wrath of Drake, I have to disagree with Michael Grant’s contention that the future is an all-in-one device.

    If this were the case, PC games would be bigger the console games. And there would be no market for SLR digital cameras, not when you can snap a photo on your phone. Specialized devices tend to do a better job than multipurpose ones.

    With books, the future = being able to access them on whatever device we want, whether it’s from an e-reader, an iPhone, an xBox or what have you. Some people will love all-in-one devices. Others won’t. The smart strategy is to enable access when and where people want it.

    Smart publishers will wise up to this. Where the new money will be made is in the distribution of books onto emerging platforms and through new distribution points.

    I also disagree that publishers only package or that writers really could make a living without them. They distribute (via other companies, but still). They edit, both individual manuscripts and lines. This is value added. There may be some writers who can function and thrive entirely independently. I’d say they’re incredibly rare.

    My analogy: many people can sew. Some even sell hand-made wares on Etsy and the like. But most of us still want clothes by designers. They look better. They fit better. And there is a prestige component.

    Look, we can all publish our books already ourselves through assorted sites. That we’re not doing it already suggests we respect the value of the publisher and agent (even if it’s sort of a hobby to bitch about the system).


  7. Hey, I’m with the guy who yelled from his rocking chair. I AM old fashioned. And I read about one book at a time. Call me crazy but I could not care less about any doodad that delivers books to me in digital format. Of course, I fought having an Ipod for years…. 😉


  8. I’m on the old fashioned side of things too — although I agree with the statement that kids have no allegiance to paper — and I do believe that one day there will be an all-in-one device.

    I hate to think of my kids growing up and not having real books on their bookshelves at home, but I also never thought the vinyl records I spent my hard earned babysitting money on would someday be replaced by a digital file.

    Hopefully our eyes will evolve to the point where we don’t all go blind from the electric glow of a reading device. We’ll probably grow pointy fingers too for texting purposes.

    This debate does make me wonder what the future will hold for picture books, if the printed page slowly becomes obsolete. What’s THAT e-reader going to look like?


  9. I’m still waiting on a waterproof version. If I drop a novel in the bathtub, at most, I’m out $20. 🙂


  10. I think I’m going to find out if it’s possible to sell some books on my own. (Not my currently contracted series, obviously.)

    I’ll let you know if it works.


  11. Michael, you’ll probably be able to sell some from the position of a recognized name. Probably won’t be on a par with what you’d earn from a publisher (for lots of reasons, among them that this mode of selling story is in its infancy), but you could probably get some money, sure.

    The real challenge would be to sell ebooks as an unknown. How would that work? Sure, Stephen King will have no problem. But Steven Quing? He may find it harder to get his voice and name out there.

    I think Martha Bee is right all around.

    Of course, it’s early yet.


  12. KA Applegate and Michael Grant, that does give us a leg up. Yeah, it would be a lot harder for a newbie.

    Here are some things I can do selling books online on my own: monthly book series. Bookstores hate them so publishers won’t do them but the readership still wants them.

    And making books available throughout the entire world. English-speaking world to begin with, so that North America, UK, Oz and NZ. But also India and substantial populations elsewhere.

    Sell books into markets as yet unreached. China, to take the obvious example.

    And since I’d be cutting publishers, wholesalers and retailers out of the loop, I can sell for a much lower price.

    Take GONE and HUNGER. 1000 pages, give or take total. (Only for purposes of illustration, obviously.) Split them into 12 monthly installments of 90 pages each. Pay for some artwork. Pay for PayPal. Web hosting. And some Google advertising.

    Now, if I sell 100,000 dead tree copies of GONE/HUNGER and earn a 1.75 each in royalty I’ve netted 175,000. Or I split it into monthlies, sell each for 3.99, with a profit of $3.00 each, I only need to sell 60,000 units, or 5,000 a month — throughout the entire world — to equal the print deal.

    (All numbers are for example only.)

    But wait, there’s more. Because then I can still sell dead tree rights and foreign dead tree rights and probably get better deals because I’d have demonstrated that there was a market.

    Monthly series, even weekly mini-series, instant worldwide penetration, the ability to undercut Amazon’s prices, advertising that piggy-backs off existing name recognition, dead tree rights, foreign dead tree rights, direct control of merch, and possible movie sales.

    I’m just saying: it’s interesting.


  13. It is interesting (enough so that I HTML’d an itlaic), but, really, your numbers are inflated.

    First, $3.99 is way too much. You should be charging, max, a buck.

    Second, you’d need to somehow get the word out. As ridiculously inefficient as regular old publishing is, it does put the book into the places where the leading edge of the readership shops for their next big thing. And their blabbermouthy ways create an audience that, one hopes, builds.

    So you’d need to somehow pay for some kind of marketing push to get the word out. Let’s just be cheap and say that you’ll spend sixty grand a year on a freelance marketer who will find novel ways to get the word out to your audience that the newest installment of DONE is available for a dollar a pop.

    Never mind getting the rest of the world. That will follow the US. First, you have to get the US.

    So, instead of your sales of 5,000/month, you’re up to 15,000/month, but, considering the cost of your marketing team and web team and, god knows what else, the cost of the bourbon you keep slipping on to company invoices, we should really be talking 20,000 downloads a month.

    Of course, readerships are fickle. If you spike too early, you end up with high sales on the initial titles and a readership that drops off the longer the series goes on. You have die-hards, sure, but that audience is core and dependable—we’ll say one-quarter. And then you have a rotating audience of, say, one-half (made up of those who are discovering the series for the first time and sampling, and those who were along for a while but can’t be bothered). And there is that other quarter, whose attention you grab for just a moment before they move on to the latest from Darren Shan King Meyer Patterson. Because those readers? They don’t give a damn about brand.

    So, to be safe, you need 25,000 readers each month base. Counting on a rotation of 10,000 or so readers. And you’ve got the added headache of managing your various marketing teams, etc.

    Now, granted, you and K. are pros the likes of which the world rarely sees, writers who can turn out truly fabulous books at a speed that others can only dream about when they are deep in the hairy embrace of Morpheus, but … even then, you’ll find more of your writing time taken up with managing the brand.

    Unless you hire someone to do that. (Add another forty grand for that person, or more if you want someone truly capable whom you trust. And then add on more readers.)

    Now, a … let’s say “pleasant” sell-through on a teen novel? 15,000 copies. That’s when publishers breathe easy. To get, say, 30,000 copy sell-through? That’s a big push. To get anything greater than that is an enormous push and amazing luck.

    You require a readership that is in the big push arena, without any physical product. (And, unlike bands, you can’t go on tour and sing the book and sell experiences, so to hell with that hook.) So I think you’d actually need an even higher expected base.

    I’m just saying: It’s interesting. And good luck.

    (Actually, this was so satisfying to work through that I think I may excerpt all of our comments as a future blog post here. Because the economics of the thing are both its appeal and its Achille’s heel.)


  14. Reminder, Michael. You are on VACATION. Slainte and all that. But anyhoo, did everyone see the Cory Doctorow free e-book experiment? An ongoing saga at PW.

    Also, Michael Grant: beware trying to get intellectual property into the Chinese market. Piracy is rampant there, at least in software.

    Which is another thing to think about. Is it OK for people to share the stuff they download? With 10 friends? 1 million people on a shareware site?

    I do think some of the marketing you could get your loyal readers to undertake, particularly with an affiliate program that rewarded them with free books for rounding up subscribers.

    You could also band together with other authors who have audience overlap and form your own ad-hoc virtual imprint, sharing costs of software development, etc.


  15. Michael:

    We have some existing fan bases we can reach out to with nothing more than easily searchable Google Ad Words.

    I can charge 3.99 because each download will be a book. I didn’t mean to imply I was serializing GONE type mega books. Rather we’re talking about the Goosebumps length. Stine was charging $3.99 20 years ago. So I believe we can get $3.99 for an ebook because Amazon is looking to 10 bucks as a price point. So $3.99 looks like a hell of a bargain. And it’s well below the threshold of pain for parental credit card holders. It’s three DRM-free songs on iTunes. It’s a latte.

    Readership does drop off over time. Animorphs #1 broke 2 million books, Animorphs 54 was like a quarter mil. But that was 54 regular books and 9 long forms. Goosebumps and Babysitters Club both went longer. I wouldn’t try to repeat that, I’d run 12 volumes in 12 months.

    As for getting ripped off: it’s the price of doing business. Look, it already happens, it’s just legitimized. It’s called a library. They buy 1 copy and let 50 people read it for free. There are some simple countermeasures that set the theft bar a little higher — they don’t stop the serious hackers, but like I said: the price of doing business.

    Let’s say I pay a Mandarin translator 10 grand. For that I buy access to a gigantic market. I don’t need to pay off party functionaries, don’t need retailers, don’t distribution, don’t have tariffs to worry about. As long as I don’t write about Falun Gong I can sell downloads. The big problem would be repatriating the income.

    Just for fun, by the way, make it a Cayman’s corporation.


  16. Ability to highlight, as in college textbooks.
    Ability to copy and paste –
    Fast page turns.
    Voice recording (again, college use)
    Note taking.



  17. Michael:

    So has that easily-reachable-via-Google-ad-sense fanbase been the one that we can thank for GONE and ROSCOE RILEY squatting atop the bestseller lists lo these many months? Or have you not tapped that wealth of money-dropping readers just yet?

    But seriously, I believe you’re right that they are out there. I just think you’ve shaved off the difficulties and true costs here to make it all seem more appealing.

    Martha’s idea of a loose consortium of writer pals sharing costs, if it gets big enough, will require even more management, and begins to resemble a publisher.

    Hmm. Hmm. Hmm.

    Time to eat some breakfast.


  18. And I still feel you’re wrong about $3.99. Collectors won’t pay four bucks to collect a virtual series, so you’ve lost the fetishistic aspect of the book experience.

    We used to pay nearly four bucks for singles, too, before iTunes. Ask for that for a download, and listeners would scream bloody murder.


  19. LOVE the interesting posts about the ebook series. I agree that the $1 seems more likely. My kids collect their series books for a higher price, but they have a physical bookshelf full of the books to stare at and touch. And also, many are purchased via Scholastic Book Club and the price is more like $3.99 there for the physical copy. The ebook doesn’t merit the inflated price. However, still a cool concept. I remember wondering WHY on earth more people couldn’t come up with The Green Mile idea when it was out. Seems that efollowers could be built up each month for a good story.


  20. I think $3.99 is probably about right for an ebook sold directly from the author.

    – People are already paying $9.99, even for YA novels, which are generally priced at 2/3 the cost of an adult novel. (So really, MG and YA novels selling at this price are the ONLY ones Amazon isn’t selling at a loss and agents should ask a higher percentage on ebook sales, ahem…)

    – A single song is not the equivalent entertainment experience of a novel. An album is probably closer. But a movie on demand is about $4.99 and that might even be the closest comparison.

    – There are costs of selling that make a $1 price unsustainable unless you are, say, tacking it on to a monthly cell phone or cable fee. Paypal charges something like 25 cents + a 2.5 percentage fee for every transaction. Credit card companies, too, which is why cafes add a surcharge for purchases under $5.

    Also, the $3.99 paperbacks from the Scholastic Book Club are not collectors’ items. And they’re not made from huge, huge novels, either. $6.99 is probably the lowest price you’d see on something the size of an M. Grant opus.

    I still like the idea of an authors consortium. Yeah, it sounds more like a publisher. This, to me, is not a problem. It’s how you make your investments in infrastructure scale. It’s simply publishing in a new format and data tracking online is much easier than in the physical world.

    The really hand-wavy part is the “reaching out via Google” business. Google doesn’t reach out. Customers reach in and they’re probably looking for “ponography.” If you want to reach readers, you have to have a distribution platform: a highly trafficked website, a cable or cellphone subscriber base, an e-mailed newsletter, maybe even an affiliate network. If this were easy, a lot of people would be doing it successfully.

    Having been the editor of one of the world’s largest websites, it’s something I’ve thought about a lot over the years.

    For me, though, it comes down to how I want to spend my time: writing. I make a good living at it. I could probably make more, but at the cost of the work I love. Yeah, I’d love to be rich, but I’d rather be writing. So I think about this stuff from a career longevity perspective rather than a business-development one. When there is a good online publishing house with smart editors, crafty marketers and good distribution, I’ll be paying close attention. Your mileage may vary.


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  22. Michael:

    Roscoe had no connection to the easily searchable terms — too young. And GONE, well, we probably should have put it out in K’s name. The number of devoted Animorphs fans is still scarily large. Most aged out of course, but enough to provide an initial spark of interest.

    Marketing is always the problem, granted. I don’t minimize it, believe me, it’s the scary part. The writing’s easy, the market for a monthly book series is out there, and there are no serious tech issues to deal with. And whatever the eventual price point is it will be dramatically cheaper than Amazon. But becoming visible while at the same time convincing readers to make the leap to ebook, that’s the big one.

    We’re working on that.


  23. Still waiting for a good doctor or optometrist to weigh in on the impact excessive screening/scrolling (e-reading) may have on children. Should the industry serve as an advocate if there are indeed potential adverse ramifications?


  24. martha, yes you’re right about Scholastic. Not collector’s items. My point came out wrong. Mainly I was saying that at least it gives the kids a collection of sorts of a series. My point about Michael’s idea is that his would be one story, put out in continuing issues. So I thought that $1 sounded reasonable, and $3.99 seemed way off. At the end, the book would cost $30 for 30 issues. Steven King doesn’t even get that!
    That’s all.


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