Sunday, May 30, 2010

To E or Not to E

by Libby Hellmann

That seems to be the question. The answers to who should e-publish, who should retain rights, and how much ebooks should cost has dominated the conversation in the publishing industry for over a year now. Moreover, the spin-off issues that have evolved threaten to shake up the way authors and publishers do business. Not surprisingly, in some quarters the conversation has turned shrill. Even misleading, as friend-of-the-Outfit and uber-Kindler Joe Konrath discovered.

What isn’t misleading, though, is the effect ebooks are having. In 10 years it’s estimated that over 30% of all books sold will be in digital formats. That’s a lot of books. For authors, it presents an unprecedented opportunity to take our work directly to readers without spending a lot of money or time. No middle men, no publishers, no limitations. If you have the rights to your backlist, going-e is a terrific way to give those titles new life. And if you (or your agent) can manage to keep those rights as you continue to publish, you'll find that royalties accrue instantly, with nothing held in reserve.

Not bad... But...

Unfortunately, I’m a proponent of the “other shoe theory of life.” So following is kind of a reality check, at least on ebooks. Don’t get me wrong. All of my novels and other work are on Kindle and some are on Smashwords (more about that in another post), and I will continue to make them available.

But it’s important to note that your mileage may vary. In several ways.

First, the money. You’ve no doubt heard the six-figure income Joe’s on tap to reap from publishing his books on Kindle. But Joe is an anomaly. My books sell, but nowhere near his level. Joe has “broken through” the e-universe, and deservedly so. There is no one who has worked harder to promote himself and his “platform” although he disagrees. (I hate the word "platform," btw.) Remember the 500 bookstore tour? The library promotion? His My Space page? He has thousands of followers. He has reach. He’s versatile, and he tells a great story. But what about the rest of us? I’m not so sure.

Second, and this is more a theory than fact, it seems to me that a significant chunk of Kindlers and ebookers are younger, hipper, i-Phone-ish readers whose attention spans are –um— just a tad imperfect. Is what I write going to be of interest to them? Will they stick with it? I don’t know. Notwithstanding Harry Potter and Twilight, the number of fiction readers keeps declining, so the challenge becomes one of appeal. The ebook authors who can stay relevant to hipper, more wired readers will have more success. Unfortunately, that won't be all of us.

But here’s my biggest concern. If you’ve been paying attention, you already know that B&N, and now Apple ,among others, have created divisions for self-publishing ebooks. The floodgates are about to open, and the ebook market is going to be a vast sea of self-published work.

Theoretically, we midlist authors who have been previously published should have an advantage. We have been vetted. We have been edited. Publishers stand behind us. But how are we going to get that message out? What kind of filters will be in place to differentiate our work from work that hasn’t been vetted? Will anyone pay any attention? I don’t know.

Those are my worries. But there's good news too.

Despite the fact that publishing is contracting and going digital, there are several emerging trends that are positive for midlist authors. One of them is described in this article about the collaboration between a midlist author and a small publisher. Whether you’re publishing in print or ebook or both, I thought this was a clever way for both author and publisher to survive in today’s market. There are other MOs out there, as described here that new authors are using to get their work out.

I hope we’ll see more of these innovations. It's clear the industry is changing, and that's good. It will force authors to become better businesspeople, give us more control over their careers, and hopefully make publishers more accountable.

OK. Enough from me. What do you think?


Peg Brantley said...

First, you need to know I thought fax machines were a passing idea. So, my track record at picking the next best things is pretty bad.

I think ebooks are here to stay, but I find myself buying both traditional books and electronic books and am quite happy with a blend.

Self-published books have been around for a very long time. How many people actually read them—at least after they've read one? I imagine that savvy ebook readers will learn to descern which of those books have had the benefit of editing, and lists will be formed.

Cahya said...

Sometimes to E, and sometimes not to E.

Libby Hellmann said...

I hope you're right, Peg. Thanks for the comment. You too Cahya.

Debbi said...

"Second, and this is more a theory than fact, it seems to me that a significant chunk of Kindlers and ebookers are younger, hipper, i-Phone-ish readers"

Hmm. I think this may be a bit of a stereotype, actually.

Believe it or not, I've corresponded with quite a few readers my age or older who really like their Kindles because they are easier to handle due to arthritis and other disabling conditions.

E-readers are also popular with people who travel and don't want to lug all those books around. They tend to read often and quickly and enjoy the ease with which they can acquire new books.

I only got my own Kindle recently (for Christmas and I'm surprised how much I like it) and my first book purchased was Bridge of Sighs. Not exactly lightweight stuff for people with short attention spans. :)

Libby Hellmann said...

Debbi: You make a good point.

I was thinking of those who download lots of stories, repeatedly. Those types of readers are, I think, younger, male, and more wired. And, to be honest, I think they're more apt to download Joe and Lee Goldberg and other horror/crime/genre writers than female readers, (young or old) who tend to know what they want, download it, and then move on.

I realize I dont have any hard data to back it up. I wish I did. But I think the pattern exists.