Saturday, April 10, 2010

Interesting Times

I’ve been following Rick’s posts on the future of the publishing industry and e-book publication with great interest.  On April 4, the major Phoenix area newspaper, The Arizona Republic, published an article on this very topic.  The article, entitled “The Plot Thickens”, was written especially for the Republic  by one Max Jarman, and appeared on the front page of the Business Section.  

Jarman writes that many people fear that the rise of electronic readers will spell the eventual end to hardcopy books, traditional publishers, and bookstores. However, Jarman’s take on this rather scary prospect is decidedly upbeat, and he sees many advantages for readers and authors both.

He writes that “the ‘direct-to-consumer model’ for book distribution eliminates shipping, warehousing, and return of unsold books, and allows the simultaneous availability of millions of new and out-of-print titles.  That could lower prices to consumers and libraries, and allow greater royalties and profits to authors and publishers.”

Jarman thinks that the explosion of online publishers offers authors many more opportunities to get into print (as it were), and makes them less dependent on agents and traditional publishing houses.  He points out that online stores such as Amazon and Coolerbooks are already dealing directly with authors.  There is even an outfit called Scribd that “will publish any [my italics] submission, post it for sale, and give the author eighty percent of the proceeds.”  Before its tiff with Macmillan, which wanted to be able to sell its hot titles for at least $15, Amazon was offering seventy percent of e-book sales proceeds to authors and publishers, as long as they would agree to sell the product for $2.99 to $9.99. As we all remember, Macmillan won that one, at least for the time being.

My question is this: which is better, Seven to ten percent of a $25 book, or eighty percent of a $3 book? According to my trusty calculator, seven percent of $25 is $1.75, and eighty percent of $3 is $2.40.  If you or your publisher sell one thousand copies of Book A, you’ll make $1750.  One thousand copies of Book B will get you $2400. If you had a choice between buying exactly the same book at $25 or $3, which would you choose? Of course, it isn’t really that simple, as I’m sure you will hasten to point out, Dear Reader.  If the above-mentioned outfit Scribd will publish any old book at all, how is the reader going to be able to navigate through all the absolute dreck in order to find something that is well-written and worth not just $3, but several hours of your life to read? And if you're the author, who is going to get your book reviewed and publicized if you have no traditional publisher?  And yes, I do realize that just because you have a traditional publisher, that doesn't mean you're going to get reviewed and publicized, either.

As for booksellers, Jarman thinks that “the growing sales of digital books through Amazon, Coolerbooks, iBooks, and Google Editions could hasten closures of traditional book stores,” though specialty and used bookstores will survive by offering readers services and amenities, such as author events, cafes,and book exchanges, that an online store can’t.  He even quotes Barbara Peters, who is the editor for several of us on this blog and owner of Poisoned Pen Bookstore in Scottsdale, AZ, who says that her staff helps readers with selection, thus “offering a service that is hard to duplicate online.”

I don’t know what’s going to happen.  I can’t even offer an opinion, because no idea ever turns out to work the way its conceiver envisions. I think that there will be all kinds of unintended consequences, and savvy entrepreneurs will come up with all kinds of clever enterprises. All I know for sure is that we book people; authors, bookseller, publishers alike, have been smitten with that old Chinese curse that goes, “May you live in interesting times.”


I created a link to Max Jarman's complete article, above, but it has been archived and there is now a charge to look at it on the Republic website. There may be another way to get to it, but if there is, I'm not up to finding it. Best of luck.


Jill said...

It's nice to read something about e-books that isn't all doom and gloom. Yes, it's early days, so who knows how it will unfold, but the potential advantages seem undeniable. Cutting out the middleman could mean authors earn more, and side-stepping the whole ridiculous notion of returns would be great.

Rick Blechta said...

Let's face it, the real bottom line is that readers will still want stories, good stories that are well-written, so the market will still be intact no matter what happens.

Some days I feel like Chicken Little screaming that the sky is falling, and other days I feel like saying, "So what? Maybe it's a good thing that this old sky is falling." The one that replaces it might be a whole lot better for everyone.

I've spent some time trying to research what the response was by authors, publishers and the reading public when mass market paperbacks hit the bookshelves. So far, not much luck, but I'd be willing to bet that lots of people just like us were saying about that change, "The sky is falling!"

Good post.