Lately, there has been much discussion of publishing in terms of printing vs. digitizing-- books vs. ebooks--and the news swirls in a faster spinning vortex. With the iPad about to debut, there's much speculation on will ebooks become more popular than they are now? "Yes" is the answer because books on the iPhone are already tops in aps (click here to see the chart and article), and it will be much easier to read text on the iPad compared to the iPhone.
Kindle and other electronic readers will continue to sell to voracious readers who find "e-ink" more readable than backlit screens. (Until you try such a screen, you won't understand. The Huffington Post wrote about it in part--click here.)
I awoke yesterday to an NPR story on the cost of ebooks. If there's no ink or paper, where's the expense? (Click here to read the article or hear the newscast.) This comes a week after an article in the New York Times about the same thing. (Click here for that article.) Both go into the cost of overhead for publishers--that there's still the costs of editors, designers, royalties to the author, and, marketing. Advertising, book tours, and schmoozing with newspaper editors, bookstores, and book reviewers isn't cheap.
Having access to a Kindle, I'm seeing ebooks are essentially coming three ways. First there are the ebooks from big publishers who have made digital versions of their hardback books; their ebooks sell for $9.99 or more compared to $25 or more for the hardback. The publisher has the full overhead costs, listed above. Printing and distributing for a $25 hardback book is only about $5, says Laura Miller in a Salon.com article. Publishers still have to pay their authors based on the hardback price, even when the books sell more cheaply for the Kindle.
Then there are self-publishers who have written a book, self-edited it, and uploaded it. There are no costs involved beyond their time in writing and then listening to the literary aunt or uncle who tells them they are a genius. This isn't to say there aren't some great self-published books out there, because there are. You can find many of them by going to the website Self-Publishing Review. However, far too many eager book writers spend little to no time proofreading or editing, and it shows. It feels like you're reading somebody's first draft in a creative writing class.
These books-call them home published--often sell for 99 cents on Kindle because, again, little or no costs. Adventurous readers seek out the gems in this category.
Then there is a third class of book done by adept self-publishers or small publishers. They fit in-between the home publishers and the big publishers. I fall into this category. I'd worked as a senior editor for a publisher in the eighties and saw how to make professional books. When my first agent wouldn't represent my first short story collection, The Middle-Aged Man and the Sea-"There's no money in short fiction," he said-then I created my own company, White Whisker Books, and published my collection.
I followed what big publishers do. I'd hired an editor to go through the stories, even though each of them had been edited and individually published in literary journals. We then worked on the order of the stories like Bruce Springsteen might do on a new album. I tried various titles out in random polling, and "The Middle-Aged Man and the Sea" won out to my surprise. I hired a book designer, who gave me various cover designs and made the inside look like the book came from a biggie. I showed the covers to a number of people. The cover of a fish jumping out of a fish bowl won out, again to my surprise.
I hired a publicist in New York, and we sent out review copies. A few months later, I published it using Lulu Press, as there were no additional costs there. The book was reviewed in over a dozen places right away, including The Los Angeles Times. Entertainment Weekly listed it as one of five top independently published books.
This is all to say I had costs, which, after three years, I may be in the black. (Accounting isn't one of my strengths.) I couldn't sell it for 99 cents, but I sold it for $1.99, selling my next collection, Months and Seasons, for $2.99. The latter book made the Frank O'Connor International Story Prize long list.
Books in this middle range tend to sell for $2.99 to $6.99 on Kindle. Our costs--between $3000 and $10,000 per book--are lower than the big publishers but higher than the home publisher.
As Mark Coker, the founder of Smashwords, an ebook distributor, explains in the article, "How to Publish and Price an Ebook," the money invested in editing in particular will draw readers. He studied the sales of 13,500 books on Smashwords. "The supply curve isn't so elastic that readers will read an unlimited amount of content at lower prices. A reader's time is limited, and readers value their time, so it would make sense that readers are willing to invest good money if they know it's for a quality read. The possible lesson here, and it's a bright note for authors with the ability to develop high quality content, is that readers will pay for your content if it's worth paying for." (To read his full article, click here.)
Young people, used to inexpensive and free music on the internet, may expect inexpensive and free books, too. My hope is that books for around $2.99 to $6.99 will appeal to them. While musicians now make most of their money in concerts, and their digital songs become advertising for the concert, authors are unlikely to make money giving readings. They have to be paid in some way.
I have two worries. One came in the Los Angeles Times yesterday, in the article, "Barnes and Noble, A Besieged Giant." Business writer Andrea Chang wrote that Barnes and Noble, the largest book retailer holding more than 14% of all book sales, is showing negative growth. "For the quarter that ended Jan. 30, store sales fell 4.7% to $1.4 billion and sales at stores open at least 15 months fell 5.5%." Authors don't like to hear people are buying fewer books because that's where the bulk of royalties come from. (Click here to read the full article.)
Second, I worry that big publishers will turn off people with ebook prices of $12.99 or more, and people will seek the black-market versions of books. My hope is that the new model for publishing may come from the small publisher who offers quality and adventourous reading. A few like-minded people and I have joined together in a collective called Backword Books. We look at ourselves as offering contemporary stories with old-fashioned excellence. My own comic novel, The Brightest Moon of the Century is there. It's a story of Edward, a young Minnesotan, seeking purpose and a girlfriend, taking him to an Alabama trailer park, among several places.
There will always be books, if for no other reason people want to own their souvenir edition of a favorite book, but I'd love to see ebooks as a viable way to make a living.
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