Transcript: Instant Books Now Breaking Speed Limits

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Interview with Jeremy Greenfield, editorial director, Digital Book World

For podcast release Monday, July 22, 2013

KENNEALLY: Instant books that seize the moment and deliver long-form in-depth coverage of a late-breaking news story are hardly new. As long ago as the early days of the space age and the JFK assassination at least, book publishers pushed their printing presses into warp speed to capitalize on the public’s hunger to learn what lay behind the headlines. In 2013, the instant book remains in demand, but that demand must be satisfied more quickly than ever.

Welcome to Copyright Clearance Center’s podcast series. I’m Christopher Kenneally for Beyond the Book. What once took weeks and months now may take only days, or even hours. While as readers, we’ve clearly gained in the quantity of information, the effect on information quality is less obvious. Jeremy Greenfield, the editorial director for Digital Book World, is asking if we’re getting writing that’s nutritious or the literary equivalent of fast food. Jeremy Greenfield, welcome to Beyond the Book.

GREENFIELD: Thanks, Chris. Good to be here.

KENNEALLY: It’s nice to have you join us again. Jeremy, you took a look at this for a blog post in Forbes, looking at this whole quick-to-market e-books that are very much now the norm and not the exception. Perhaps we should fill people in. What kind of projects are we talking about?

GREENFIELD: There are a couple different kinds. I would say two main kinds. One is that there’s a news event that is happening right now. It’s happening very, very quickly, and it just broke, and you’ll see e-books pop up within a couple of weeks, or even sometimes days, of that news event.

A good example is Jeremy Lin. Jeremy Lin was something that nobody predicted, nobody knew about, and all of a sudden, he was on the national scene. In the past, you probably would’ve seen, on the inside, book proposals start to come down through agents and to publishers within just a couple of weeks.

But now what you’re seeing is actual books are coming out within just a couple of weeks, because what’s happening is an entrepreneurial digital publisher, or an entrepreneurial self-publishing author – just an aggressive author, or even a media entity that’s covered the situation very closely, will say, hey, we can write this really quickly. We can make this an e-book really quickly, and then it’ll be up on Amazon, and Barnes & Noble, and Apple before you know it.

That’s one kind. Another kind is there’s a news event that’s happening that we’ve known about for a long time. It’s kind of slowly building. A good example there is some of the Supreme Court decisions that came down in the past few weeks. There was a book published by the New York Times that came out the day that the Defense of Marriage Act decision came down. It was all about the struggle for marriage equality, and the book was fully formed and ready.

This is something that they had a long lead time on. They knew that this was an issue that was important. The paper had covered it at length for years. And they knew that a decision was coming on it very, very soon, so they could’ve had months and months and months to prepare for this. It’s a little bit closer to something that was possible many, many years ago, to get that book to market at the exact right time.

KENNEALLY: Have you any idea, Jeremy Greenfield, how well these books do in the marketplace? Obviously, there’s an appetite for information, and it needs to be satisfied. It could be satisfied, really, very quickly these days, of course, with the plenitude of online news sites. Do these kinds of book projects really make an impact in the marketplace, as they once did?

GREENFIELD: It’s hard to say. I don’t have any specific numbers, but what I hear from the publishers of these books is that it varies. Some of them do quite well. It really has to do with your ability to capitalize on the moment. Unfortunately, for better or for worse, that might mean making sure your book is optimized for search engines and optimized for being recognized on Amazon and being discovered on Amazon. It varies widely, but from what I hear, they are doing pretty well.

You also have to consider that for this kind of book, the initial investment may not be that high. Now, for Simon & Schuster to publisher Walter Isaacson’s biography of Steve Jobs – I don’t know the financials of that, but I’m sure that the initial investment was fairly high, and the book came out very soon after Steve Jobs’s death. At the same time, the Jeremy Lin book that came out, really, right after he started to hit national prominence – my guess is that the initial investment in that book was not very high. Whatever money is made off of it is mostly profit.

KENNEALLY: Indeed. It’s interesting, because the digital aspect of this, of course, is what makes it different. It’s not simply that it makes it a faster publishing path, but the project itself is very much a virtual one. I’m thinking back to, again, those days of the ’60s and ’70s, when these kinds of instant books would’ve been keepsakes. They would’ve been part of somebody’s personal library, on the coffee table, that kind of thing.

In this effervescent digital world, a digital book like this at a reasonable price, which could be anywhere from 99 cents to $5 or $6 – that’s quite reasonable to have in the Kindle or in the iPad for as long as it takes to read it, consume it, and then move on.

GREENFIELD: Yeah, I think you’re right, and I think that opens up, actually, a larger question about e-books and digital books and consumption, which is that I don’t think, for most people, e-books are artifacts. This is something we’ve talked about a lot. With a physical book, even if it’s just a paperback, you might store it on your bookshelf, and that might be something you proudly display in your home or your apartment.

But an e-book doesn’t really have a proud place of display. I don’t think anybody has flatscreens where their bookshelves used to be, displaying their digital libraries. Although I’m sure some people do look at e-books as artifacts, I would gather that most people don’t. That said, these quick-to-publish books, they vary. Some of them are thrown together in five days, like some of the Jeremy Lin books, and some of them are researched and reported for months and months and months, and are much more high-quality. Probably some are a little bit more disposable than others.

Going back to your earlier question about media fulfilling this need, through free media sites, or a subscription to the New York Times, or something like that, I think that it does. Right now, we’re in a transitional period in media, where it’s not very, very clear where everyone is getting all of their information from and what makes the most sense. I think it varies from person to person, and I think it’ll continue to evolve.

KENNEALLY: Indeed. We’re talking with Jeremy Greenfield about the quick-to-market e-book, and how it is having an impact for the reader as well as for publishers. Jeremy Greenfield, I wonder about just where we are with something called the book. Is an instant book actually a book in the digital realm?

It’s an important question, I think, because it really matters to readers. If they don’t think of it as a book, they will value it differently, as you say. They won’t think of it as a keepsake. They will expect its price to be different. Their expectations around the kind of writing, and reporting, and photography and the rest will likewise be different, I would think.

GREENFIELD: Yeah, I think you’re right. I think that some people would even say e-books aren’t books. It’s very easy to say, well, I’m holding a copy of this new book in my hand, it’s got its binding, and pages, and a cover, and so this is a book. I’m reading the same thing on my Kindle, so that’s a book. But in another way, they’re actually quite different. They’re both containers for information, but that’s kind of where the similarities end.

Some people would argue that e-books really aren’t books, in a way. But I think for our purposes, you and I are talking about a thing that delivers information in a long form, a little bit more thoughtful and deeply discussed than, say, an article. In that way, I think people will compare e-books to books, and they will wonder about the quality of things.

Then again, the prices are vastly different. A very high-quality hardcover book, the day it comes out, can be $35 or $40. A new e-book can be as cheap as 99 cents, or up to, for some books, $10 or $15. The price difference is very high, and I think that signals to customers that what they’re getting is not the same.

That’s not even mentioning the idea that once you buy a book, you’re pretty much free to do with it what you want. You can lend it to somebody, you can give it to somebody, you can do any number of things with it. You can write in the margins. But when you buy an e-book, it’s very hard to lend it to somebody. You can’t really give it to somebody. You can’t sell it like a used book. I think that we’re getting into some deeper philosophical questions, but the idea of these quick-to-market e-books really does make you think of all these things.

KENNEALLY: Indeed. Jeremy, you concluded your piece in Forbes with, I thought, a really thought-provoking point, which is whether or not these quick-to-market, fast turnaround books in great quantity are going to be pushing out of the marketplace those thoughtful books that you and I, as journalists, would agree are really needed for the culture, as well as for the readers. What do you think? I’m going to place a bet on people wanting to still have that really well-written book. A book for me, if there’s going to be a definition for it in the future, is going to be something that took longer than an afternoon to write.

GREENFIELD: Sure. Listen, I agree with you that people will say that they want those longer-form books. But if you’re an economist, what people say they want is less important than what people actually do with their time and with their money.

KENNEALLY: Oh, darn it. (laughter)

GREENFIELD: I don’t know what’s going to happen. I don’t know if these books are going to push out some of the longer books. But here’s a scenario, I think, of something that could happen, that these shorter-form books satisfy a demand for information on things that’s more organized and deeply thought out than just an article or a series of articles.

For some topics, like, say, Jeremy Lin, that will mean in the future that there won’t be as much room for a big book on Jeremy Lin. Now, does Jeremy Lin deserve a long, thought out, Robert Caro-style book? Probably not. But I think for the bigger topics, the ones that are of interest to reporters at the New York Times, or the New Yorker, or the Atlantic, or something like that, I think you’re still going to see books – an interest in writing and reading those kind of books.

Here’s the really big question for publishing companies. Will there still be money in it? Will they be able to make the investments in time and energy necessary to put together these works? If you know the history of nonfiction literature, for many of these books, there isn’t money in it. It’s a very hard business. It’s very difficult. So I’m not afraid to look forward to a future where there aren’t going to be as many as those kinds of books, but if I were a scaremonger, I might be.

KENNEALLY: (laughter) Well, Jeremy Greenfield, you are not a scaremonger. You are actually a very thought-provoking journalist and essayist, and we always appreciate having you join us on Beyond the Book for a discussion about what’s happening in the digital book publishing space. Jeremy Greenfield, editorial director for Digital Book World, thanks for joining us today.

GREENFIELD: Thanks, Chris. Always a pleasure.

KENNEALLY: Beyond the Book is produced by Copyright Clearance Center, a global rights broker for the world’s most sought-after materials, including millions of books and e-books, journals, newspapers, magazines, and blogs, as well as images, movies, and television shows. You can follow us on Twitter, find Beyond the Book on Facebook, and subscribe to the free podcast series on iTunes, or at the Copyright Clearance Center website, copyright.com. Just click on Beyond the Book.

Our engineer is Jeremy Brieske of Burst Marketing. My name is Christopher Kenneally. For all of us at Copyright Clearance Center, thanks for listening to Beyond the Book.