In his article E-books: publishers need to get with the program, I suspect Mark Davis has slightly trapped himself in too many assumptions about this coming new medium — because what is to come, starting this year, will be quite unlike anything that has been before, including Kindle.

For example, his comment “lavishly illustrated large-format books, for example — print will remain king” is risky. I understand what he means — I have a lot of such books. On the other hand it seems likely the new iPad has a luscious full-colour screen instead of Kindle’s grey-on-grey e-ink.

In contrast to the mono-functional Kindle, the iPad will allow video or panoramic scans or alt.viewing angles, GPS tagging and interactivity and who knows what else that books — and the Kindle — cannot. Along with the indexing, annotation (post-it notes), underlining, dictionary, etc, that Kindle provides.

Also the irritating habit in such books of providing incomplete information on those gorgeous pictures will be overcome by the e-book version, which will have automated caption information and hyperlinks to even more detail for geeks such as me. (For more on this, see my Amazon review/rant of a nominally $299 book, here.)

And while I like to have a physical library of such books, equally I am increasingly frustrated by their bulk and awkwardness, not to mention cost. Gen X and Y are even more so inclined — they want to have it all with them, all the time. They and most readers are infrequent buyers of those expensive books but if available for a $9.99 or even a $19.99 download on their fave portable media, it could really open up those specialised markets to a much broader one. Print books often have to be parsimonious in the use of quality colour photos or diagrams as these are a major cost.

Think glossy art, architecture, travel, cookery, and a multitude of specialist niches in which cost is a dampener on demand.  In contrast to Davis, I suspect the revolution for this niche may be even greater.

On the issues relating to our own local publishing industry — in as much as any of it is locally owned or controlled — I expect they will have their usual conservative head in the sand and miss this boat. Though there are arguably greater opportunities for small Australian publishers, what is about to happen may be just too traumatic to deal with.  Although it revolves around the technology as just discussed, the real revolution lies in author rights. Amazon/Kindle have just increased their cut to the author from 25% to 70%, mirroring the 70:30 author:retailer cut on the Apple App model.

This is not for publishers but rather authors directly — i.e. effectively self-published authors, who thereby hold their own copyright. This is as clear a message as it can get: publishers and all the other middle men (some of whom are about to be cut out completely) need to make much better deals for the authors and content creators.

For established authors with a back list, currently there are critical court cases pending in which publishing houses are claiming that existing author agreements encompass e-publishing by default.  Obviously, very big bucks are involved if publishers can, in one swoop, eliminate the costly business of printing, shipping, distributing and retailing yet continue to pay authors the meagre minority slice of the pie as they presently do, on an entire back-catalogue of works. (For more press coverage see here and here, and my previous comments in Crikey.)

But for future authors it is clear. Seriously, why would you put yourself on the wrong side of the negotiating table, and publish a book in Australia with such a small market, such a miserable royalty and all the compromises if/when the book goes international (including the inevitable remainders problem)?

Maybe authors will still have a local publisher/editor but any arrangement is going to have to be close to that 70:30 split because the power relationship is set to change fundamentally.

Peter Fray

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