Interview with Joe Wikert

Interview with Joe Wikert, Vice President and Executive Publisher of the Professional/Trade division of John Wiley & Sons, and author of the 20/20 Blog.

Do you see hardware readers (Kindle, Sony) as critical to increased industry ebook sales in the future, despite rapidly dropping laptop prices and increasing wireless Internet access?

Yes, I think the real momentum in this area is going to be from devices other than backlit-display computers. We’ve all had access to e-content on our computers for many years now and, despite advances in how that content can be presented, there’s little movement in the PC as a delivery platform. The problem comes down to not just portability (do you want to lug your laptop everywhere?) but also long-term readability. I find I can read from my Kindle for hours and hours with no eyestrain or discomfort, just like reading a print book/magazine/newspaper. Reading from a backlit computer screen, however, becomes uncomfortable for me after only about 5 minutes.

I'm a recent convert to PDF e-book publishing without DRM after years of offering more restrictive solutions, and in a couple months have netted sales in 35 countries. What are your own thoughts on DRM, and do you fear that less restrictive solutions could put large trade publishers in the shoes of music publishers?

I see the problems with DRM and I’m not a fan. That’s why two of the more recent e-content initiatives from my group at Wiley have been done without DRM (WROX Blox and Chapters on Demand). Although most publishers and authors don’t want to see their paid content released in the wild and being freely distributed, we need to focus more on our customers and less on the bad guys. I have yet to see a DRM solution that’s truly customer-friendly.

In a post on your own blog last summer, you expressed regrets about publisher websites being divided into catalog or personalities. My own view is what publisher websites lack (especially nonfiction publishers) is useful content, like draft books and original and useful supplementary material. Do you think publishers need to worry about giving too much away, or was your post primarily addressing the specific issue brought up on Booksquare?

My post was mostly a response to the insightful piece on Booksquare. You’re absolutely right that we (publishers) need to figure out how to add more and more content to our sites. What’s the compelling reason for customers to visit it if we’re not offering something more than catalog pages for our books? And no, I don’t think publishers should worry about giving too much away. We’re too far on the other end of the spectrum, focused on being way too protective and not willing to offer more content as a service to our readers. That’s one of the reasons I like the Smashwords model. It lets authors/publishers decide how much of the work is freely accessible, well before a penny is spent. If you want to make 90% of your book freely available Smashwords can accommodate.

You mentioned being impressed by Authonomy which to me looked a lot like an iPublish clone, the Time Warner website for manuscripts that dangled contract opportunities based on community voting and which lasted all of eight months back in 2001. Do you remember the iPublish fiasco and do you see Authonomy as doing something different, or just their timing being better? (I feel sorry for the smart guys who bet against house prices a year too early - they were right and they still lost a bundle).

I have to admit I don’t recall iPublish, but I wonder if it was simply ahead of its time. I don’t know what the HarperCollins expectations are for Authonomy but I think it’s a fantastic idea. First of all, it’s a great way to encourage up-and-coming authors to post their content and let others critique it. As a publisher I like that it creates yet another platform where new products are being built and tomorrow’s authoring stars might be found. Secondly, I’m a huge advocate of community-based web initiatives. Even if Authonomy never produces a hit title I’ll bet countless authors will get loads of valuable feedback (and encouragement) from the experience.


Anonymous said...

My experience after researching this and reading blogs is that only about 5% of the US wants to read e-books, but those 5% are die-hard fanatics who blog about it and talk about it to no end, so it appears to be more than it really is. I'm sure the number will grow. But what about piracy? As long as I am only losing 5% of my audience, and as long as printing services are available, I think I'll avoid giving away years of work for free in PDFs which can be emailed around for free. I don't work for free.

And what about the distribution problems of E-books? My books are carried in many health food stores - these stores don't sell e-books.

I think the average 40+ year-old still likes paper and until that generation has died off, there will be a market for paper books.

I wonder if e-books will be one of those things that just doesn't catch on, similar to how Yahoo! first thought its website would be a "web portal" but now search engines are just that - only search engines. Just because there are a few fanatics does not mean the technology will be widely adopted.

If I sound defensive, its because I am. I am not ready to work for free yet.

BioMed Publishers

Morris Rosenthal said...


That's several different questions at once, some of which we've gone around on before, but for new readers, here's my short answer:

I started blogging about ebooks again when I started making money with them, again. I plan to blog more about ebooks as I learn more from the current experience. The two highlights of this time around are over $1,000/month in net and customers in 35 countries, at last count.

Nowhere near 5% of the US blogs about ebooks. If 0.5% of Americans has ever mentioned an ebook even a single time in a blog, I'd be shocked. Yet the percentage of my sales that's ebooks is in double digits now.

Piracy I believe I've addressed several times on this blog and direct with you, but here's a thought for starters. If you look at the demographics of who buys your books, I suspect they aren't big into piracy, even if they knew where to look.

Distribution of ebooks doesn't make sense anywhere other than over the Internet, direct from your own website. I know some people have visions of walk-in ebook stores, seems like a really silly idea to me.

Back to the interview, Joe has a very different take on ebooks than I do, he has a very different take on most things, and that's why I thought it would be interesting to try a short interview with him. I think his interest in new reading devices and new ebook distribution channels with the potential for growth is largely based on scalability. Wiley measures their income in hundreds of millions of dollars. I don't think that finding a new labor intensive way to add a thousand or two thousand dollars a month to their bottom line would get them very excited:-)

I try to write about business models and technologies that are useful for an author (especially self publishers) to earn a living. If I can do something that adds $10K a year to my income, or replaces $10K of lost income, that's a big deal. At Wiley, I doubt $10K wouldn't cover toner cartridges for a month.

Joe Wikert said...

FWIW, I totally agree that the adoption rate of e-books has been pretty darned slow. Maybe only 5% of the market is interested in e-books, but that will change over time.

I've said it before but it's worth repeating here. I don't look at the e-book market as a parallel to the iPod market. I think it's closer to the VCR market. Remember way back in the 1970's when the first VCR's were $1000+? Only schools and the very rich had them. Then the price dropped to $500-$800 and you started to see more popping up in homes. That was at least 2-3 years after the first commercial ones were available though. The platform didn't really take off till the players got to about $250 or so.

I don't think dedicated e-readers will take off till the price gets down to $150, and better yet, $100. The faster the Kindle and Sony prices drop though the faster we'll see the next wave of customers join in the fun.


Morris Rosenthal said...

Did I mention that I wrote a story about ebooks replacing paper back in 1993, and later updated it for Amazon:

First short story I ever finished:-) I'm on the record saying that cheap ebook readers will replace textbooks first (save the poor kids backs) and then move into the general market, but I don't really care about ebook devices. I'm more interested in how authors can earn a living from their writing, and for the time being, I see the best bet as PDF files sold through the author's website.


Anonymous said...

Morris, I didn't mean to infer that the fanatacal e-book blogger was you. Instead, I am thinking of a few others, namely, a blog which I actually discovered through your site - "Tools of Change in Publishing."

I guess I'll just cut to the point. Yesterday I went on a hike with a friend, a pastor's wife, about 45 years old, educated, avid reader. I asked her about e-books and she looked at me like I was from Mars. Made me realize that we have to be careful of perspective. Right now I think the e-book world is pretty small but if you are inside it, it might be all you can see - you can't see past it. Just a thought.

Regarding profitability, I am sure many publishers could make money with e-books and it is a heck of a break for the environment - in many was (transportation, trees, energy). So from that regard (profitability and environment) it's a good thing.

I think piracy then remains my only concern. And you are right, perhaps my market and audience aren't the type to pirate. I'll give that some thought. I think the scary thing about it is that once you let a few PDFs fly out the door, it's out of your control.


Anonymous said...

I don't know what to think about e-publications yet but I am aware of a massive surge in sat-nav devices being used in the UK by drivers. Oddly, whilst I first thought this would result in the demise of the printed map or atlas, I suspect both formats will co-exist for quite some time. Same as television not causing the demise of radio etc etc etc. My thinking is that e-books will address a different 'need' from purchasers rather than being the one and only solution.


Morris Rosenthal said...


I think you're suffering from a real mental block on this one. The people who buy my ebooks are buying a PDF file with information they've decided is worth paying for, based on the large excerpts my website. Many have never have heard of "ebook" before. It's not anymore complicated than that.

The one ebook I published that was widely pirated was published with DRM, some guy hcked the Adobe protection using a sort of screen capture program, quality was lousy. He could have scanned the paper book and gotten better results. Are you going to stay up nights worrying about people scanning your paper books?


Morris Rosenthal said...


I think you're in the same camp as Joe that to suceed in a big way, ebooks need to be something other than PDF files. I don't agree with that based on my own experiences. I think the reason ebooks haven't sold better for the large trades is they wrap them up in complicated strategies when all people want is a printable PDF available immediately. I've sold around 20 ebooks in five countries since posting the interview with Joe, and I'm a one man shop.

Not to change the subject, but a cousin from the UK once explained to me all the training involved for a London taxi drivers to get their hack license. I don't know if it's still in place, but there's an example of a form of valuable knowledge that loses a great deal of its market value due to a displacement technology: sat-nav. Future generations won't believe that people made a living keeping maps in their heads.