Some years ago I shared my thoughts on the difference between traditional publishing on paper and the new approach to publishing with electronic books.1 I can see that the topic is still lively, given the apparent death struggle now taking place between Amazon.com, one of the leaders in ebook distribution through its Kindle platform, and Hachette Book Group, one of the big publishing concerns which originated in France and has now collected such standard imprints as Time Warner and Little, Brown and Company. I don’t follow that conflict too closely. From what I can see, Amazon believes the old-style publishers price their ebooks too high, too close to the price of a quality paperback or hardcover, while Hachette thinks Amazon undercuts the market with pricing under $9.99 for a full book. Whatever …
Amazon.com will win. Maybe not this round. Maybe not this year or next. But in the long run, because the economics of modern publishing are on Amazon’s side.
Once the author has done his or her job of pushing keystrokes to tell the story, plus hiring an editor and a cover designer, the major investment in the ebook is complete. The rest of the process is coding and uploading, which are purely mechanical functions.2 The value added by any publisher of paper books, after accounting for work done in the editorial and art departments, is centered on setting type, creating page layouts, burning plates for the press, running off the print edition, binding all those copies, warehousing them, and distributing them through a network of sales contacts. Amazon.com does all of that with an existing online sales platform and by leasing half a megabyte or so of storage space to the author in a server farm somewhere.3
The world will still need books printed on paper. After all, they make a more thoughtful gift for the reader on your list than an Amazon gift card and a scribbled note suggesting this or that title he or she might like. Some reference materials will always—or for the next twenty years or so—be most handy in book form. And some people will always want to keep a printed copy of their Bible or Quran around as a talisman or keepsake. But for most readers, especially those of us addicted to fiction, it’s the words we value, not the paper object itself. Ebooks are easy to acquire, take up no shelf space, pack easily for vacation, automatically remember your place, and usually offer conveniences like lookup word definitions and searches. Compared to an old paperback with a broken spine and brown, dog-eared pages, they’re a reader’s dream come true.
Right now we are in a time of transition for authors and readers alike. I believe we will look back on this as the best of times.
Established authors—those with name recognition among a large readership—can still use the paper-publishing route. Their success is assured, if only they keep producing books which please their readers and generate enough word-of-mouth to attract new ones. That’s a legacy which will last for the lifetime of most of our best recognized authors.
For new authors and those with a previous publishing history that does not rise to bestseller status,4 electronic publishing offers a reliable, inexpensive entry point into the market. Rather than write a book, see it rejected a hundred or a thousand times over the course of several years, and finally put it in the drawer, they can get editing help, support for a good cover and page layout, and professional coding. They have their choice of platforms including the Kindle, Nook, iBooks, and others. With some expense and effort—but much less than paying a printer to make and bind a few thousand copies which the author will then have to store in the garage and sell door to door—anyone can get a toe in the marketplace.
By a happy conjunction of electronic forces, the evolving world of social media also offers new and mid-list authors a place to advertise their books, get their faces and ideas known, and build readership and a reputation. Social contacts like these help build word-of-mouth. At the same time, the easy and inexpensive means of creating and maintaining a website offers the author a storefront with which to stock his or her wares, create interest in his or her developing career, and draw new viewers randomly through regular blogging that shows up on Google links.
The new author no longer has to pass through the eye of the publishing needle, which will judge every book by its potential in an uncertain and wavering marketplace and judge each author by his or her most recent sales numbers.
Of course, the downside of this new kind of publishing is that nothing is assured. You put in your best effort, and you see what you get. But for everyone concerned, electronic publishing vastly reduces the major investment in paper, warehousing, and transportation, all of which is lost if the book fails to sell. And for the authors, direct marketing vastly reduces the number of middlemen—agents, editors, and buyers for bookstore chains—who must pass judgment on their book before it can even be published. All you have to do is get your title, a snappy blurb, and an eye-catching cover in front of the potential reader—who is the final decider in any case.
On the one hand, readers are faced with more choices than ever before. Not only are the bookstores crammed with volumes, each with a catchy title, an enticing cover, and an interesting blurb to draw you into the contents, but beyond the store you have a million more book titles waiting in the server farms of Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Apple iBooks. Even the most avid reader is drowning in the possible choices of what to read next.
Back in the dark ages—which is to say the middle of the 20th century—you could trust the taste and judgment of most book editors and reviewers. It seemed like every book that made it to the New York Times bestseller list had something to recommend it. People involved in the publishing business loved books and literature, and they had some sense of what the general reader wanted. Today, casino-style economics drives the publishing business, and hype drives the economics. Books become bestsellers because they get big press runs that are presold to bookstore chains, whether they sell to actual readers or eventually get returned and pulped. Whether the book is any good or not seems to be a secondary consideration. So just because a book makes it onto a certain list or sits on a certain shelf in the store is no guarantee of quality. And the public’s taste may not be your taste at all.
For ebooks, the situation seems to be worse. Once authors had to pass a simple test of stamina: to create their book in the first place, they had to write it out in longhand, then retype it with carbon paper to make a finished manuscript in two copies—one to send to the publisher, one to hold as proof of ownership.5 This took time and patience. It also generally improved the writing, because retyping all those hurried scribbles usually compressed and improved the author’s language.6 But now anyone with an idea and a computer can gush words onto the screen and send them off without a second thought or cool-headed review. Even some books published in paper these days seem to lack proper editing or even spell checking.
Finding a new author to read and begin to trust is hard.7 But the upside of this bounty of books is that you have many more chances to find just the right book to tickle your fancy. You don’t have to rely on an editor in New York—or the author’s agent, who precedes the editor—to decide that you the reader will like this or that book. You don’t have to put up with his or her deciding that you do want another book about boy wizards or vampires or zombies, and you don’t want a book about baseball—even if baseball happens to be your passion. It’s a wide-open market. Go, seek, and find your preferred dream.
That same convergence of electronic forces is also making more online resources available to help you find your perfect book. Websites are popping up all the time to collect, review, and showcase new titles in your preferred genre. Bloggers whom you meet through social media are recommending their own favorite authors all the time. Readers are forming study groups in face space and passing recommendations online to help you explore new authors. While readers have never had more choice in books than now, they also have many more ways to learn about books, read samples online, and follow their preferred authors through blogs and websites.
This is a time of unparalleled opportunity for new authors and unparalleled richness for avid readers. This is the best of times.
1. For the earlier entries in this series, published about two years and more ago, see:
1. Gutenberg Economics: What Is a Book Worth?
2. Traditional Publishing: Through the Eye of the Needle
3. eBook Publishing: No Inventory, No Logistics, No Middlemen
4. eBook Publishing: The Author’s Toolkit
5. Welcome to Rome, 475 AD
6. How to Survive in Rome, 475 AD
7. I’ll Survive in Rome, 475 AD
2. Or, if you do it the old-fashioned way—as I do—it takes a couple of days of running search-and-replace to add HTML codes to the word-processed document, followed by copying the coded text into HTML page forms and assembling them into an epub. All of that takes me about a week of leisurely, although precise and mind-numbing, work.
3. And for this little slice of their existing investment, Amazon and the other ebook publishers charge the author or the traditional publishing company about thirty percent of the ebook’s list price. Is that a great business or what?
4. This is the class of authors who once inhabited the “mid list.” They have a loyal readership who will definitely buy their next book but not enough of a following to make it a national bestseller. Publishing economics over the past three decades has pushed them outside the traditional publishing market.
5. Or that’s the way I wrote my first book, back in the days when typewriters were as modern as the process got. Only very rich or established authors could think of dictating their books on tape and handing them over to a secretary to transcribe into two copies carbon paper.
6. I know retyping the manuscript improved my use of language.
7. For this I invoke Sturgeon’s Law: “Ninety percent of science fiction is crap. But then, ninety percent of everything is crap.” Wading through fields of crap makes finding the book that perfectly pleases you just that much more rewarding.