Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Opinion — E-Books & Self-Publishing, Re-Re-Visited

The publishing model that has served us for hundreds of years has splintered. Folks who participated in or gained, or suffered from that model are running in all sorts of directions to pick up the pieces and build a new model. Or, more likely, several new ones.

The detonating device, of course, was the e-book. The only part of the publishing process that hasn’t changed with its introduction is the writing — and editing, where it exists. There is no printing, no physical distribution and no requirement for a bricks and mortar retail outlet. This has cut costs significantly and has potentially given an immense amount of power and control to the writer.

With power and control comes responsibility. For now, there is still the option of going to a mainstream or an independent publisher and letting them handle the whole process. And I suspect that these publishers are working on their own models for survival. Writers who decide to create their own model will have to deal with parts of the process for which they may have little talent and/or interest — design as well as coding the document for e-book formats, and then marketing it to the masses. In terms of design and conversion, they will have to either to do it themselves or hire it done. These are not huge expenses and there are talented folks out there eager to take them on. However, in terms of marketing — oh shit — marketing.

Let’s look at the current situation. Veteran writers, many of them top-notch talents, are putting their old, out-of-print books back on the market, (I’m doing the same) not to mention a few favorite unpublished manuscripts (Yep, that too). That’s a sudden infusion of titles into the marketplace. Next, there are all the newbies who want to bypass the interminable and depressing process of getting their book over the transom of the traditional publishers. They simply go straight to e-books. Younger, more engaged in technology, they are likely to be genuinely at home with the technology and don’t have the sentimental attachment to paper. Among this group will be some great new talents and, just as likely, a tremendous number of truly wretched wannabes. That means still more books for the public to sort through. And of course, we can’t forget all the best selling and near best-selling authors whose books are being released as e-books by the major houses and independent publishers. In addition to the regular release of books the big, old houses have a backlist that has never seen an e-reader. This might be their last chance to earn new money on an old investment. Lots and lots of books all of a sudden.

Unfortunately people can read only so many books. And while e-readers may, in fact, increase readership because of convenience, there is a big problem: How do readers know which books they want to read? Or a more personal way for the supposedly newly empowered writer to phrase the question: “How can I get them to pick mine?” Oh shit, marketing.

Some writers, not content to stop at web sites and blogs, are tweeting like hell. Some are actually marketing their books successfully this way despite an increasingly competitive marketplace.

Another example of a new approach is the formation of a marketing coalition. For example, 12 award-winning crime writers formed what is, in essence, an on-line bookstore. allows its writers to rightfully say, “Buy from us because the quality is guaranteed.” Unlike a random pick off Amazon’s Kindle list, this group offers a vetted group of writers for a public that has to find the selection process more and more confusing. The writers also share in the marketing costs to promote the bookstore that sells only their e-books.

Without some sort of creative approach, many who publish their own e-books, will find it extremely difficult to stand out and could, in the end, search for a substitute for the old publishing houses.

In this context, players —large and small — are scrambling. As I mentioned in an earlier post, Amazon is working hard to become a traditional (sort of) publisher itself, buying new work from writers and using its existing leverage (and no doubt other strategies) to market books. A large media company is courting Barnes & Noble, probably not for its retail locations but for its e-book capacity, which not only includes the second most popular reader, but also revenue from downloads ordered by an existing, engaged customer base.

Otto Penzler, who is a remarkably successful and respected publisher, editor and bookseller, continues to adapt to the marketplace as well. It has been reported that he has partnered with a company that will provide a slick, professional multi-media marketing platform for books Penzler brings them. As I understand it, these are to be reissues of classics as well as contemporary, original work that a company called Open Road Media will digitize and, more importantly, market.

As one might imagine, ingenuity and entrepreneurship have begun to blossom in the staid and stodgy publishing world. But some of these new approaches can’t please writers who had thought e-books (and especially self-publishing) opened the door for them to finally own their own career. What they may find is that publishing isn’t changing as much as it is merely shifting. Where, among the winners and losers, will writers land?

And what about the big houses? Are they all slow-walking dinosaurs? Or are some of them cleverly working behind the scenes with expert techno-oriented marketers in order to continue to dominate the marketplace? Certainly some are part of mammoth, multi-media empires with complex inter-corporate relationships and have access to resources we writers, sitting alone in our rooms, can’t even imagine.

It is still early in the game. Not all the players have made themselves known. But the early reports of large corporations loosening their grip on writers may have been grossly exaggerated — by me.

No comments: