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"MYTHCONCEPTONS: Debunking the e-Book Hype"

An interview with SNCR Senior Research Fellow, Danny O. Snow
on the Copyright Clearance Center's Beyond the Book Program, posted February 8, 2010

The following material is a preview of an interview with UP founder Danny O. Snow, a senior research fellow of the Society for New Communications Research and board member of the Independent Book Publishers Assocation, serving thousands of publishers across North America and around the world. The interview debunks myths about e-publishing. This is not a verbatim transcript, but rather previously prepared "talking points" used to organize the program.


In early 2010, the long anticipated migration of periodicals from print to Web is undeniably underway. Major daily newspapers including the Christian Science Monitor are already replacing unprofitable (and environmentally unfriendly) print editions with leaner, greener, more timely online distribution. As much as newsprint is a beloved institution, most informed observers agree that the transition from 'paper-n-ink' to 'bits-n-bytes' for newspapers and magazines makes good sense in today’s world - and certainly in tomorrow’s. It’s a better match between form and content.

In the book world too, the word on the street these days is e-Books, e-Books, and more e-Books. The scuttlebutt among book publishers is that they must rapidly jump on the e-Book bandwagon, or risk getting left in the dust. Having observed how record labels were blindsided by music downloading over the last decade, most book publishers are taking the danger seriously.

One motive for publishers to embrace e-Books is that sales are growing exponentially. “Convert from print to digital distribution,” they hear, “and tap a booming new market while earning as much per copy as you did with tree-Books… maybe more!” But early adopters are now learning that this widely circulated notion may be overstated for the moment, as reported below.

Likewise, book publishers are told that the emerging e-Book industry standard EPUB format is a kind of silver bullet. “Convert your production files from PDF to EPUB,” they hear, “and your books will almost magically become marketable for reading on nearly every conceivable electronic device from the Kindle to the iPhone, and everything in between!” Like the misconception that e-Books are rapidly supplanting tree-Books in the marketplace, in 2009 the full promise of EPUB is still unrealized.

This report, without denying that the time has definitely come for book publishers to take e-Books seriously, will debunk some of the more prevalent myths about e-Books under current market conditions and technological realities.

Myth #1: e-Books: will soon overtake tree-Books in the marketplace

Dan Brown’s The Lost Symbol was released simultaneously as an e-Book and a tree-Book on September 14, 2009. Many industry observers predicted watershed sales of the e-Book edition, akin to the release of Stephen King’s Riding the Bullet exclusively as an e-Book in 2002. But while the print edition of Brown’s novel broke several sales records in early release, e-Book sales represented only about 5% of total sales… about the same as other titles available in both printed and electronic form. This is not to suggest that 100,000 e-Books sold in less than two weeks (with near-zero production and shipping costs) isn’t impressive… but on the other hand, Harry Potter isn’t exactly quaking in his hobnail boots yet.

Scholarly studies suggest that there are inherent physical/cognitive differences between the way readers “interact” with paper, versus a computer screen. They conclude that e-Books will be slow to supplant tree-Books as a result.

“With the Web, people could access more information more easily than before, but though they used digital means to find and retrieve information, they still preferred to print it out on paper when they wanted to read it,” state Abigail J. Sellen and Richard H. R. Harper in The Myth of the Paperless Office (MIT Press, 2002).

Why do people embrace paper? “Paper has intrinsic properties that (1) make it easy and enjoyable to work with, (2) help us make sense of information, and (3) are conducive to certain kinds of reading and thinking. They are properties that [our] newer media, for all their wonders, have not yet learned to match,” add Sellen and Harper.

This report concludes that while e-Book sales grew from $19M in 2006 to $31M in 2007 (source: and continued their steep upward trajectory in 2008 and 2009, they probably will not pose a serious challenge to tree-Books for several years. Some informal projections for e-Book sales in 2010 range as high as $100 million -- while tree-Book sales are likely to top $25 billion. In fact, some observers speculate that e-Books may evolve as a separate market, since there is little evidence that sales of e-Books erode sales of their printed counterparts.

Myth #2: EPUB format is a cure-all

The first question that confronts book publishers who want digital distribution is whether to attempt copy protection (also called DRM or “digital rights management”). Among hardcore techies, it’s widely agreed that there are NO bulletproof solutions to prevent consumers from making pirated copies. Instead, current DRM strategies are more of a deterrent. They make it annoying, but not impossible, to make unauthorized copies. For e-Books with affordable prices, the annoyance may very well outweigh the value of what is stolen. As a result, current DRM solutions may be up to the task at hand in many cases.

Applying DRM to an e-Book greatly complicates the process of e-publishing, as this report will amplify shortly. Yet few book publishers, who increasingly view themselves as guardians of intellectual property, are comfortable with DRM-free e-Books today. Why would readers pay for something they can get for free? they ask, echoing the question posed about online music downloading a decade ago. iTunes solved the problem for musicians, by offering legal downloads for 99 cents. But in today’s world, there is not (yet) a perfect analog to iTunes for e-Books.

An early effort is, where a writer or publisher can convert a Word or RTF document to all leading e-Book formats for free. Then they can sell their e-Books at Smashwords (and soon at major e-Book sites like while retaining up to 85% of revenues. But the resulting output may not have a polished appearance or sophisticated functionality, and lacks DRM of any kind, at least for now.

If a book publisher opts for DRM, life gets more complicated. In recent years, many book publishers heard that they needed only to convert print production files (such as PDF files) to EPUB format, in order to achieve a kind of “one-stop shopping” approach to e-publishing. EPUB files, they thought, would flawlessly re-convert to other formats for the Sony e-Reader, the Palm Pilot, Microsoft Reader, etc. Unfortunately, in 2009 this is simply not yet reality.

Even with a polished EPUB file, many additional adjustments are often necessary to insure good performance on various reading devices, even before DRM is applied. The most obvious example is that Amazon’s Kindle requires at least one additional conversion to MOBI format. To sell DRM-enabled e-Books for the iPhone and iPod Touch, a PDB format file may be required. Next, after the body of the book has been converted, copy protection is finally applied.

Myth #3: e-Books Will Always be Hard to Publish

While currently unfulfilled, the promise of EPUB to someday streamline the way an e-Book will reach readers, regardless of the device on which the e-Book is read, remains compelling.

There are already signs of progress, such as Sony’s announcement that it would support EPUB for the Sony e-Reader.

Sites such as and promise to simplify life for those who want to handle file conversions in-house.

For the popular iPhone, a recent announcement from Aptara and Scrollmotion stated that they will streamline the process of publishing protected e-Books for the iPhone and iTouch.

Another promising new solution for smartphones (iPhone, Droid, Blackberry, etc.) has now become available from, which will convert a Word or PDF file into a stand-alone application for the iPhone, Droid, Blackberry, etc. They also handle the setup of the completed e-Book application at the Apple Apps Store and other outlets, with no up-front fees and minimal technical hassle:

The announcements cited above are just a few recent examples of efforts to smooth the bumpy road that book publishers must travel today en route to digital distribution of their books. More are sure to follow, as the market for e-Books grows, adding incentives for further innovation and streamlining of both business and technical challenges.

Myth #4: The Market for e-Books is Peaking

In spite of the news that Dan Brown’s new bestseller has seen only 5% of its early sales as downloads, remember that the number of e-Book reading devices in use is virtually certain to grow rapidly.

At present, there are fewer than 5 million Kindle readers in use, but the customer base is expanding. The mighty iPhone and iTouch jointly boast more than 50 million users in 2009, and more than 2 billion downloads from the Apple Apps Store to date. Rival smartphones such as the Droid and Palm Pre promise to add millions more consumers, hungry for content to download, in 2010 and following. The unveiling of Apple's long-awaited iPad in January 2010 will add momentum to the trend.


e-Books solve serious problems in traditional publishing: overprinting; the cost of shipping books back and forth between warehouses and stores during a time of climbing fuel prices and growing focus on air quality; and the bad bookstore practice of over-ordering, then returning unsold books are all eliminated by digital distribution. These benefits virtually insure continuing growth for e-Books.

The world of publishing is changing in 2010, with real and lasting results after years of wishful thinking. Music, radio and TV, newspapers and magazines are already firmly shifting to online distribution. Books will follow soon, though no one yet knows exactly when, or in which of several possible directions… or whether e-Books will evolve as a separate market entirely.

The landscape for e-Book publishing is growing and changing by the day. It isn’t easy to navigate yet, due to a myriad of lingering uncertainties about hardware, software and market factors. But the future growth of e-Books is clear, and points toward leaner, greener and more efficient ways for publishers to reach readers in the years ahead.

To hear the full interview, visit the Copyright Clearance Center's Beyond the Book Program.

About the Guest:

Harvard graduate Danny O. Snow is a senior research fellow of The Society for New Communications Research (, a Palo Alto based think tank dedicated to the advanced study of new and emerging media. He founded Unlimited Publishing LLC, "The Professional POD Book Publisher™," in 2000. Snow also works as a consultant to fellow authors and publishers, as a journalist, and as an industry commentator. He is widely quoted by print, broadcast and online media about new publishing and communication technologies. In 2009, he was elected to the board of directors of the Independent Book Publishers Association, serving thousands of publishing firms across North America and around the world. FMI:

Danny O. Snow
Society for New Communications Research

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