Interview: Pablo Defendini, Producer for Tor.com
January 19, 2010 | 12:58 pm
I conducted an interview with Pablo Defendini, Producer and blogger for Tor.com, via Google Wave. Our conversation ranged from the Tor.com blog itself, to the free e-book giveaway that kicked off the site, to the much-anticipated but still-absent Tor.com e-book store.
Defendini noted that Tor.com was a separate subsidiary from Tor Books the publisher, and as an employee of Tor.com he was unable to answer questions pertaining to Tor Books’s stance on e-books or its e-book ventures prior to Tor.com (such as Tor Webscriptions).
However, he did have a number of fascinating things to say about the site itself, and his own attitudes toward e-books. The complete interview text starts below the jump.
How did the idea for Tor.Com come about?
I wasn’t involved in Tor.com back then, but as I understand it, the seed of the idea came about from a conversation between (Tor Books Art Director) Irene Gallo, Teresa Nielsen Hayden, Patrick Nielsen Hayden (Tor Books Senior Editor) and my current boss, Fritz Foy (VP of Strategic Technology for Macmillan), who is also a lifelong SF fan—‘one of us’ in every sense of the word. They asked Tom Doherty for his blessing, and permission to use the Tor brand, but wisely kept the site separate from the daily workings of Tor Books.
Fritz is a very smart and forward-looking guy (and I’m not just saying that because he’s the guy who’s in charge of giving me a raise!), Irene, Patrick, and Teresa are all well-known bloggers and quite familiar with the way the social internet works, so they had a very clear idea of what they wanted—and didn’t want—the site to be.
How long was the site in the planning stages?
Once again, I wasn’t around back then (I was then the low man on the totem pole in Tor Books’ art department at the time), but I think around 18 months, give or take.
Is there anything that you would do differently given the experience you’ve had?
I can’t say that there is anything that we’d do differently, really. Even the things that have not worked out have given us lots of insight into how we as publishers can approach the online space, and we’ve been able to build on the mistakes in order to try to set things right, or approach the same problem differently the next go-round.
One of the things I’m trying to push for this year is to specifically address some of those things, but mostly they falls under the realm of nitty-gritty development stuff: which tools we should or should not be using, what systems are we not taking advantage of that we should, etc. Lots of behind-the-scenes stuff.
The free e-book giveaway at Tor.com’s launch was meant to serve as a promotion for the site, and for the dead-tree forms of various Tor series whose first books Tor gave away electronically.
However, many e-book fans assumed they were promoting the launch of Tor’s e-book store and were upset when later books were not available electronically. This led to a fairly vociferous backlash in several Tor.com comment threads. (Which, in the interest of full disclosure, I will admit to participating in. Mea culpa.)
Have you learned anything from this experience? What would you change if you had the giveaway to do over again?
This was a big, big thing for me, since it was the first time I was exposed as a public face associated with Tor.com, and, being an ebook consumer, I understood where many people were coming from.
First and foremost, we never realized that the teaser campaign for Tor.com would be construed as a teaser for an ebook store specifically—the thought really never occurred to us. In hindsight, it’s totally understandable that it would have been seen that way, but it was a classic case of being too close to the project; everyone was pretty blindsided by that attitude.
Additionally, the big, big lesson we learned from the promotion was to not offer a first book in a series for download if the subsequent books aren’t available as ebooks. Since then, we’ve always kept that in mind when doing ebook promotions. Due to the vagaries of rights, availability, and corporate policies, we’re not always able to make everything we want available, but we do try to not make that same mistake.
We listened, and we learned, but the one thing that did strike a lot of us was the sense of entitlement out there among ebook aficionados. While on the one hand, as an ebook fan myself, I understand (and more often than not, sympathize with) the gripes being aired, I was really put off by how some people’s concerns were being expressed: there’s a lack of understanding of how the publishing industry works (or doesn’t work, but that’s another conversation), and an unwillingness to take anything that the big six publishers say at face-value. I suppose that it’s understandable, given previous experiences with the music industry, but it really led to a toxic atmosphere, in which we felt put on the defensive very quickly. This was actually my first exposure to this kind of entitled, evangelical, all-or-nothing thinking with regards to ebooks, and it’s something which I, along with others, have addressed elsewhere.
Can you talk about the history behind Tor’s attempts to offer e-books, such as the early "Tor Webscriptions" project?
I should make a distinction here (which will probably apply further down the interview): Tor.com is run separately from Tor Books, and as such, I’m neither privy to, or necessarily in alignment with Tor Books’ policies or party lines. In other words, if you want to ask about Tor Books’ attitudes and policies with regards to ebooks, you’ll have to ask them—all I can offer you are my personal opinions, which have very little bearing on how Tor Books runs its e-ship.
Now, as I understand it, at one point, Tor Books had a deal with Baen to sell ebooks via their Webscription service (which, as you know, is actually something of a gold standard in customer experience among long-time—read: pre-Kindle—ebook enthusiasts); but some time before Tor.com launched, Tor books were pulled from Baen’s site—I don’t know why. Webscriptions sells ebooks without DRM, so it’s possible that that may have had something to do with it, but this may be completely inaccurate. I’ve done some light digging around, but no one seems to be able to give me a solid reason as to the whys and wherefores of the Webscription story.
It seems as though Tor’s e-book store has been "just around the corner" literally ever since Tor.com launched. The last I had heard, the holdup was due to technical matters on Baen’s end. Can you give us an update on the current status of the store, and any specific details about what the store will be like when it comes out?
The Tor.com ebook store has absolutely nothing to do with Baen, never has, and probably never will, sadly (I’m a fan of Baen’s bookstore). The confluence of Baen and Tor.com’s stores is probably a result of the Tor Books/Baen relationship being so prominent in the ebook landscape, but that’s in the past, as far as I know.
(When I pointed out that there was a long-standing expectation that Tor was going to be coming back to Webscriptions with its books, as evinced by a 2007 blog post from Charlie Stross and subsequent comments on Baen’s Bar, Defendini reiterated that—as mentioned above—Tor.com’s e-book store is a completely new venture, unrelated to Tor Books’s prior e-book deals, and he was not privy to any aspects of those deals.)
The original plan as it pertains to Tor.com specifically was to roll out the ebook store at the same time as the print bookstore, and to make it publisher agnostic, just like the print store. That’s still the plan, but if you look at the mechanisms for buying and downloading ebooks from publishers’ websites,that’s pretty much what we were looking at implementing originally. Those ecommerce systems are cumbersome, incomplete, and frankly, not customer-centric at all. If you compare that customer experience to the customer experience on something like iTunes, Amazon, etc, you realize publishers have a very, very long ways to go in establishing a meaningful retail relationship with their end-users: actual readers.
This speaks to a larger issue, which is that publishing is a very insular industry, where insiders are constantly talking to each other, but very rarely do they actually venture out of the echo chamber in order to talk to or listen to the actual end customer: the reader. There have traditionally been some very valid arguments as for why this is the case, but as digital media democratizes the world more and more, those arguments become much less convincing or even relevant. A direct relationship with the reader traditionally has never been as important to legacy publishers as a relationship with the buyer for B&N, for example, although that’s slowly changing (I like to think that Tor.com is helping to change that, in a small way).
When we realized how a store using the current system would work (or wouldn’t), we decided to nix the ebook store for the time being, and find an alternative that would create a good customer experience. Unfortunately, we’ve been through a few iterations, and so far, we haven’t been able to get it right for various reasons: using the wrong infrastructure, convoluted and outdated IT, conflicts with regard to existing corporate business-to-business relationships, DRM issues, etc. So no-go on the ebook store yet. We are still working on a solution, but the road has been much more slow-going that I would have expected at the outset. As an ebook consumer myself, it’s really important to me that we get it right, that we don’t screw anyone over, and that we make an ebook store as accessible and as easy to use as possible. Once we have that, we’ll take it live. Before that: not gonna happen, if I have anything to say about it (which, of course, isn’t always the case). In the meantime, I enjoy (or cringe in embarrassment, depending on my mood) whenever I get made fun of on fora with regards to my "soon" statements.
It has been hoped (or assumed) by many e-book fans that Tor’s store will follow the same model used by Baen—DRM-free e-books priced at or below paperback level. But the Tor e-books currently sold on Fictionwise are still priced at or around hardcover level, with DRM intact, even though Fictionwise prefers to sell books in DRM-free, less expensive multi-format for publishers who will allow it. Does this mean people who hope for a more Baen-like Tor store will be disappointed?
I certainly hope not. I’m no fan of DRM. Personally, I think it does nothing to prevent piracy. At most, all it does is inconvenience legitimate users, and treat them like criminals. This is a lesson that the music industry has worked very hard to not learn, but despite their best efforts, they’ve had to come to terms with reality. I fervently hope the publishing industry takes a lesson from the music business, and avoids the mistakes that turned record companies into the MAFIAA. But once again, I’m not privy to Tor Books’ policies with regard to this, so I can’t speak to it.
What device/apps/format do you prefer to use for reading e-books?
Let’s see. First, devices: I own a Kindle 2, a Nook, a Sony PRS-600, and an iPhone loaded with Stanza, Kindle, eReader, Scrollmotion, Classics, stand-alone book apps, and a slew of others. As of right now, I find that the PRS-600 is my go-to device for personal reading: it’s very nicely designed, the interface is simple and easy to use, it supports not only ePub, but the various formats that I use when reading manuscripts, and it’s relatively fast. Its biggest drawback is that it’s netblind, so I’m literally stalking my local BestBuy, waiting for the Sony Daily Edition to drop. My second go-to device is my iPhone running Stanza, and the only reason it doesn’t beat out the Sony is because of a) its smaller size and b) the fact that I can’t sync it with my Sony, the way I can sync the Kindle with Kindle on iPhone.
All that being said, I think eInk technology is a transition technology—the equivalent to 13-inch black-and white television sets, and I can’t wait till it’s put out to pasture. I also think that people who are not and will never be comfortable reading off of a backlit screen will eventually die—children growing up today reading on laptops, DSes, PSPs and iPhones will not have this problem (I know I don’t).
I’m convinced that The Unicorn (Apple’s mythical tablet device) will kill all these devices (or at least raise the bar considerably: the Sony desktop software tries damn hard to be iTunes—and fails comically; the Nook’s touchscreen UI is trying very hard to ape the iPhone’s UI—and failing; Kindle’s integration with Amazon is great, but it’s also clearly taking a page out of the iTunes/iPod/AppStore playbook), not because it will be an ereader device specifically, but because it will be a do-everything device which will also be used as an ereader (disclaimer: I’m a dyed-in-the-wool OG Apple fanboy, from way back in the day—we’re talking pre-Steve Jobs’ second coming, back when John Scully and Gil Amelio were running the company into the ground and owning a Mac wasn’t remotely cool. I admit I may be biased, although I don’t think I’m wrong).
Next, formats: As far as I’m concerned, and putting aside issues of legacy, the only ebook formats that matter to me are ePub, PDF and Mobi.
I love me some ePub. As a developer, it’s accessible and based on open standards, like XHTML, so it lowers the point of entry for people trying to make ebooks, which is a good thing. It also allows for multimedia and so-called ‘enhanced’ content, which, although I’m not convinced is as important as some people would like it to be, can’t hurt.
PDF is still the gold standard for controlling layout. As a graphic designer by training, and a typographer by vocation, I relish the amount of control over presentation that PDFs allow a designer, and I do think that there’s a place for that kind of thing within the ebook space. I think it’s a very, very diminished role, and re-flowable/resizeable text trumps a fixed layout in almost all cases, but the few exceptions are important: think children’s books, art books, etc.
Mobi needs to die, if only because it’s owned by one company. Yes, I’m aware that there are certain technical issues which may or may not make it a superior format to ePub, but to me, the fact that it’s owned by Amazon makes it a non-starter, in the same way that LRF (Sony) and MS Reader (Microsoft) are non-starters.
Before any of this really, really takes off, though, it’s up to publishers to think of electronic formats in the initial stages of a book’s life, as opposed to simply as an afterthought late in the production or marketing stages. In a perfect world, I’d love to see authors sitting down with their editors and multimedia producers, and saying: "I’ve got this idea for a book. Should it be a straight-up prose novel/book/whatever, or should it be prose with video? Should it be a website with varying levels of engagement? Should it be a blog?" and so forth. I know this is anathema to some people in the publishing industry, who see themselves as ‘book people’, and I’m not saying that the book needs to go away (nor would I want it to, ever—I love books), but if publishers really want to cast themselves as the "stewards of intellectual property", it behooves them to have an active role in developing IP, regardless of what shape it takes.
A number of publishers have complained that the $9.99 e-book price point Amazon and Barnes & Noble are using is "predatory" and will damage the publishing industry. Does Tor have a position on this argument?
Again, I’m not Tor Books. I can say, however, that if there’s one thing I’ve learned over the last year and a half, it’s that pricing is a very complex issue, and it’s not as cut-and-dried as it seems at first glance.
Do you think e-book piracy has gotten worse lately as that article (and others I’ve seen) suggests, or just that with more people thinking about e-books they are just inclined to notice what is already there more?
I think the rise of ebooks into mainstream consumer awareness (thanks in large part to Amazon’s Kindle—for better or for worse) has created a larger awareness of piracy (both inside the industry and outside), but I wouldn’t venture to say that I have data to back up a statement like "piracy has gotten worse". I think that there’s plenty that publishers could do to combat piracy: not window titles, play around with pricing, etc., and I think that customers would respond to that, much like they have in other media. No one would be crazy enough to say that music piracy has stopped, but I’d be hard pressed to make a case that iTunes is not making money for the record companies, for example. I’m a firm believer in the Jobsian approach to piracy: give consumers a better, easier, simpler experience than piracy, and they will pay for the convenience.
Was there anything I haven’t brought up that you would like to, in closing?
I can’t think of anything off the top of my head. I’d love to plug some of the comics stuff we’re starting to do this year, but it may be premature, so I’ll say no, not yet.
I would like to thank Pablo Defendini for his gracious participation in this interview.