Tuesday, April 06, 2010

The Bottom Line

I particularly dislike the phrase “change is inevitable”, probably because it’s true. I suspect that I’m not alone in this dislike. That’s because change is inevitably disruptive, messy and quite often not a pleasant experience for those caught up in its maelstrom.

Well, even though I could probably go on for weeks on my little prognostications on what’s changed and what’s going to change in the book publishing biz, the bottom line is that in, let’s say, five years we’re not going to recognize the new paradigms that will describe our happy little world.

Can we do a thing about this change? No. But we can weather it by watching, looking and trying to understand. Another truism: “You can either ride the wave or be crushed under it”. Since we can’t change the flood of change, why even bother clinging to the old ways? Much as I hate to say it since I really love good, old fashioned, paper books, they may disappear. They may become curiosities like long-playing records: still manufactured but only for a very specialized market. I’d hate that — and I hope I’m wrong — but it's going to happen. I'm sure that, way back when, there were monks gnashing their teeth at the fact that they're beloved illuminated manuscripts were going the way of the dodo. (Come to think of it, that long ago even the dodos hadn't yet gone the way of the dodos.)

The best we lowly writers can do is embrace whatever happens. You’ll please note that I’m not suggesting you rush out and blindly support any change in technology or logistics that happens, but be aware of them, make careful note of the progress each change is making (because many things will be tried and many found wanting) and then try whole-heartedly to embrace whichever one makes it to the top and is then thrust upon you.

Sooner or later, one of us is going to have his/her publisher say, “We want to put out your next novel only as an e-book, no paper.” At that point, the hard decision is going to have to be made: do I say yes, or do I walk away?

I was faced with something like this with my third novel, Shooting Straight in the Dark. The publisher was McClelland & Stewart, a Canadian icon and the publisher of Margaret Atwood, for one. My editor told me that the decision had been made to only publish in trade paper. She then apologized profusely for that decision. I told her I thought that it was terrific. After all, it would be a lot easier to get a reader to shell out a smaller amount for a book by an author of whom they’d probably never heard. Unfortunately, M&S made the price ridiculously high for what they were selling (about $8-10 less than price for a hardcover), but I’m sure more copies were sold, regardless.

So will you say yes to an e-book only, or just walk away?


Vicki Delany said...

Right now? I'd walk away. E book sales are still very much the minority, and I don't see any major publishers giving e-book only deals. But in the future, time will tell. I think it will be a long time though. I wonder what the percentage of books sold to libraries vs. in bookstores is? And libraries are still almost all print. That, I think, is the major difference between music and books.

Dana King said...

Published is published; the medium is less important than a reasonable contract.

As a reader, I have no interest in e-books; given my age (54), I'll never have to walk away from reading paper. As a writer, once the creative work is over I have to be a businessman. If the money to support the business is in e-books, then i'd better be, too.

Rick Blechta said...

I think the e-book crisis point will be upon us sooner than you believe, Vicki. (Not that I'm pulling for this, mind you!) With Apple upping the stakes, it's merely a matter of time. The publishers, too, have an ingrained interest in the success of e-books, as well, since their costs will be dramatically reduced.

The real wild card is if the players get together and come up with one format (like mp3s or DVDs) that becomes the standard. If that happens — and it's really to everyone's ultimate advantage if it does — then look out. Paper books will crash a lot more quickly.

Here's an interesting thought: if publishers have to put so much less into production, will that mean it will free up more money for promotion? We can only hope.

peter_may said...

To be honest, Rick, I don't think the question is, should we be embracing e-books. The question is... given the changing technology... do we need publishers? I know of one particular writer who has been experimenting in publishing himself in the e-book market. He found that it wasn't (author) names that were selling the books, it was a competitive price. He was charging 3 dollars, and taking the lion's share of the sale (more than he would have got from a publisher). His books got into the Kindle top ten, and he started making a very comfortable little income from his sales. I don't think publishers are worried about the technology. I think they are worried that very soon writers will discover that they don't need publishers at all, and that the publishing industry itself will very soon go the way of the dodo.

Rick Blechta said...

You're absolutely correct, Peter, but I also don't think the average, currently published writer has the will or necessary business savvy to publish their own books. I've done it, and it's a hell of a lot of work.

However, it will certainly become easier with e-books. Even now, all it needs is a clever marketer to handle the day-to-day stuff, as well as more e-book readers out there. That would quite possibly tip the equation.

And really, with the little that most publishers now do for their "smaller" authors (a term I detest), many would say, what's the use of having them anyway?

Thanks for weighing in!

MTCoalhopper said...

Your publisher’s decision to go with trade paper and Peter’s comment about self-publishing at $3 a copy goes to economies of scale. You might make much per copy, but you could be selling hundreds of copies per day, and there is no overhead involved in creating that circulation. That kind of thinking really is about the “bottom line.”

And, I beg to differ about the difficulty of e-publishing on your own. The software requires some tech-savvy, but it isn’t beyond anyone’s reach. The effort is in self-marketing. You know, like being an aspiring author trying to shop an unsolicited manuscript around. That is a skill a lot of us don’t possess.