A Little History
First, I hesitate to call e-books "new," since they've been around in one form or another since the early 1970s. Granted, they were impossible to read and not exactly portable, but they were there. They became slightly more popular as computer technology improved; I know several people who have been reading them since at least the mid-'90s. However! It's undeniable that the format has undergone a virtual (get it?) renaissance in the past three years due to the release of myriad dedicated e-readers, chief among these Amazon's Kindle and Barnes & Noble's nook.
Since 2007, e-book sales have annually been increasing by hundreds of percentage points (that is, doubling, tripling, or more), and these sales have largely been fueled by consumers (like you!) seeking lower prices, more convenience, and greater portability. Physical books aren't seeing anything like this. While I certainly sympathize with those of you who remain unwaveringly supportive of the physical book, I caution you not to do so at the expense of missing out on the digital revolution. Physical books certainly have a place in the market, but e-book market share is growing exponentially. Eschewing them out of nostalgia or spite is, frankly, shooting yourself in the foot.
This has been a contentious issue for awhile now. Here are the basics:
· E-books are not free to create. Yes, the overhead associated with creating an e-book is much lower than that for a physical book: the publisher does not have to pay for printing, shipping, or storing physical texts, nor do they have to deal with the expensive specter of returns. However, many mss that are fine to send to the printer for the creation of physical copies are unsuitable for the production of e-books: the flow of text may not translate, facing pages may be split apart, images may need captions added, &c, &c.
Granted, as publishers become more accustomed to preparing mss for e-production, this issue will begin to be dealt with from the get-go, but it's not a factor that can be ignored at present. However—
· E-books should be cheaper than physical books. As a consumer, you're not really buying a book when you purchase an e-book; you're purchasing a permanent license to read that book. Further, while e-books aren't free to create, they are much cheaper, and so it makes sense that the final product should cost less for consumers to purchase.
Here's where I put in my plea for patience, mes auteurs. If you see bizarre pricing on Amazon, or if the e-book somehow costs more than the physical book, or any other aspect of the book's price or availability pisses you off, please do not retaliate against the author by giving the book a one-star review. I understand I'm largely preaching to the choir here, since most (if not all) of you are writers and most (if not all) of you would never do this to a fellow auteur, but it does happen and I do want to discourage this practice.
Example: a publisher who has accepted Apple's agency model is selling an e-book on Amazon. Due to said model, the publisher sells the book through Amazon at a fixed price, which Amazon cannot alter, and Amazon takes a cut on each sale.
The physical book, however, is sold by Amazon on the wholesale model, meaning the publisher sells it to (rather than through) Amazon at a fixed discount, and Amazon can then re-sell the book to consumers at whatever price they want. This means that, occasionally, a physical book can cost less than its e-version. This is mostly Amazon's fault, and only slightly the publisher's (and certainly not the author's).
· The publisher and the retailer have the right to sell an e-book for a profit. It's called capitalism, folks. If a publisher can't sell an e-book at a profit for $2.99 a copy, you're not getting it at that price, no matter how much you carry on. E-retailers like Amazon (in fact, almost exclusively Amazon) have accustomed customers to these prices by selling their e-books (and bestselling physical books) at a loss for years. When publishers assign prices through the agency model, they aren't being greedy when they tell you you can't have a book for $1.99 or $2.99 or $9.99; they're trying to stay in business. Granted, sometimes they do it in confusing and/or stupid ways. Again, however, to quote Bender Bending Rodriguez: the truth is often stupid.
This is one of the most exciting, unpredictable, and (honestly) scary times to be working in publishing, mes auteurs, and a lot of industry insiders (particularly—no ageism intended—the older ones) are bewildered by e-book sales. They're afraid those sales will damage the big chains; they're afraid those sales will destroy the independent book store; they're afraid those sales will eliminate the hardcover or the mass market paperback or physical books altogether; they're afraid they'll lose their jobs. To be fair, in some cases, these fears have a legitimate basis. But I would say ninety-nine times out of a hundred, e-book pricing is determined by numbers and sales projections, not by irrational hand-wringing.
Sales and Distribution
Currently, the e-book market is dominated by Amazon and Barnes & Noble, with a little influence from the Apple iBookstore. As time goes on, however, I fully expect smaller e-book publishers (taking advantage of the minimal overhead and the vast sales floor that is the Internet) to get in on the game. I'll address this later in the week, but I imagine self-publishers and "boutique" e-book publishers (combinations of agencies, small publishing houses, and independent booksellers) will start to gain appreciable market share over the next three to five years.
Keep in mind that all this means maintaining your on-line presence (via your author website, blog, Twitter account, &c) will become increasingly important. If your books are principally being sold via the Internet, you need to be present in and selling yourself via that same medium. This is more important if you're with a smaller house; the branding of the larger houses will help you to some extent, though if you're solidly midlist, don't expect a lot in the way of marketing or co-op.
I don't think the larger houses will start selling directly to consumers, as large e-retailers like Amazon and Barnes & Noble would retaliate by pulling those publishers' titles from their e-shelves, which (I imagine) would do those publishers more harm than their DTC operation could offset. For better or worse, I think the Big Six are in bed with Amazon for the long haul.
Parity with Physical Books
I've been known to tout the year 2015 as the point in time when e-book sales will reach parity with physical book sales; that is, the point where e-books will comprise 50% of the market. Given the current rate of growth, however, I'm now more inclined to estimate parity occurring in late 2013 or early 2014.
Parity means that fewer physical books will be produced, although I strongly disagree with industry professionals who believe it will be a one-to-one correspondence (e.g. the market can only support 200,000 copies of a given title, so if 100,000 are sold as e-books, only 100,000 will be sold in physical form). I am convinced that hardcover buyers and e-book aficionados are, at least for the time being, almost entirely separate markets, and moreover that e-books are encouraging non-readers to read, not converting current readers wholesale to the e-format. All this to say: greater e-book sales will, à mon avis, mean more sales overall, not the same number of sales split different ways.
What You Can Do
Finally, dear readers, what you can do:
· Make sure there's an e-book. It sounds basic, but it's essential: make sure there's going to be an electronic version of your book. If your agent sells the rights, do your best to make sure those rights are exercised; if you reserve them (which is quickly becoming less and less common), make sure you find someone to sell that e-book for you.
· Get as much e-exposure as possible. Make sure that your e-book is available on the Kindle, the nook, via Google Editions (when it's available), via the publisher's website (if applicable), &c &c. Link to it on your blog, tweet about it, put it on Facebook, keep a permanent link somewhere on your website, and so on. Mention it in guest blog posts, on podcasts, in interviews. You want a digital footprint to rival Bigfoot's.
· Try to ensure the e-book is mentioned wherever the physical book is found. Every time the physical copy is brought up, try to get the e-book plugged as well. While they may (in the near future) be packaged together, the two formats are currently treated as more or less separate. Even a single line reading e-book available will help generate sales. This goes for all electronic and all printed promotional materials.
· Target your audience. Find out from your agent, editor, or publisher who's reading e-books in your genre and target those people. Guest post on blogs they read; try to get advertising on websites they frequent; ask about electronic co-op in the form of e-mail blasts, coupons, and splash pages on e-retailers' sites. E-book fanatics are among the most voracious and loyal readers of all. If you can get them hooked on your book(s), you're advancing your career in a major way.
· Innovate. True, there are a number of genres (such as cookbooks, children's books, art books, and graphic novels) that haven't yet made the leap to the e-book format; it's currently the domain of fiction and narrative non-fiction. However! If we've learned anything from our sojourn through the wond'rous world of electronic media, mes auteurs, it's that the industry is changing rapidly. If you're shopping, say, a picture book, keep in mind that it may be the norm to produce it as an e-book by the time it's represented, sold, and ready for publication. Ditto for other image-heavy or non-traditional media. For all you know, there may be e-pop-up books coming. Remember: at this pivotal stage in the history of publishing, if you're not a step ahead, you're a step behind.
That's all for today, meine Autoren. Tomorrow: self-publishing returns!