Intellectual Curiosities and Provocations

Morning In E-Bookland

By Levi Asher on Wednesday, February 11, 2009 11:36 pm

My second day at O'Reilly's Tools of Change electronic book publishing conference kicks into high gear in the early afternoon with Kassia Krozser's "Smart Women Read eBooks" panel. It's fascinating to hear from Malle Valik of Harlequin that this romance publisher has long ago figured out how to profit from electronic books, and is patiently waiting for the rest of the industry to catch up. Another good speaker is Sarah Wendell of Smart Bitches Trashy Books, who lays out in clear and concise terms what she wants from book publishers (digital, available, open, now). There's a lot of substance to this panel, because these panelists are not pondering a future with E-books but instead actually use them now.

After a coffee break I take my seat for four afternoon keynote presentations. I'm happy enough with Jeff Jarvis's perky pep talk and Sara Lloyd's impressive record of achievement at Pan Macmillan. But I'm less impressed by the third speaker, Jason Fried, who offers a very lackadaisical prescription for success in e-book publishing: you just, kinda do it, just throw a PDF up there, and then a million people will buy it. Easy!

The problem is, this little trick only works if you run a software company that has a million customers. Most of us, unlike Jason Fried, do not run a software company with a million customers. So if we "throw a PDF up there", a million people will not show up to purchase it. It's really difficult to see what practical business lesson Jason Fried intends this hungry audience to gather from his success story, though the success story gets a hearty round of applause.

I'm much more impressed by Jason Epstein, former editorial director of Random House, co-founder of the New York Review of Books, author of an excellent publishing memoir called Book Business and now a technology entrepreneur with his Espresso Book Machine. Epstein is a feisty octogenarian who manages to insult USA's Middle East policy and environmental policies several times during his excellent speech, in which he also argues for a writer's privacy, and speaks up (Cory Doctorow be damned) for the fairness of DRM. He mostly talks about his company's new Espresso Book Machine, a portable device that produces perfect individually selected paperback books from digital files in multiple languages at a low cost.

After the speech I go to see a demo of this machine and find Jason Epstein standing quietly with a companion, so I introduce myself and try to find out if he has any memories to share of his friend John Updike. Epstein quickly changes the subject, asking me what I think of his Espresso Book Machine. I tell him I'm very impressed by it, and can easily see the practical benefits of affordable, portable on-demand book publishing. I also tell him that the machine's bulky appearance seems to be turning some people off (I want to say "it looks like something from The Office", but I don't know if Jason Epstein watches The Office). He then asks me how I can make a living as a blogger (I don't, I explain), and then I take his picture and blubber a bit about how much I enjoyed Book Business and how cool it was that he founded the early paperback house Anchor Books until he gets tired of me and waves me away.


An evening of enjoyable and friendly conversation at a downtown TOC party is rudely followed by an alarm-clock morning, because I want to be back at the Marriot Marquis by 8:45 to catch Neelan Choksi of Lexcycle, the software company that created the iPhone application Stanza, currently the most popular mobile platform in the world for e-books (sorry, Kindle, but Lexcycle does release its numbers, and they're good).

I'm very fond of Lexcycle's business model, and in fact I predicted their success here fourteen months ago, seven months before Stanza was launched, when I wrote this:

Here's a hint (a hint worth more than $400) to those companies looking to profit from electronic books. Forget standalone devices. Consumers want their devices to serve multiple purposes -- camera, music player, internet browser, phone, organizer -- and that's the way we're going to want to read electronic books. If you want to succeed in the e-book business, find ways to make full-length books look good on existing high-end devices (iPhones, Blackberries).

Neelan Choksi is a charming and relaxed speaker with a strong technical background, and his rundown of Stanza's past, present and future is refreshingly sensible and bullshit-free. When he opens it up for questions I get my hand in the air before anybody else and ask my question: "I'd love to use Stanza, but I have an LG Dare". I wave my phone in the air, as if to show that I am not ashamed to admit that I'm not rocking an iPhone like everybody else at this damn conference, and Neelan consoles me by saying that the tech team is working on this right now. As a team of enterprise Java developers, he explains, they are all too happy to move off the iPhone's Objective C language for a while. Good answer, I think, because as much as I like the idea of Stanza, I just don't see why I should have to switch phones and phone providers to use it.

Second keynote speaker Nick Bilton of the "New York Times R&D Lab" is next. He's a very funny and engaging speaker, he bursts with confidence, and he's one of the only presenters at this conference who actually bothers to make his slide show look good. I'm amused to hear that the New York Times has an "R&D Lab" (and something tells me this "R&D Lab" is just Nick Bilton's office), but this smart and energetic person is probably the best choice for the thankless task of evangelizing technology at the New York Times, and I'm sure the Times is spending their money well on him (until they lay him off). Bilton's main thesis is that media companies must adapt to serve the needs of the growing generations, who demand instant media gratification at all times. Makes sense to me. I wonder what they think of Nick over at the Book Review.

The eponymous Tim O'Reilly, humble and rumpled hero of the venerable O'Reilly technical publishing firm, is the last keynote speaker this morning. He doesn't have to say much to impress; there are few book publishers in the world right now whose stature matches Tim O'Reilly, who began by cornering the market in serious Unix expertise two decades ago, and has been an evangelist and a success model ever since. O'Reilly basks in the glory for a few minutes, wrestles with his Powerpoint presentation (not his most impressive technical moment, but let's move on), and fields questions from Cory Doctorow, who is still pissed off that anybody involved with E-books would even contemplate DRM.

Because I care very much about the potential of electronic book publishing, and I believe that 2009 will be a year of remarkable success in this area, this was the right conference at the right moment. Sure, there was plenty of fluff (did we mention that Jeff Jarvis was there?), a few cookie-cutter presentations (did we mention that Jeff Jarvis was there?), some demographic weirdness, and one or two dull moments as well. Still, what I value most are the conversations I had with others who are as fascinated by this emerging technology as I am.

Also, I finally got my picture taken at a GalleyCat party. Hah.

7 Responses to "Morning In E-Bookland"

by Bill Ectric on

Sometimes you young punks need to be waved away.

But seriously, Levi, good reporting. Exciting times, indeed! I knew eventually something like the incredibly cool Espresso Book Machine would emerge, it was only a matter of time.

I guess in waiting to hear when and how this is all going to happen…I’m still waiting. To say that book fanatics would spend a lot of money on electronic books…like saying gun fanatics spend it on guns. How’s it gonna reach the vast vast majority wot don’t read? Are none of these wizards targeting the school textbook market?

And I’m not seeing how “medium” makes any difference to me, as a writer - buy a book made of paper; or an electronic one. Okay, so what; what’s the difference. But the general discussion still leads to the essential of readicity. For any reader to know what to read (be it paper, or download) some trustworthy critic or blogger has to say “read this book!” And that’s always going to be the key to getting anything into the hands of the readers.

Lastly, if the big publishing houses are taking ebooks seriously, why aren’t they offering computer downloads? It’d have to be cheap, ‘cause I can Amazon most any used book for about five bucks; and can get most of ‘em fer free at the library.

by Levi Asher on

Mikael, I guess the point isn't that it will expand reading to new audiences directly, but that it will make the experience better for anyone who reads. It will have the biggest effect on the most enthusiastic readers first -- that was pretty much the whole point of the "Smart Women Read Ebooks" panel, that dedicated readers like Harlequin customers will be the early adopters for E-books just because they are eager for anything that will improve their access to books. Whether you love Harlequin novels or not isn't the point -- it's just exciting to watch a new medium emerge, or to watch an old medium suddenly change.

by Steve Plonk on

Levi, I noticed you shaved your beard. Even so,you're looking debonaire(sic) in that photo. Yess! Wish I'd never moved south. But, hey, the cost of living was high. Now it's getting higher. But we got a little help from our friends. We miss all that snow.

by Levi Asher on

I didn't actually shave the beard, Steve -- just continuing the scruffy five-day look so as to perplex people who want to know whether I have a beard or not.

You don't have to buy a new phone and get a new service to use Stanza. You can by an iPod Touch.

by Levi Asher on

Thanks a lot, Eric -- next time I feel like throwing away $200+ and filling my pockets with yet another device I'd rather not carry around, I'll pick up an iPod Touch to go along with my perfectly good touchscreen phone.

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