As I described last week,1 traditional book publishing based on Gutenberg economics has had a bad effect on authors. It has expanded the number of middlemen they and their work must meet and satisfy: agents, acquisitions editors, booksellers’ buying agents, and sometimes even movie producers.2 It has turned the act of writing a book and reaching readers into a high-stakes literary lottery, with blazing success as the only viable option—but only if you are willing to let outsiders and their first-impression opinions direct your creative process. In this environment, new fiction authors and returning authors with less than stellar sales face immense hurdles in getting their book before readers. Agents languish with stables of once-profitable authors who can’t make a sale, and so they won’t consider and take on new clients.
Gutenberg economics have also had a generally bad effect on readers. Popular culture now passes through the filtering lens of more and more middlemen to reach fewer and fewer actual decision makers in big conglomerates. They all look for obvious successes and promote them feverishly at the expense of riskier projects. The result is a lower volume of new titles with far less originality, as every hopeful author strives to copy a known successful formula that will run this gauntlet.
All of this is driven by the physical fact of the book: a wad of paper with ink marks on it. Such an object can only be economically produced in large volumes through the one-time act of running a press. Then those wads of paper must be warehoused, accounted for, shipped to the bookseller, sold or not—and if not, then shipped back to the warehouse and accounted for again—with inventory costs and tax effects looming over the whole process.
Enter the Digital Book
Digital publishing—made possible in various formats by the recent successes of Amazon’s Kindle ereader, Barnes & Noble’s Nook, the Apple iPad’s iBooks app, and other digital readers and print-on-demand strategies—now changes all that. As an author, you still have to write the book as an up-front investment, and it helps to invest in having someone edit and prepare it professionally. But after you have coded your epub or MOBI or RTF version, prepared an eye-catching cover, and obtained an international standard book number (ISBN) and copyright protection, the rest is automatic and electronic.
You, as the self-publishing author, go on line with Amazon, B&N, Apple, and other distributors, sign a non-exclusive contract, and upload the book’s content, cover image, description, and other details. You establish your rights (worldwide or specific to markets like the U.S., UK, or Germany) and set a purchase price. Most of these services offer royalties ranging from 35% to 70% of the book’s retail price.3
There is no press run to pile up copies, no physical inventory to warehouse or tax. There is virtually no distribution cost other than the space allotted on the booksellers’ computer server (usually less bytes than a high-resolution photo would occupy) and adding a couple of lines to their sales and accounting database. Then the electrons go out as readers order the book, and the money comes back in the form credit card and PayPal transfers.4
Traditional paper-based publishers have been wrangling with authors and agents over digital rights to their books for ten to fifteen years now. Publishers have long known that, once some kind of digital tablet established an ebook market, readers would choose the digital book over paper in large and growing numbers. But the power of the traditional publisher was based on Gutenberg economics and the investment in making physical books on a printing press. Over the years, the book publisher has accrued other powers: acting as a filter of potential authors and guaranteeing quality and taste to the reader; promoting books in the marketplace; and providing advance payments that support the author during the production period between manuscript completion and the book’s arrival in the marketplace.
Without the investment in a press run, what does an author—or the reader, for that matter—need with a publisher? The guarantee of quality and taste is really a guarantee that the book project will have enough mass market appeal to attract big sales and support a big press run. On that basis, lot of tripe gets published in pursuit of the reader’s bucks. The promise of promoting books has, as noted in my previous blogs on this topic, gone mostly into marketing to buyers at the big chain bookstores. Reaching individual readers is usually left to the author, through arranging his or her own readings, signings, convention appearances, and postcards to fans and friends. The offer of an advance, while nice, is hardly necessary when the production period between finishing the manuscript and having it appear is the time to upload on the distributor’s server.
You as the author/publisher still have to get your name in front of the readers, but the power of the internet helps you there, too. It costs very little in terms of money to set up an author’s website; the real investment is in terms of the time you spend to keep it fresh and interesting so that it will attract new readers and reward those who return. It takes the same or more time, but no extra money at all, to blog as a way to show potential readers how interesting and talented you are. The new social media like Facebook, Linked In, and others provide ways for you to keep in touch with friends and colleagues—and by extension their multiples of friends and colleagues—about your book projects.
You can also take out ads and send copies of your book to online review services. The marketplace for advertising, like Google AdWords and Facebook Ads, is still in its infancy and sure to develop in response to authors who self-publish. Most of the online booksellers now offer a reader review feature that lets potential buyers see what others thought of a book. Online services to market the book (for the author) and review the field of current books (for the readers) will spring up to guide the public’s attention. These independent, internet-enabled services are already functioning in nascent form.5
As to revenues, new authors wonder how they can make money by charging a low price—averaging just $2.99—for a new ebook. But if the ebook distributor pays 70% of that declared price directly to the author, the book nets about $2. If a traditional publisher gives you the usual 10% royalty (and I’ve gotten a lot less), you don’t make that much money on a $15 trade paperback. I think for the mass of authors the ebook market will be very good—provided they can step up and market themselves.
“But I Like the Feel of Paper”
Right now, the market for books—and especially novels—is in furious transition. Readers who claim they like books are discovering what they really like is stories. Yes, the beloved physical book is a familiar object, but it’s also heavy, troublesome when you want to take four or five of them on vacation, awkward when you’re finished and want to store it on your already bulging bookshelves, and increasingly expensive. The average novel in hardcover lists for $20 to $35—so expensive that bookstores now routinely discount them deeply. In paperback, the price is $10 to $20, and also discounted.
By comparison, the digital version that goes out on the distributor’s ebook platform (Kindle, Nook, etc.) is usually half to a third of the paperback price. It is immediately downloadable (no trip to the store or UPS delivery from Amazon), virtually indestructible (break or lose the tablet, and you still own the book on the distributor’s server), easy to carry (those memory chips can store a whole library), electronically searchable and navigable (“Where have I seen this character before?” Search back through the text), and adjustable (scale the type size for aging eyes). The book automatically keeps your place, right up to the last page read, and with the right apps can duplicate this service across a variety of platforms (e.g., with a Kindle or Nook app on your iPhone and iPad). This convenience, along with the knowledge that your purchase involved cutting no trees to make paper and burning no diesel to ship books, is a clear win for digital editions.
Readers also get a much wider selection of authors, styles, and views of the world—more potential books that they will find are written exactly to their taste—and the personal pleasure of discovering a midlist or little-known author who can reliably create the magic for them. What Gutenberg did to quills and parchment,6 ebooks are doing to presses and paper: changing the manufacturing process and expanding the world of reading a thousand-fold. The power of the publishing conglomerates to dictate literary winners and losers is broken.
Will the printed book entirely disappear? Of course not. Some people will always love a book so much that they want cherish a copy on good paper bound in cloth or leather. Others will want to send favored books as gifts. But for general reading, to satisfy the hunger for one more story, paper books will go the way of newsprint as an archaic medium. We’ll get our daily fix of science fiction, romance, mystery, and so on by electronic presentation.
As the market turns to digital books, the current crop of heavy-hitters will still thrive on name recognition. Dan Brown and other bestselling authors will still lead sales. But the gates will open for other authors who can tell an interesting story and satisfy the reader’s urges but have been kept out of the market because their work did not have bestseller potential. The market will recognize many new “goodselling” authors as well as quirky, niche authors who may attract only a thousand readers worldwide, but those will be the most loyal buyers of all. These new authors will also have time to make their names known and reach their intended readers, because the ax of being remaindered need never fall on a digital book.
The gates will open, also, on a flood of truly incompetent authors who can’t tell a story and don’t even know that they can’t. But that’s where word of mouth—the only marketing mechanism that most readers really trust—will establish quality and originality, or their lack. But quality in the marketplace is always in the eye of the beholder and buyer.
1. See Through the Eye of the Needle in Various Art Forms.
2. Especially in the context of media tie-ins like the Star Wars or Star Trek books in science fiction, where a studio owns the creative rights. It can be creepy to have movie producers—who traditionally disdain to read lengthy, detailed pitches and treatments—call for changes and even third-party rewrites in a novel-length book.
3. This compares favorably with the 6% or so royalty in traditional paperback publishing and 10% in hardcover. And, if you are represented by an agent, he or she takes 15% off the top of that royalty.
4. There is no real need for issuing a new edition, either, except for clarity or to reboot sales. If the author discovers an error or typo in the current text, fix it and upload again; future buyers—or those who archive the book away from their readers—will get the corrected text. Similarly, while the author can withdraw a title from sale, it remains available to past purchasers because they have bought the right to read the text in perpetuity.
5. For example, see the goodreads book recommendation service.
6. You can still get nice calligraphy done: diplomas and certificates and cute mottos to hang on your wall. You just don’t try to read the latest thriller in parchment.