The unevenly distributed ebook future

(This is the fifth post in a series on the publishing industry’s new product categories.)

Data serves the status quo.

Anything new or undiscovered by definition does not have a data footprint. Existing data collection and filtering techniques have biases that do not take the unknown or unfamiliar into account.

Unless you have a clear theory and a well-designed experiment to prove or disprove it, the only thing more data will tell you is that your preconceptions and existing biases are correct. With enough noise, your brain will find it easy to ‘discover’ patterns and correlations that support whatever it is you want supported. Data, on its own, serves your worldview.

This is the problem with almost all analytics systems in common use. Unless you are running a tightly controlled experiment, the only thing data will do is paint you a general picture of the status quo; it’ll give you the shape of, say, your web traffic—the ‘sources’ of the nameless mass that fills your comment threads with tripe—but it won’t help you discover any of the ‘whys’. Why are they here? Why did they read it? Why did they comment? Why did they (or didn’t) come back?

Why didn’t they buy my book?

To pretend that an A/B test can tell you why a reader decided not to buy the ebook edition of a footballer’s biography is to accept a worldview that is incompatible with the very act of publishing longform prose in the first place.

For a simple A/B test to be able to tell you why a reader made the decision not to choose a book or a format you have to believe that the human mind is a simplistic machine, driven entirely by pre-programmed responses to external stimuli, to be hacked by an enterprising grifter. A mind like that is never going to comprehend, let alone enjoy, extended piece of text. A humanity like that would never have risen out of the mud to read or write books.

You can A/B test small theories and small issues, but it is not an experimental model that will help you find answers to complex questions or understand complex problems.

Before we do anything else, when we have an issue, we need to come up with a theory—an idea for how things work that you can then explore and try to prove or disprove.

Then you need to figure out an experiment that specifically disproves that theory, which is sometimes next to impossible because, we in publishing don’t have access to the environment where the experiments need to be implemented and run.

If this method seems slow and awkward (the only conclusive result you can have is partial disproval, not confirmation), then that’s because it is. It’s also the only way to know. Anything else is guesswork.

It’s a classic quote that is tailor-made for the modern internet: short, facile, glib, simplistic to the point of being useless.

The future is already here — it’s just not very evenly distributed.

—William Gibson

The problem with the line is that it’s using the term future as a shorthand for technology and the changes it engenders—equating it with progress.

It has a simple message: progress remains a two-dimensional timeline (past → present → future), but that places, markets, and cultures are unevenly distributed along that timeline. Crap countries are stuck in the past. Good countries have a head start on the future.

As such it isn’t much of an improvement over the standard progress myth. In fact, it makes it worse by adding a dollop of neo-colonialism into the mix. “They are savages because they just haven’t had their share of our ‘future’ yet—not because a broken global economic system is holding them in debt-slavery”.

The publishing industry has bought into this idea wholesale. Some publishing markets are, according to this worldview, further ahead on the progress timeline than others. It also implies that advancement along the timeline is inevitable, even if it progresses at varying speeds. Romance and other genre fiction tend to dominate ebook sales and so must have more ‘future’. Non-fiction less so and must therefore have less ‘future’ and more of that crippling ballast called ‘past’. Big mainstream titles hit the ebook market in seemingly unpredictable ways. Some garner decent ebook sales while others seem to sell only in print. There, the ‘future’ seems to be randomly distributed, like a stress nosebleed over a term paper.

This, obviously, implies that the ebook will either eventually dominate universally or at least capture the same large percentage uniformly across the market.

I don’t think that’s going to happen.

The various publishing markets differ in fundamental ways that won’t be changed by ebooks. As others have said, ‘ebooks are terrific and haven’t changed a thing’.

Some will switch entirely to ebooks. Some partially. Some almost not at all.

If you’re going to generalise about readers, try not to generalise too much and stick to specific tastes and behaviours. Anybody claiming or even implying that an entire age group or economic class broadly behaves in the same way clearly hasn’t been observing book buyers for a long time. Claiming that those under twenty-four prefer print or that the more affluent prefer ebooks is useless even if it were true (probably isn’t) because those categories are too broad for us to guess what sort of books they are buying. Knowing that buyers of a specific genre prefer one format over another is clearly more useful than finding out that two-thirds of the young people who couldn’t avoid your survey didn’t like ebooks. One is actionable. The other isn’t.

It would be even better if we were able to make an educated guess of how a genre’s readers break down into behaviour groups:

  • Does a single kind of reader dominate? (casual readers, heavy readers, blockbusters only, etc.)
  • Or, is the readership more varied than that?
  • Is the distribution of the kinds of readers reliable across the genre or do sub-genres or individual titles differ substantially?

We are largely working blind here and unless you manage to get a critical mass of readers to buy from you directly and then read the books in an environment you control (good luck with that), it will be impossible to get even vaguely accurate guesses.

Some titles aren’t going to sell well as ebooks and there isn’t anything we can do about it except pray they turn into blockbusters. Because, if the title does turn out to be a blockbuster, you can always pay for a proper ebook version once the money starts rolling in.

The converse also holds true for ebook-heavy genres where the credo “ebook-first, print if popular” might well be printed above the door of every publisher (self- or other-) in the future.

If you have a title that is:

  • Visually rich.
  • Or, poses in some way to be an ebook production challenge.
  • And, is likely to appeal mostly to a print buying audience (this can happen for a variety of reasons).

Then the logical action to take is to quite simply not make an ebook version. Unless a high quality ebook is an almost free byproduct of your production workflow spending money on creating an ebook version of a title like that is likely to be a waste of money.

Conversely, print will not be viable for some markets within the industry, generally those dominated by ebook readers or have been thoroughly disrupted by apps and websites.

Either way, the single biggest concern publishers should have is to figure out ways to either discover or change the composition and shape of their readership. Making decisions on digital production will be next to impossible without that knowledge.