Arcana Wired’s “Gadget Lab” blog has an article (or had an article, anyway; though it’s still in my Google Reader feed, it has vanished entirely from the Wired website—the link to the original article returns a 404) looking at how much publishing business arcana are unexpectedly turning out to matter in the new world of e-book publishing.

After touching upon the Wylie/Amazon and Amazon 1984 imbroglios, the Gadget Lab staff mention talking to former book distributor and digital publisher Don Linn about it.

Publishing metadata, for instance — things like ISBNs, trim size, etc. — has traditionally been one of the dullest aspects of the business, useful for selling to retailers and libraries but not much else. Now, however, publishers are expanding their definition and uses of metadata, to make their titles easier to find in text searches. Readers don’t care about metadata — until they can or can’t find the book they’re looking for. “Making a title discoverable in a world where hundreds of thousands of books are published each year is more critical than when only tens of thousands were being published,” Don says. “Basically, if you do a poor job with your metadata, you’re hosed.” Metadata is good information management, but in a search-driven business, good marketing too.

There’s also the even thornier issue of rights and licensing — for instance, whether e-books count as a primary right (like the right to print and sell a book in a specific geographic area) or a subsidiary right (like a translation, or in some cases merchandizing). Evan Schnittman of Bloomsbury Publishing wrote a terrific post delineating the specific kinds of rights and royalty rates assigned to each, arguing forcefully that e-books like those sold for the Kindle have to be considered a primary rather than a subsidiary right, since the work of editors, designers, marketers, etc., is the same for each; and most importantly, because the shared ecosystem of print and digital sales means that sale of an e-book typically substitutes for the sale of a printed book.

Thus, e-book “innovations” tend to take the form of multimedia apps that include the text of the book plus a few gimmicks, such as some titles we’ve covered here lately. But Linn is skeptical that the skill sets needed to produce a really first class multimedia book can be found in publishing houses, and suggests agents may want to be wary about what rights they sign over.

But given the noises some publishers have been making lately about insisting that they get the e-book rights to any new book they option, it seems unlikely that this is going to be a viable option.

(I’ll update this post with a link if and when I see the original story become available again.)


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