And the winner is . . .

by Amanda S. Green

That’s the answer to the question everyone is asking right now.  The question, of course, is who wins in the e-book revolution.

This post sort of piggy-backs onto Sarah’s post from yesterday, but it is also inspired by a thread on the Amazon kindle boards I read yesterday.  Simply put, the original poster in that thread saw readers as the winners in the rise of e-book popularity. Some of the comments were spot on, especially one where it was noted that e-books truly are changing the industry and we’ve only see the tip of the iceberg so far.  Another comment noted that having a title never go out of print and able to be in a reader’s hands in seconds no matter where they are has to be beneficial to the seller.  Another said that all the freebies he’d gotten through Amazon and other sources had helped him discover new authors and genres he’d never have read otherwise.

Then there is this article from the Miami Herald. It begins by saying the collapse of Borders has been seen as “the seventh sign of an impending apocalypse: for bookstores, for the art of reading, for the very concept of literacy” by a lot of folks.  Wrong.  Instead, it it just one twist and turn in the roller coaster that is the publishing industry right now.  I’m not going to quote the entire article.  Go read it.  There are some interesting facts and conclusions in it.  Among them:

  • e-books were the leading sellers in February over all book formats, probably because of Christmas, but still indicative of the changes that are happening.
  • it is possible that, by the end of the year, e-books will account for as much as a quarter of all book sales
  • since 2007, e-books sales have increased more than 1000%
  • e-book sales are expected to top the $1 billion mark this year.

So it’s no wonder the dinosaurs in publishing are scared.  New technology, new demands from readers and a more savvy readership are forcing them to either change their business models or go the way of Borders.  But this isn’t the first time — nor will it be the last — that this has happened in publishing.  From the Herald again:

Cries of doom have been the publishing industry’s favorite pastime for the past 70 years, since the introduction of paperbacks, derided as “throwaway books” that devalued reading itself. In the 1940s, the creation of so-called trade paperbacks, with better binding and bigger type, triggered predictions that hardbacks would die. In the 1960s, the rise of national bookstore chains like Waldenbooks and B. Dalton was supposedly going to homogenize and shrink the industry. Every time a doomsday prophecy failed, a new one, inevitably more dire, took its place.

So yes, Virginia, there will still be books.  There will be physical books and there will be digital books.  There will be new faces on the scene, both as publishers and as authors, and some of the old, familiar faces will disappear.

Publishers, at least those that adapt to new technology and demands, will thrive.  But they will have to listen to their readers and, honestly, take a more fair approach with their authors.  Authors are going to have to be more prepared to write their best — and see that it is well edited and proofed — AND they are going to have to be more visible to their fans via social networking, etc.

That groan you just heard was from all the authors who would much rather spend their time writing than tweeting or facebooking, etc.  I know.  I’m one of them.  But the one thing we can count on in the early stages of the e-book revolution is that there are going to be more and more people publishing their work as e-books than every before.  That means it will be more difficult for the average reader to know what’s out there.  Scheduled tweet blasts about an upcoming title from an author, blogs and fb posts all help get the word out.  This is especially important if you are a new author.

And let’s face it, folks, the promotion authors have been receiving from their publishers and agents have been next to none for the last few years unless that author is a “best seller” or the next new thing.

What it means is that, as writers, we have to look at publishing as our business now.  Whether we actually publish our own e-books or go to a publisher large or small to do it, we have to stay on top of it all.  It means using Google alerts to see when your name/title is mentioned.  It means promoting yourself — yes, Sarah, this means you.

What it means for publishers is that they have to adapt or find much of their business gone. Publishing has been a house of cards for years, just waiting for someone to challenge it for their so-called accounting methods.  It won’t take much of a wind to blow legacy publishers over right now.  So, hold one, the roller coaster is about to start down the hill — at least for them if they aren’t careful.

Then there are the agents.  I’m not going to say what I want to here.  It would get me in trouble.  What I will say is that agents are the one who will be impacted the most over the next few years by the change in the industry.  For some time now, agents have been the gatekeepers of publishing.  At least that’s how they’ve billed themselves and, in some ways, it is true.  But in others, well, let’s just say I’m not sure that their time hasn’t passed.  When it becomes harder to get an agent than it is to get your novel read by a publisher, something is wrong with the equation.  When an agent starts relying on software to automatically turn down a submission because it doesn’t have the right header or absolutely perfect information in the cover letter, there’s something wrong.  When agents become publishers — or assist in publishing — there is such a potential for conflict of interest that it makes my head spin.

Finally there are the readers.  As one of the posters in the Amazon thread said, the readers are the winners in this digital revolution.  Why?  Because books that have been long out of print are suddenly returning to the landscape.  Authors who might never have been published before are now finding ways to get their books into the hands of readers.  But, more importantly than that, writers who have long toiled under the antiquated publishing system with its upside down royalties have more control over what they write and when — if they want to exercise that control.

Does this mean there will be more slush out there to wade through?  Of course.  But let’s face it, most normal readers will never see it.  Why?  Because they will never know it is there.  Most people, when looking for an e-book, either know the title they are looking for or they are looking for something by a particular author.  They might look at the “if you liked this, then you might like that” recommendation often found on sites like Amazon.  They might also click over to check out a book they’ve seen referenced in a blog or on a discussion board.  I’d wager that 90% of books found in digital format never appear in any of those places.

But, even if they do and you as a reader decide to check it out, you are still taken to the product description page.  You can see what the cover looks like.  You can read the product description — and, if you aren’t aware of it — that product description is written by the author or the publisher.  So, you can get an insight there as to whether the person putting the e-book up can write.  If there are a number of misspellings or grammatical issues, run away.  If the description of the book doesn’t sound appealing, run away.

There’s something else we can do as readers to make sure we aren’t becoming slush readers.  More and more digital books allow you to “look inside”.  Which means you can read a small portion of the book without ever leaving the product page.  That is often enough to let you know if the “voice” of the book is enough to keep you interested.  Then there’s the preview function.  Oh, I know.  Some of you say you don’t have time to read previews.  Sorry, but that’s a cop-out.  If you go to a bookstore and flip through a book to see if you want to read it, you’ve “read a preview”.  Besides, it’s better to read a few pages of a free preview than to buy a book and realize you don’t like it.  Not every e-book retailer is as understanding as Amazon and lets you return an e-book after purchase.  Besides, by not reading previews, you really are limiting yourself to only those books or authors you know or that have been referred to you by someone you trust and, guess what, your taste isn’t always going to run the same as theirs.

So who are the winners here?  The winners are writers who suddenly have more control over their careers than ever before — if they are willing to venture into new territory and take a few risks.  The winners are readers who will be able to find that favorite book from years ago that’s been out of print for awhile.  Readers will be able to find new writers and, if they are a bit adventurous, will be able to try out new genres without spending much money.  Publishers can be winners IF they adapt and adapt quickly.  Agents may very well be the dying breed here, only time will tell.

The key is going to be stepping out of our comfort zones, no matter what role you play — writer, reader, publisher or agent.  If you aren’t willing to change your habits, well, you’ll be left behind as the roller coaster pulls out.  It might be an occasionally uncomfortable and scarey ride, but it will be fun in the end – if you hold on.

4 comments

  1. Actually… as far as I can tell, the only ones who are going to lose are the people who insist on clinging to The Way Things Were.

    And the biggest winners stand to be writers and readers. Amazon rankings and the like might not be a perfect tool, but they’ll bubble the better works up and rank the slush down. Publishers who actually add value for the author and the reader will do well. Publishers who leech, won’t.

    My 2c for the little it’s worth.

  2. Depends on the quality that finds its way out into the market. If we police ourselves and produce creditable work things will go well. If the market is glutted with more manure than contained in a Hong Kong sewer….not so well! Random sample some of the offerings and judge for yourself.
    Sandy

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