The revolution in books is here

08 Jun

The other night I was out for drinks with some friends, including my old comrade Mathew Ingram. Mathew, who I consider to be the best tech journalist in Canada, and I got to chatting about books and the future of the industry as it moves, finally and inexorably, into the digital age.

Our conversation centered on two topics. The first was a Wall Street Journal article last week on self-publishing, which seemed to take the exact position that I’ve posted a couple of times before – that publishing your own books, or “vanity” publishing as it is derogatorily known, is not going to be such a vain act for much longer. As the article puts it:

Once derided as ‘vanity’ titles by the publishing establishment, self-published books suddenly are able to thrive by circumventing the establishment.

The internet, and new gadgets, are dramatically changing how the book business works – and they’re doing so very quickly. By the end of this year, e-readers will be down to around $100, which means that not only will everyone be able to afford one, everyone will also want one because at that price they introduce a great value proposition. If you’ve ever gone on a trip and couldn’t decide which book to take, or if you’ve ever wanted or needed to take several books with you, an e-reader takes care of the problem. An e-reader also does a lot to privatize the books you read so you can whip out your trashiest novels – or even books with the word “porn” in the title – in public with no fear of scorn. At $100, it won’t be long before e-book readers are as ubiquitous as iPods.

In this brave new digital world, the e-book stores that provide the content for these devices (fortunately) don’t work under the same rules that the traditional book industry has developed and enshrined over time, which is why self-publishers are being greeted with open arms. Content is content, so if you have a product that can make money for yourself and for these e-book stores, whether it’s Amazon or Apple, they’re happy to accommodate you (although in the case of Apple, you may want to keep your content PG rated). Whether you’re a huge multinational book publisher or some dude holed up in his parents’ basement, if you can make money for Amazon or Apple, it’s all the same to them.

The rates the e-publishers are offering are very attractive – both let authors keep 70% of whatever they want to charge for their book, which is far superior to any per-copy royalty rate out there (typically between six and 15 per cent). A couple of weeks ago, I was interviewed for an article on e-books in the National Post and was quoted saying: “I did the math on [Amazon’s] new deal… If I were to sell my book [on Amazon] for five bucks, I would make more per book than selling the book to a conventional publisher.” Indeed, $3.50 per copy is better than the royalty rate most authors get. Popular authors can make even more because they can charge more – if you sell your book for $10, you get to pocket $7. That’s almost criminally high! One anecdotal author quoted in the WSJ story says she sold 36,000 copies of her e-book in a year. Do the math and you might start to wonder why an author would even think about trying to publish their book the traditional way.

The flip side, as publishers are quick to point out, is that there are costs associated with producing a book. Editing, design, distribution, marketing – all these things cost money. Also, if the author has any expenses in producing the book, as is often the case with non-fiction, they’re going to need that advance, which is paid out at the beginning of the process. In self-publishing, the author doesn’t see a dime until he or she starts selling, and there’s no guarantee that’ll happen in any event. But as a guy who runs a new publishing company says in the article, online self-publishing is:

… a threat to publishers’ control over authors… It shows best-selling authors that there are alternatives—they can hire their own publicist, their own online marketing specialist, a freelance editor, and a distribution service.

In essence, the balance of power is shifting. Authors can now go it alone and reap most of the reward for their hard-earned work, rather than see it all go to the publisher. At the same time, the balance of risk is also shifting – if an author wants to self-publish, they’re going to have to swallow the costs of their book up front and hope they recoup them in sales.

There are some authors who poo-poo the idea of self-publishing. I won’t name them, but suffice it to say that I’ve heard from a few who generally need the ego boost of having a publisher buy into their book – they need the establishment’s approval that what they’ve produced is of value. These sorts of authors are greatly threatened by the new age of self-publishing, the same way that many photographers dreaded the advent of digital cameras, because it puts what they do within reach of the masses. If anyone can do what they do, suddenly they aren’t so special anymore. But let’s face it: if Dan Brown can sell zillions of books, anyone can. Getting a book published is not necessarily an indication of skill or talent – it’s mostly a combination of lucky factors, like whether you caught an editor on a good day, or the publisher just happens to need a book on your topic to round out their catalog, or they happen to know your cousin’s cousin.

When I started working on Sex, Bombs and Burgers in earnest back in 2008, I had a feeling it might be part of a last generation of books to come out under the old system. Indeed, it looks like books released this year are actually straddling the two worlds. I’ve got my toes in both camps – I’ve always wanted to write a book and was as pleased as any father could be upon finally holding my newborn in my hands. At the same time, as someone who would like to make a living from writing books full time, the new system has lots of appeal. I’m anxious to get into e-books and try some self-publishing experiments. Hopefully, I’ll be able to make some announcements soon in this regard, at least for countries where I still retain rights to my book.

That brings us to the second topic Mathew and I discussed. He told me about something Paolo Coelho was doing in regards to pirating his own books. Coelho, a Brazilian writer who’s most famous for his novel The Alchemist, has not only embraced the idea of e-books, he’s taken it a step further. As a story and video on TorrentFreak documents, the author found that by giving his e-books away for free, he actually boosted sales of the physical copies.

The Alchemist had only sold about 1,000 copies in Russia, so the author began to give it away for free as an e-book on his own Pirate Coelho website. From there, after the market was “seeded,” physical sales grew to 10,000 a year, then 100,000. He admits on his website that this “may be considered illegal,” but certainly no one involved in the traditional business complained about the added sales.

That’s a fantastic story that only serves as further encouragement to authors. I’d always been somewhat afraid of self-releasing an e-book in a country where I still have rights (Russia, for example) because I thought that doing so would guarantee it would never be picked up there by a publisher. Coelho’s story, as well as the WSJ article, show that the inverse is possible – that a book can be picked up because the e-book (pirated or not) has actually seeded a market for it.

So what happens if more and more authors start to go it alone more and more? Well, another author pointed out the downside for me. He said he likes Dan Brown because his shitty books, by selling zillions, allow his publisher to continue funding lesser-known books that only sell a handful of copies. If Dan Brown takes his business solo, that’s zillions of dollars the publisher won’t have to spend on smaller books by smaller authors. The danger here is that publishers will become even more dependent on their superstar authors, which some people I’ve spoken to have said is already well underway. Then, of course, there is no next generation of authors, or no superstars of tomorrow, which ultimately leads to publishers’ downfall.

Is all of this good or bad? How will it turn out? It’s probably too early to tell, although as I said, it’s happening quickly and we’ll likely know in the next few years. I’m guessing that five years from now, the book business will be completely unrecognizable from what it is today. It’s certainly an exciting time to be an author – published or budding.

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Posted by on June 8, 2010 in amazon, apple, books, internet


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