Ebooks Now and In the Future: Interview with Tracy Atkins

by | Mar 2, 2015

Ed: Interest in ebooks continues to spread as more institutions and potential users of digital information attempt to put these technologies to good use. When I was queried recently by Nancy Herther from Information Today’s Online Searcher enewsletter, I turned to Tracy Atkins, co-founder of Book Design Templates.

Tracy has a long background in technology and epublishing, and has created all the ebook templates we offer. Here’s the interview in its entirety. If this discussion stimulates you to think about the current state and future of ebook publishing, I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments.

Nancy Herther: Kindle Unlimited and now Oyster are offering new types of eBook deals for readers. Notably, Amazon’s seems to focus on self-published authors whose presence in the marketplace are now estimated to be 31% of total daily eBook sales according to Author Earnings. How do you see this publishing option as compared to that offered by the big 5 trade presses? What role do you see for them?

Tracy Atkins: Renting entertainment content under a blanket license, with a small nominal fee, has been the rage for several years for many other types of consumer media. It’s a natural model that applies to eBooks as much as it does any other digital entertainment like television shows or music. If anything, the only shock here is how long it took the eBook industry to adopt the model.

However, just like music and TV, high-demand or highly-commercialized new content will continue to be sold outside of the “Netflix” style rental model for books. The big publishers can continue to make a profit here on their premium or newer mass-market titles, while enjoying sizable subscription revenue from their backlist if they choose to join the new model. For the independent and self-published author, the promise of a lower cost for a reader to access their work, coupled with the ability to still make profit, is healthy and may afford even better exposure for niche authors. That is where Unlimited and Oyster can be a real boom for self-published authors, as the added exposure and low risk for the consumer means more eyes on their work and expanded audiences in a crowded marketplace.

“…the promise of a lower cost for a reader to access their work, coupled with the ability to still make profit, is healthy and may afford even better exposure for niche authors.”

Nancy: Some public libraries are testing new models for their roles in publishing (for example, Sacramento Public Library). Academic libraries are creating their own presses to serve academics (Library Publishing Coalition). How do you see the future for author support/promotion and sales to different markets? Do you see many authors going it alone? Are the Big 5 still the tip of the publishing pyramid?

Tracy: Technologies like the Espresso Book Machine are excellent additions to libraries and academic institutions where a paper book is required without a wait. They are valuable tools for producing small runs of a book for local distribution or for use in a classroom for a study session. As a revolution device, they allow instant access to books that are in limited distribution or not available in the library system. This is great for readers who are financially unable to purchase a book from a retail channel, but instead rely on libraries for their literature needs. As an author, I submitted my own book to Espresso to make it available on their machines for just that reason.

For academics, I am not certain there will be much change generated with addition of book printing machines. There is still a tremendous amount of peer pressure for academics to be published through a traditional channel, instead of the self-publishing route. Past that, there are already ample channels available to have a high-quality book self-published, printed and delivered within the span of a couple of days, at a very low cost. The higher cost of printing on-location with Espresso, though faster, will have a limited utility in that aspect. So for academic authors, it will likely be business as usual.

Nancy: Another aspect of distribution is what to do with used ebooks. The Amsterdam courts recently determined that used ebooks could be resold (Online Store Can Sell ‘Used’ eBooks, Court Rules). Is that likely to have an impact?

Tracy: The ability to resell digital content is an interesting concept, no doubt. The market value of a digital item used to be virtually nothing a couple of decades ago, when piracy ruled supreme. However, attitudes changed and today people make sizable transactions to acquire digital content, from movies and music, to books and software. The entire market concept of digital content and its value has matured. The ability to sell or transfer possession of a license for that digital item seems elementary and natural in today’s marketplace. The impact of this will really come down to the legal acceptance here in the U.S., and the consumer demand or push for it.

“The ability to sell or transfer possession of a license for that digital item seems elementary and natural in today’s marketplace.”

Nancy: As a published author, how do you see the publishing ecosystem today, is the system effective despite the constant change? What do you hope would evolve from the current chaos? How do you see Amazon and their efforts to quell author concerns and to strong-arm publishers into deals?

Tracy: As an author, the independent publishing landscape has evolved significantly in the last few years, for the better. Even five years ago there were a multitude of players with confusing platforms, different requirements, and content right terms that were not always beneficial for the author. As time has progressed, a lot of predatory platforms have gone away as authors become much more educated. Legitimate vendors started vying for authors’ works and their continuing business. What we are seeing now is a shift to a smaller number of large platforms and vendors that serve the bulk of readers and offer acceptable terms for authors who want to get exposure and make a genuine living from their work.

Some of the larger players like Amazon, Ingram, Book Baby, Lulu and similar have really changed the way self-published authors produce and market their work by offering a reliable and safe environment that is often “no strings attached”. Authors retain their rights, keep their source publication materials, and are free to come and go as they like in the pursuit of their careers.

It is attractive terms like these that the large traditional publishing houses are now trying to compete with, so they are also starting to enter the fray with their own hybridized self-publisher focused business models. They are looking to attract the self-published authors who have hot titles. The author often fronts the cost of production in this model, while the publisher utilizes the full force of their established marketing methods to boost sales and build their new author’s careers. This is another positive step for authors who want to make a commercial breakthrough, as there are more channels available to get their work out there, and an advertising budget to help the title be seen. As long as the terms are favorable to the author, then it is a real win.

This is also where the next clash between traditional publishers and newer retail platforms might start to heat up. It is a new form of competition that will make publishing for the next five years even more interesting. The real hope here is that the competitive market will open even more opportunities up for authors; instead of closing doors as has been the case with the current retailer and publisher dust-up. It is the authors who want to make a living that really suffer here.

“This is also where the next clash between traditional publishers and newer retail platforms might start to heat up. It is a new form of competition that will make publishing for the next five years even more interesting.”

Nancy: Finally, how do you see the world of ebooks beyond a printed page – integrating more multimedia or other features? Is it still too soon or do you see change coming?

Tracy: Our business, bookdesigntemplates.com, is focused on creating templates that allow authors to format their own print and eBooks using MS Word, for all major platforms. By the nature of our work and products, we are extremely familiar with the process of creating both print and eBooks, and the advantages or limitations of each method of publication across all of the major players. The aesthetic quality of print and the ability to control the presentation, look, and feel is far greater than what current eBook platforms can deliver.

The real limitation to the eBook platform seems to be that it was developed by software and web developers trying to solve a technical problem, instead of publishing experts drawing from their experience on what is needed to give the customer the best reading experience. The result is an often complicated to produce eBook that doesn’t always read or feel like a proper book, because an eBook is effectively just a web page. The only upside is that does offer some nice bells and whistles, like the ability to change text or page size depending on the eReader device, and hyperlinked content. But that look, feel, and all important control of presentation layout just isn’t there.

eBook platforms in general need to shore up the fundamentals of good presentation, accurate page display, and better control of the overall product, before added features like multimedia can really make a splash. There needs to be a sizable amount of standardization across device platforms, and a unified toolkit to support even current multimedia technologies in an integrated solution. No one seems to be doing that, and instead, all of the eBook platforms have numerous shortcomings that just aren’t being addressed.

“eBook platforms in general need to shore up the fundamentals of good presentation, accurate page display, and better control of the overall product, before added features like multimedia can really make a splash.”

Until the underlying technology is revamped to offer better front-end and back-end WYSIWYG support for delivering a better user experience, anything that eBooks deliver in the realm of multi-media will be ad-hoc additions to a primitive platform. Once the bugs are worked out and the technology evolves, I can see multimedia being a huge benefit for academic and non-fiction books, as well as a new medium for expanded entertainment.

Tracy R. AtkinsTracy R. Atkins has been a career technology aficionado since he was young. At the age of eighteen he played a critical role in an internet startup, cutting his tech-teeth during the dot-com boom. He is also a passionate writer whose stories intertwine technology with exploration of the human condition. Tracy is the self-published author of the novel Aeternum Ray and the co-founder of BookDesignTemplates.com.

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photo credit: Kindle 3 via photopin (license)

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  1. Mickie Kennedy

    I work with quite a few talented up-and-coming authors through my PR agency eReleases. Something I hear quite a bit about is that the easier it becomes to self-publish, the harder it is to stand out.

    I think the formatting service you offer is fantastic in that respect — if folks can truly create a stand-out, professional looking ebook using MS Word, that’s certainly going to raise the bar and help those using it to rise above the fold.

  2. John

    Hi Tracy!

    Those templates of yours look very interesting but it seems I can’t click anything on your website using Safari on my Mac.

    • Joel Friedlander

      John, I’m a Mac user as well, and had no problem clicking the links on the site with Safari, so not sure exactly why you’re having that problem.

      • John

        err, according to a friend, it is because “it is basically displayed as an image in a frame for no apparent reason, even in Chrome or Firefox so there must be something Yosemite doesn’t like much”. When I browse it on my iPhone, it works as it should.

        • Joel Friedlander

          John, I’ve used Chrome and Safari on my Yosemite Macs and the site performs perfectly with all links active. So there may be some other reason you’re running into this problem. We get about 500 visitors a day on the site, and have not received this type of problem report from other users, just FYI.

  3. Mark Tilbury

    Hi Tracy and Nancy,

    I really like the current world of ebooks, as both a reader and soon to be published author. As a reader I love the fact that I can make reading more comfortable by changing the font – it doesn’t matter if I can’t find my glasses!
    As an author, just the fact I can publish is a wonderful thing and I’m glad that there are platforms to make it possible. The only thing I’m not so happy about is Kindle Unlimited and the fact that authors only get royalties for one read per person. In a system such as Spotify for example the artist gets an payment for each track played, no matter who played it.
    I myself have read some books more than once, and there will be many authors out there having their books read more than once by the same person and not getting anything from the extra read.

    Thank you both for a really interesting article,


    • Tracy Atkins

      Thanks Mark!

      That is a good point for discussion on the royalties under Kindle Unlimited (and similar). From a technical standpoint, the ability to track how much of the book is read and re-read is possible, since they log things like your place in the book as you read. So I think it comes down to expectations for the license and use of the material once it is in your possession.

      When you purchase a paper book, obviously you can read it multiple times, and many people re-read chapters to catch up if they put the book down too long. You can go back over all or part of it as often as you like.

      Is that same expectation there for renting book content? Should it be time-constrained, like movie rentals, where you have a license to view the content as much as you want for a given period of time? On the other side of the scale, should authors only be paid a half royalty if only half of the book is read? (As an author, that is a scary thought.)

      There are established models for all of these methods of royalty payment for other media types. I wonder which works best, and is most “fair” for those that create the content. Can they be applied to books?



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