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Jon Katz: Book Publishers Still Don't Get It

by Stephen Pizzo
04/06/2000

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When book publisher Simon & Schuster decided to offer a short novel by author Stephen King exclusively online, the company saw it as a way to draw attention to its growing stable of traditional printed books, some of which are also being offered now in electronic or e-book format.

What they got was more akin to a riot at an over-sold rock concert. Servers downloading King's 16,000-word novelette were smoked within minutes. Weeks later, the company, along with the rest of us, is still trying to figure out what it all meant.

Was the public's reaction to Riding the Bullet just a Stephen King phenomenon, or did it reveal an enormous pent-up demand for electronic books?

Last month author and media commentator Jon Katz published a long critique of electronic book publishing on Slashdot. Katz says that if publishing houses think they can just distribute print books online, they're making the same expensive mistake that newspaper publishers made by misunderstanding the interactivity of the Net.

Katz is an author of nine old-fashioned paper books, including the latest, Geeks. But he believes that old-economy publishers -- both newspaper and book publishers -- have completely missed the point when it comes to electronic publishing. Are they looking at it solely as a new distribution medium? Or (worse) are they threatened by how the economics of non-paper books might affect their businesses?

Katz says the first thing they need to do is understand that the reason people flock to the Internet is not because it is a billboard or a one-way pipeline into their heads, but rather because it is an interactive medium. Katz says that unless publishers understand this they will continue to miss the whole point. And, if they continue to miss the whole point long enough authors and readers will simply use the net to route around, past, and over these lumbering dinosaurs.

Katz Interview at a Glance:

Katz on repeating the mistakes newspaper publishers made before them:
I think the closest cousin to book publishing is the newspaper industry, which was another industry that was very slow to react to the Internet, did not like the Internet, and when it did react, I think it reacted in a way that ended up cannibalizing its own product. You know, these institutions like publishing and newspapers, it's fine to experiment with the publishing, and I'm truly not critical of that impulse, but the basic idea seems to be the reading of interactivity, and the Internet is if you take your product and you just dump it online, and then they haven't figured out how to charge the Stephen King thing through. I think they really undervalue the whole idea of the book. I think they end up cannibalizing their own book. I mean half the people who got the Stephen King book got it free, and so are they now going to turn around and pay 15 bucks for an e-book or a rocket book?

I don't think it's clear that this does anything for publishing. It doesn't really move the form online, and to me the most dangerous thing about it is I think he's misperceived what interactivity really is. …The newspaper industry is really a wonderful example of that, because something like 2,000 Web sites are attached to papers now, and I believe two of them are profitable -- The Wall Street Journal and the San Jose Mercury News [Mercury Center]. And none of them makes any money, and newspapers have over the last five years, they still exist, they're still a force, but they've become marginalized. They're just not as important to people. And this is despite spending billions of dollars putting up these kinds of useless, static Web sites. If you took that same money, and I'm sure you know this from your experience, and you applied it to making papers better, they might be in a much stronger and more vibrant position.

I'm really far from convinced that sort of dumping books online usually for free in this form. I think what you're selling is fat e-mail, not books, and I also think you're sending a message to the public that if the publisher doesn't care about the form of the book, why on earth should you?

Katz on e-publishing and interactivity:
Publishing houses don't even link their Web sites to anything else on the Web. They think their secrets are going to spill out. I think interactivity involves many, many things. It involves the way the company is structured. It involves whether people are listening to their customers or paying attention or interacting with them. Publishing is one of those institutions that's almost medieval. You have a handful of people cloistered in New York, and nobody knows how they make decisions. The process is completely closed to the public.

And the reason that they dislike it [interactivity] so much is that if you're a newspaper editor or publisher or book publisher, you have to give up some power. You have to be less powerful. You have to listen more. You have to share a bit. You're still more powerful than your customers, but you're not as powerful as you used to be. And what we see about -- you know, corporations dread this because they're afraid it's going to cost money, they're going to lose control. I think the structure of the modern corporation is not inherently creative. These companies basically were designed for selling cereal, not for creating books.

You really need to let the public in. Let people into the process. Open it up. That's what interactivity is, and this thing with Stephen King is a classic stunt. It reminds me so much of newspapers saying, "Okay, we're going to join the 21st century. Let's throw up a Web site." Now they're giving away their products free, and they're saying to people in the bargain, "You don't even need to subscribe to us anymore." And then they wonder why this isn't good business.

Katz on doing it right:
I think this culture can make a lot of money for companies. People are willing to pay for things. People are willing to pay for things providing they get choice and options. And the CD metaphor is a wonderful metaphor for what open source is doing to business. These people are lying, are not saying they'll never pay for anything. They're saying they're not going to pay 15 bucks to buy 12 songs, only three of which they want. But they will pay smaller amounts to build their own CDs, and buy songs that they do want. And so, the obvious answer for a company that's awake is to put this stuff out there in a way that gives the customers many, many more options. You know, make your own CDs, or buy a song as opposed to a whole album. Buy small chunks for a cheaper amount. You want to give people reasons for paying money -- make it cheaper, make it effective. And you want to condition people to paying for music, but in a fair way, in a way that benefits them.

Katz on convergence:
I feel with publishing, I don't see any sign that they even grasp what interactivity is, and I think the problem with publishing novellas like this is they create the illusion that they're actually doing something different, when in fact they're just doing something very similar that's not going to work for them. I would like to see publishing find some format that mixes the digital distribution along with print, and actually enhances the form of the book.

Another obvious boon of publishing online is they can keep books in print forever. You know, that they don't have to go out of print. You know, I have one of my books that was actually literally shredded, and taken to warehouses and melted down. [And] you can update books. You can show the public how writing is done, let them participate. You can use them to advance interest in a book. There's lots of things you can do online with book publishing.

Katz on e-book technologies:
Certain [electronic] tablet forms that I can see working, because they are in effect like a book. They open up, and you go from one page to another. You can store a bunch of books and matter in there. They're designed actually to look like books. So in a way, some of those ideas are not destroying the idea of the book, they are actually just moving the form of the book to a different form. And I can see people commuting on a train or, you know, having a tablet that has a couple of books in it and scrolling page to page. I mean I don't think people are going to want to read books on PalmPilot or a computer.

Katz's advice to publishers:
I think it's almost a panic response. I think publishing would do very well to sort of stop, pause, and experiment very, very cautiously before they make such a radical statement about their own value of books.

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