E-Gads, 2009! Publishing E-pocalypse or a New Age?

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Editorial by M.J. Rose


As we come to the end of 2009 there’s only one thing we know about the future of publishing—it’s going to keep changing. Like it or not, no matter what industry you’re in and how hard you try to hold onto the past, fighting change is not only futile, it’s often what kills you.

When Change is Pain

The changes we’re in the middle of are cause for alarm for many people:

Kirkus is gone.

Fifty-four percent of people now find out about books via online ads. (Yes ads! Not reviews.)  Sixty-seven percent of people buying a book didn’t know what they were going to buy before they walked in the store.

There are millions of readers who post about what they’re reading on their blogs and social networks like Twitter, Facebook and Goodreads.

People can read e-books on their iPhones on line in the supermarket, go home, turn on their Kindles and be instantly synced up.

HarperCollins has an online slush pile called Authonomy. Harlequin has a similar testing ground called Carina.

And Steven Covey, author of the perennial backlist bestseller Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, just gave exclusive rights to his e-books to Amazon and not his publisher.

Bookstores are publishers and authors are publishers and publishers are bookstores.

And yet, the one thing everyone seems to fear the most is Amazon’s slashing e-book prices and selling them at a loss.

Last week almost all the major publishers announced they would be holding back e-book releases on select titles until three to four months after the hardcover release.

Now? The time to have gotten involved in timing and pricing was two years ago before when the Kindle came on the market. When experimentation would have made sense. When there were no precedents set. But to do it now?

Kassia Krozser, at Book Square, blogged that the way some agents and publishers are reacting is fetishistic: “We must worship the all-mighty hardcover,” she wrote, “without worrying about the actual impact to overall sales. Without even considering the reader. Of course, why would publishing ever consider the reader?”

Why indeed?

As someone who has spent her life in advertising doing endless research about the end user, I’m continually shocked by the lack of information publishers have about readers. And even worse their lack of concern about the info they don’t have.

E-books vs. Hardcovers

There is a lot of information about readers that is key to what the future holds and how it’s going to play out. And we need to be paying attention to it.

For instance, 40% of hardcovers are either resold online two or three times or lent to friend and family two to three times. Or swapped two or three or more times.

None of those transactions pay a penny to the publisher or the author.

But e-books can’t be resold. Or borrowed. (Barnes & Noble’s Nook offers publishers the option to lend once, but few allow it.)

So, on the one hand, you have an e-book that is priced to sell and sells more copies because of it.

On the other hand you have a hardcover few can afford that is re-read/re-sold or swapped several times at no profit to anyone.

Publishers say they are afraid that low e-book prices will devalue the “book,” so their solution is to hold back e-books and not release then when the hardcover comes out. Agent Nat Sobel, in a plea to publishers to hold back e-book releases said: “In just a few years we have seen electronic sales of bestsellers go from 2% to 12% to 15% of total sales. Next year, they may constitute 20%. Who knows where this will end once bestsellers are on cell phones, Blackberries and the like?”

Does that mean we should punish excited new readers?

And if we do, don’t you think they’ll notice? The consumer isn’t stupid. She knows the difference between a hardcover, a mass market and a digital file. She knows you’re withholding one version to try to cash in on another.

Moreover, from a marketing perspective it’s not smart to make her wait three or four months to buy the e-book because the e-book reader is part of a buzz machine that is one of the most potent we’ve ever seen.

Early adopters are also the first to talk up a product or service—or in this case—a book. That’s why movie companies have free screenings. It’s why publishers have always spent so much on reviewer’s copies. But media is fractured.

There are 60% fewer reviews than there were five years ago. Even Oprah is going away. We don’t have identifiable groups who set trends and talk up books, movies, and restaurants anymore—we have hundreds of thousands of savvy consumers.

E-book Readers Make Noise

People who read e-books are not only early adopters, they’re active online tweeting and blogging. They’re the social networkers who turn things viral, who make noise.

And noise sells books.

At a time when the marketing dollar has shrunk to mere pennies and few books get any meaningful advertising once co-op is taken care of, can we afford to keep the buzz machine quiet for four months?

Plus, if you hold back e-books, then you need to market hardcovers alone and then re-market the e-books four months later and then re-market paperbacks four months after that because we know you can’t count on the reader to remember books they heard about last week let alone three months ago.

My company, AuthorBuzz.com, recently conducted a poll with 200 people who own e-reading devices. Every one of them reported they were buying at least two times more books because of their e-purchases. Some reported a 300% increase.

No matter how bad at math I am, I know selling 3,000 books at $10 is better than selling 300 books at $25.

Don’t we want more people reading more books?

Be Not Afraid

The inescapable truth of doing business in the 21st century, according to author and CEO of BookTour.com, Kevin Smokler, is that you have to give the customer what they want. “There are more of them than there are of you. Should you choose to make it difficult for your own purposes, said customers will simply abandon what you are offering them and go elsewhere.”

Yes, it’s a scary time.

If we lose the one-two punch of hardcover releases followed a year later by a mass market or trade paperback release, it might affect our advances but that doesn’t mean we won’t be able to earn a living as writers.

It could mean we sell some work directly to readers. Or that our agents become entrepreneurial managers who help us find other kinds of paying gigs.

It might mean that more of us have to keep our day jobs longer.

But based on how much authors are doing now to market their own books, advances need to be re-adjusted and the royalty structure needs to be restructured anyway.

As Mike Shatzkin points out on his blog, authors might notice that the digital world offers alternative sales channels that don’t involve traditional publishing—especially at a time when traditional publishing isn’t so traditional anymore and publishers are expecting authors to do more and more marketing.

What’s not scary is that people haven’t stopped reading. They’re just embracing more ways to read the printed word—whether it’s ink or e-ink. And nothing matters more than that.

We won’t be facing apocalypse as long as we are forward thinking, embrace change and find a way to work with it. We will be doomed if we cling desperately the old models simply because that’s the way it always worked.

I’m a founding member of ITW—International Thriller Writers. In 2007, one of our board members, the amazing crime writer David Hewson, suggested we abolish dues and find another way to support the organization financially. At first the board balked.  No writer’s organization had ever made it without dues.  That’s how it was always done. How could we do something so crazy?

Hewson’s answer became ITW’s motto: “When we imitate we fail. When we innovate we succeed.”

ITW is succeeding and publishing can succeed, too, as long as we don’t try to preserve the past at the expense of the future.

In 1998, M.J. Rose was the first author to use the Internet to release an e-book that was picked up by traditional publishers. She is also the owner of the ad agency, Authorbuzz.com. Past Life, a dramatic series based on her bestselling novel The Reincarnationist, debuts February 11, 2010 on FoxTV.

VISIT: M.J. Rose’s Web site.

DISCUSS: Has owning an e-reader changed your book buying habits?

About the Author

Guest Contributor

Guest contributors to Publishing Perspectives have diverse backgrounds in publishing, media and technology. They live across the globe and bring unique, first-hand experience to their writing.