Sunday, April 10, 2011

Opinion — E-Books and the State of Play in Self- Publishing

This article may be timely, but it certainly isn’t timeless. Technology alters reading habits and reading habits change the marketplace. And this is all happening at a lightning pace. What has emerged as a game-changer, from a book-publishing point of view, are e-books. And e-books present two separate challenges. One is the e-book itself. And the second is that this new medium has turned the idea of self-publishing upside down.

Not so long ago, to self-publish was akin to suicide for those who regarded themselves as serious or professional writers. Publishing one’s own book meant you not only didn’t get the official validation that publishing houses gave authors, you could not benefit by the built-in resources necessary to get your book noticed, hence, sold.

Today, there are stories of self-published authors who have sold many books, enough of them, in fact, to provide them with a standard of living better than many of us who, at least for now, have traditional publishers. But there can be no more profound an example of the change in reading habits and the resulting change in the marketplace than reports of best-selling authors who have decided to self-publish.

This latter development is no doubt encouraged by the fact that an author can provide his or her own work directly, adapting to formats that work with Amazon (Kindle), Apple (ipad) or Barnes & Noble (nook). In this case, if the income derived from the sale of the e-book is equated with a pie, then this pie is divided into only two pieces.

A conventionally printed and published book has twice as many pieces — instead of sharing half a pie, each player gets a much smaller piece. The players: The publisher and its staff of accountants, editors, artists, print specialists, and marketing people; the book distributor who has trucks and staff, the bookstore who has to pay rent and labor; the author; and quite likely the agent (who usually gets 15 percent of the author’s take). For many readers, it might come as a surprise: In the final tally, the author gets very little of the $26.95 that you pay for a new hardback. The author might get $1.50 of that price. If the author self-publishes an e-book and sells it at $9.99, he or she might get $5 or more and the middlemen go hungry.

It’s very clear that all the main players in the publishing world are scrambling. We’ve already witnessed the painful dissolution of Borders. Barnes & Noble investors are no doubt very concerned. What is to happen to the bricks and mortar aspect of the book business? Amazon reported recently that they are now selling more e-books than paperbacks. And that raises the question, what will happen to already suffering independent and the crime writer’s best friend, mystery bookstores?

For those who can hold on and adapt, what I see is that some of the independents will succeed, perhaps flourish. They will inherit the bookstore haunters who no longer can spend an afternoon in Borders. More importantly, specialty bookstores are already showing a cleverness that the big-box corporations didn’t. Some of the more spirited owners are investigating ways for customers to order e-books through them. Customers will have the advantage of knowledgeable book people (which they didn’t always have at the big-box stores anyway) and the ability to get that new book immediately, and I might add at a greatly reduced price.

That last sentence shouldn’t go unnoticed. It is not only the authors who benefit economically from self-published (or even traditionally published e-books to a lesser extent). Because the overall cost of production is usually significantly lower, the e-book customer also gets a deal.

On the other hand, if anyone with a computer can publish — and the field is already crowded — who is the guardian of quality? That responsibility used to fall to the publisher and its acquisition editors, copyeditors and proofreaders. Not every writer has those skills. In many ways publishers are the gatekeepers. Of course, they make mistakes, but they help separate the wheat from the chaff. To the extent that publishers have overhead, they also have resources. They market, they have a sales force, they advertise and they see to it that their books land in the hands of reviewers.

In the end, we don’t know how self-publishing and e-book reading will shake out. Certainly, evolving technology, changing habits and emerging demographics more than suggest the old ways are in decline. What book publishing will look like in the next few years is unclear, but its direction isn’t. The absolute good news out of all this is that the book, no matter what form it takes, is not dead.

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