New Plan for the Publishing Industry...
They're going to stop rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic and start colluding against icebergs.
There has been a lot of moaning by publishers and big bookstore chains about how e-books and Amazon are threatening to put them out of business. E-books are outselling hardcopy books, Amazon is undercutting prices, e-books sell for less, so the profit to the publisher--oh, yeah, and some other guy...Oh! Right, the author-- is lower.
Doom and despondency all around.
What I'm not hearing at all is whether total book sales, e-books included, are up or down. Paperbacks are down, yes. And despite the hand wringing, that doesn't mean a damn thing. CD sales are down as well, but people still buy new music. Eight track sales may never recover.
If the publishing industry as a whole is selling more books, whether through Amazon, Apple, brick and mortar or whatever, that is a net boon to writers. The potential audience is growing. People who live out in the sticks, people in countries where their native tongue isn't the standard, all can now get any book any time, via online e-book sales. This is a Good Thing.
And Amazon isn't piracy. People pay for the e-books. So the author gets something, and with the longer reach of online sales, the author should get a piece of greater overall potential sales.
E-books should not cost the same as print. Yes, the author worked just as hard on it. So did the editor. But there are savings in production, shipping, storage and returns. This is truth. And an e-book is less valuable to the consumer, since it's harder to lend, you can't sell it at a yard sale or donate it to the local library when you finish it. If an e-book is $10 I will stick to print. And I will buy half as many books as if I can get a $4.99 e-book.
Maybe the publishing industry should try to sell more books, encourage more reading among the next generation (say what you like but the Harry Potter and Hunger Games series have done all writers a great service by introducing recreational reading to more young people) than trying to ensure they get the same cut they always have.
They need to stop rhapsodizing the longbow and crying when the enemy brings a machine gun to the field.
Amazon sells a boatload of books. Let's encourage the selling of a boatload of books.
Mike - My experience is the exact opposite of Michelle's. My I've sold three times as many $3.99 ebooks as I have $9.99 paperbacks.
Add in the 300 free downloads from promotional days and your looking at a lot more eyeballs and potential readers, fans and word of mouth as I'd have gotten without ebooks. I've actually talked to people who downloaded my ebook on a whim because it's less that a coffee and a muffin, so what the hell. I doubt I'd have gotten that download from a ten or 15 dollar ebook.
fullerdb - About 10 years ago I did some research and found out that web-designing, hosting, bandwidth and payment processing costs matched the savings in production, shipping, storage and returns, meaning that if I had gone forward and released an e-book, I'd have to charge the same price as a printed version. I agree that an e-book has less value than a printed book. Not only because of the reasons in the editorial, but also because the author/publisher is transferring the responsibility of providing a reading medium to the reader: the reader must have reading equipment instead of receiving a ready-to-read product. 10 years ago, that meant a computer or Palm device. Almost everyone I know complains (still today) about reading for a long time on a computer screen and Palm devices were not nearly as ubiquitous as smartphones, tablets and e-readers are today.
I think Amazon saw all these problems and fixed them. Of course, 10 years of personal computing development played its part, but they are bulky enough to have large-scale savings in the web-costs and they provide e-readers which go around the screen dislike problem or can be virtually free as a smartphone/tablet app. And they let authors be publishers. Or, depending on how you see it, Amazon is the publisher. Either way, that's, in my opinion, what makes the traditional publishers squirm: they don't add value as much value as they used to. And they add none, if they try to push things to be as they were before.
I don't think Amazon is perfect. I have some serious issues with their international policies (which, I grant, seem to be improving). They are not the only source of good, reasonably priced e-books either, but their user experience is excellent (finding, buying, downloading and reading an e-book is almost too easy) and, as far as I know, they were the first to make things work (certainly the first to make things work for me). And the best: I've had access to stories I probably wouldn't have known otherwise for reasonable prices to read on a medium that is very convenient for me (I don't have any more room to store paper, which also gives me allergies).
I believe I've spent more money on books in the last couple of years than in the previous five. And I'm quite sure everybody that worked to make those stories reach me have received some compensation for their work.
micheledutcher - In spite of my ideal situation - selling ebooks online - most of the books I've sold have been in print at bookfairs or friends of mine selling to friends of theirs, enlarging the circle of sells as they go. I think ebook sells are mostly for #1 sellers, when the customer doesn't want to pay for the hard-back or paperback version. I hope I'm wrong - just in my experience - I've sold 10 times in print that I've sold as ebooks.
mark211 - Thanks for a really interesting editorial. I wholeheartedly agree with your main argument and I’d also be interested in knowing whether or not the overall quantity of books ‘sold’ (as well as all those downloaded for free from e.g. Project Gutenburg).
However, … there have been some very curious twists in the print/digital relationship. For example, I find it interesting that when a Blog or e-Book hits a certain level of popularity they turn on the printing presses - almost as if to say it’s not a ‘real’ success until you can weigh it in your hand.
But the real dilemma for the publishers is that they are no longer confident they can try to fix the odds in the way they used to be able to. If every one has a book inside them then that’s doubly or trebly true of a lot of journalists – so journalists have traditionally tended to be nice to publishers, especially fiction publishers (even if they are not so nice to the work of particular authors).
A dozen or so over-priced dinners between a publisher and a literary editor could, once, have landed you some fairly positive hype even if it didn’t quite promise huge sales.
Fiction (and maybe all publishing) is a bit of a weird industry because – I think – what you’re selling from a purely commercial point of view is not a product (a book) or a leisure service (6 hours + of reading time) but a reputation. ‘The Hobbit’, ‘Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep’, ‘1984’ – these aren’t books any more, they are part of the language.
It’s the kind of book that if a reader doesn’t like it, they feel it must be their fault for not being literary enough, not the book’s fault for just not being their cup of tea. Neil Gaiman or George RR Martin are reputations (not brands) because half the thrill for the reader is the anticipation of what the name might mean (a brand, I think, is a thinner, more superficial and more flash-in-the-pan version of a reputation).
But now … I suspect all the savings they might make in in production, shipping, storage and returns might now get swallowed up in the marketing and promotion. But whereas once upon a time print ear literary circles might have been a small enough world to be able to influence opinions and build up an author’s reputation, there’s even less of a guarantee of being able to do that now.
This is an unashamedly elitist point of view but I used to like the idea of a publishing house as a museum of fiction where the commissioning editors are ‘curators’ of a wing or even just a room. I do actually think it might be something of a tragedy that we might be in danger of losing the tradition of the editor with not only a discerning eye but also a clear vision for the kind of author list he/she wants to manage. Actually, I get the impression that ideal situation was lost a long time ago when massive media organisations like News International started snapping everything up … but that’s another story.
Still, who knows what’s going to be around the corner …
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