Publishers vs. E-Books

 Posted by at 10:27 PM  Tagged with: ,
Jun 012010

400 more years! 400 more years!

I’ve known for some time that the large print publishing companies are not fans of e-books. Many people wondered how publishers could be so silly, pricing e-books above (sometimes well above) the price of paperbacks, delaying e-book releases, providing simple OCR scans of paper books (instead of properly formatting or often even proofreading their e-book releases), blocking useful features like text-to-speech and lending, and infesting e-books with invasive copy protection (DRM) that annoys legitimate users. But I knew it wasn’t that publishers didn’t “get” e-books … OK, it wasn’t just that publishers didn’t get e-books: they are actively trying to forestall e-book adoption as long as they can. Why? Because there are 6 huge, multinational publishing conglomerates on top of the current food chain, divvying up the lion’s share of the $25 billion/year book industry, and a change as dramatic as the switch to e-books threatens to shake up their industry. Some publishers, by undergoing lots of painful downsizing, restructuring, giving up large New York offices, and doing some long-term thinking at the expense of this year’s profits, might remain relevant in the publishing landscape of the future. But not all will. So I’ve said before that they are forestalling that day of reckoning as long as they can. (They must understand how typewriter manufacturers and buggy-whip makers felt.)

But I’ve never before seen them admit it. See, they’ve always claimed to be in favor of e-books, since it’s clear that more and more authors and readers (their supposed allies and customers) like them. But now, David Shanks, CEO of Penguin Group (one of the “Big 6” publishers) came right out and admitted that We need to protect as long as we can the apparatus that sells physical books.

UPDATE: As another example, Nan Graham, the SVP and EIC at Scribner (Steven’s King’s publisher) created a nicely-crafted hardcover, and explained that “We hoped that a handsome object would slow the migration to e-book for King.”

In other words, it’s not about innovating, or even keeping up with changing times and technologies. They’ve stopped pretending they’re doing this for authors. They’re no longer claiming that they’re just trying to “preserve the value of e-books” or create “sustainable pricing” — for the authors, of course. They’ve finally admitted they not only don’t care about the readers, but they’ll do whatever they can to hold onto their position, at the expense of authors and readers and progress. As I said all along, it’s really just about protection. Not protecting literature or the future of books, just protecting themselves and their bottom lines.

When big publishers (like Jonathan Galassi) start talking about how they need to “maintain the value of time-honored roles,” I think it’s safe to say the writing is on the wall. (Although they probably get a sympathetic look from alchemists, blacksmiths, and cave-painters.) Companies that look to the past and seek to maintain the status quo don’t even notice the innovators (the Amazons and the Googles) as they rush past them and into the future.

As one last example of the “e-books are the enemy” attitude, consider this exchange between author Scott Turow and Galassi:

Turow: “Why did publishers agree to allow e-books to be available at the same time as paper books?”

Galassi: “It was a mistake to let Amazon put out e-books simultaneously and charge the price it did [$9.99]. It will have a negative effect on the paperback.”

So, there you have it. It was a mistake to let the largest bookseller in the world sell books to readers who wanted to buy those books (publishers should have delayed them and charged readers more instead). Why was it a mistake? Because it was bad for readers? For authors? No, bad for the paperback. Which really means: bad for the current crop of the Big 6 publishers, whose entire business model isn’t about selling literature, it’s about moving paper. The only thing that confuses me is, if they clearly care more about paper than they care about authors or readers, why are we supposed to care about what happens to them?

Apr 072010

As some of you no doubt know, I am an attorney. By this, I mean that I went to law school, graduated, passed the CA Bar exam, and worked as an attorney at a law firm for several years. That makes me an attorney. Pretty simple.

But I also write novels. I am an author. But, am I a “real” author? A “professional” author? What does that even mean?

It may surprise some people to know that only a tiny percentage of authors make a living solely by writing (obviously “make a living” is pretty vague). Most authors–yes, authors on the NY Times Bestseller List published by big publishers–teach on the side, have day jobs, freelance, or do other things to pay the bills. One estimate said that only 200 authors in the U.S. make a living solely from their writing. Let’s put that in perspective: there are 1,696 players in the NFL (32 teams x 53 players). And their minimum salary is $325,000 per year, much more than just “making a living.”

Hell, there must be more than 200 state lottery winners each year in the U.S., and they probably make at least $1 million. Better odds than writing.

So, what defines a “professional” writer? When can an author call himself a “professional”? Is it if he “makes a living” (is one of the 200)? Is published through a traditional publisher? Sells X number of books? Earns more than a certain dollar amount per year by writing? Has written more than a certain number of books?

Let’s say you get signed by a large publisher because it thinks your book will be profitable (not “good”–big difference). The standard first contract for an unknown author (i.e., not Sarah Palin, who doesn’t actually write–is she an author?) is a $5,000 advance and 8% of royalties after that. About 80% of books never make it to the “after that” stage–they don’t earn the author anything beyond the initial guaranteed $5,000. And publishers give most first-time authors very little or no publicity, no big display at Barnes & Noble, and if your books don’t sell well in the first month, they’re yanked from the shelves and they go out of print. You just made $5,000, on a book you probably spent at least a year on. Most authors spend that $5,000 trying to promote their own books.

Is that guy a professional author? What if I make $5,000 selling books on my own this year? Am I a professional?

The good news is that the game is changing. Readers are starting to get sick of much of the “traditionally-published” stuff, which is often formulaic and appealing to the lowest common denominator. Just as with indie music and movies, people are looking for new voices and books that the big publishing companies didn’t deem “marketable” enough to sell.

And now, with e-books, the self-publishing movement, and Amazon (the world’s largest bookseller), all those lines are being blurred. For very little money (and a whole lot of time), an author can format their own e-books and distribute them on Amazon’s virtual shelves right alongside Stephen King and Isaac Asimov. And, since print publishers are trying their best to kill e-books to protect their hardcover book sales, it gives little guys like me a chance.

  • So far in 2010, I’ve sold over 3,000 books (mostly e-books, and mostly through Amazon). Does that make me a “professional” author?
  • I’m completing my third novel, The Twiller, which should be out in a few months. Is that enough?
  • Stephen King said you’re a “professional” if your royalty check doesn’t bounce, and it pays the electric bill. My royalties this week already paid the electric bill for the month. But what about rent?
  • I made it to #1 on Amazon’s “Technothriller” best-seller list, and #479 overall in the Kindle Store (out of almost 500,000 e-books), which puts me above 99.9% of all e-book titles. Do I qualify?
  • And what about, you know, actually being a good writer? Does that even matter at all? I can name plenty of best-sellers that are horribly written, but their authors rake in the cash.

I actually don’t know the answer, and I’d love to hear your thoughts, so please leave a comment below. But I do know that I’m giving it a shot. More on that in my next post.