Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Prithee, Inform Me: Is the E-pocalypse Already Here?

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About an hour ago, PC World reported that author Stephen R. Covey (author of The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People) has signed an exclusive deal with our potential future overlord, Amazon, for several of his books. Now, proprietary titles are not a new idea—many of the major chains have sold proprietary versions of publishers' books for years—but this is (at least, to my knowledge) the first time a major author has cut the publishing house out of the equation entirely and signed directly with the vendor.

So, prithee, inform me: do you think this is the future of book publishing? Will houses fall by the wayside as the court of public opinion determines what should be published, and vendors sign with those authors accordingly? Where will agents and editors figure in all this? And, most importantly: what of the authors?

To the comments with you!


  1. We are so excited to move to our off-the-grid farm in the wilderness of the Olympic Peninsula, where we will leave behind our computer forever and quietly surround ourself with first editions and organic vegetables.

  2. (The Olympic Peninsula is a wonderful choice for going off the grid-- I'm kicking it a tiny way from that up in Lynden-- we have snow!)
    I wonder if eventually, the publishing houses will, if not disappear, dwindle? I think writers will still need agents to cut deals, etc. They will be the new link to amazonian overlords. I mean technically, if a work will not be going out in print (and I'm assuming that some things just won't) then we won't need a publisher in that sense of the word?

  3. All good questions. As of yet, I have no answers. I'm just along for the e-ride, and so far, it's been interesting. Like any rollercoaster, sometimes fun, and sometimes nauseating.

  4. Just as music is moving from CD to mp3 and movies are going from DVD to streaming, physical books are going to fade and eBooks and Audiobooks will dominate. And since everyone and their dog can easily offer their works online, the traditional publishing houses will have no place in the future.

  5. I don't get why publishers aren't making the same kind of move. Amazon is edging into publishing, starting with self-pub and now this. Why don't publishers start doing some direct to consumer with eBooks? Would Amazon refuse to carry the title? If so, this might qualify as anti-trust and be subject to litigation. I don't know what Amazon's market share on eBooks is but it must be huge.

  6. I think this is the beginning of the Third Way that authors will be using to find the path to their readers. And I doubt it will only be used by the Superstar Authors.

  7. @Laurel: There are a few reasons why they're not. Publishers aren't a marketplace, they're a destination shop. You may go to Amazon for a DVD and see a recommendation for a book. You go to Penguin to go to Penguin and for no other reason. Destination shops are harder to succeed at unless you have a premium product. Publishers, as long as their books are available in other venues, will not have a premium product. In fact, they will be the e-independent bookstore to the e-big chains, because they won't be able to offer the discounts Amazon does. It's be hard. And publishing doesn't invest a lot of money up front for something that's hard. Especially when it's so far outside their knowledge base. Ecommerce, if a house has even invested in it, has been a red headed step child to this point and now all of a sudden it's supposed to be Cinderella. Publishing rarely adapts that quickly (and I say rarely only to hedge my bet, as I would really just say never).

    I agree, however, that it is a direction publishing houses should move toward. Unfortunately, they opportunity to do so was a few years ago. It'll take much longer for them to recover now that the first bus has passed.

  8. How is this going to work in regards to authors that are in need of editors, etc? Will this make it more difficult or less difficult to get published? One would think that not all authors would be able to go directly to the vendor to sell their books, likely only the ones who have no need of the other services that publishes houses offer, like marketing, cover art, editing. I admit to being a newbie when it comes to the publishing ins and outs, but I truly hope that things don't change too drastically all at once.

  9. I wonder if the monks in 1440 whined as much as today's publishers when that overlord Gutenberg's printing press put the monks out of the book business?

  10. I think you will still need editors and agents, but their roles may change somewhat. IMO as a writer, editors are vital in that they catch a lot of things I miss; I don't know if I'd want my work going out into the world without a good, professional vetting. Yes, there are a few authors who can get away with this, but most (despite what some of them may say ;) benefit from an extra set of eyes.

    As for agents, well, I'm not really qualified to vett my own contracts, etc. And, really, I like it that there is someone else out there hunting down interest and cutting the deals while I concentrate on my end of the chain: writing the story. I don't know if it's the case with Covey, but I wonder if he ptiched and cut the deal, or if he did it through an agent?

    As to whether all this will happen through, or around, traditional publishers depends on a lot of things. I don't think the ultimate supremacy of e-books is a given, but I don't think traditional publishing can survive in its current state unless it gets a lot more flexible and innovative in its business model.

  11. I can see this happening more often with big-name authors who don't want to give publishers a cut when it's their name that's selling the book. But with first-time and less well-known authors, I can see publishers having a role as arbiters of quality. If everyone can publish books online, readers might be drawn to books from publishers because they know there'll be a base quality level.

  12. It's difficult enough for a new writer to find an agent, editor and publisher without trying to deal with these new hurdles that seem to shut us out even more.

  13. Direct to Amazon would only work with a name author who already has an audience built in because Amazon doesn't want to deal with a slushpile, etc.

    Buying ebooks directly from the publisher has been tried for years, and it's never worked. Most authors I know sell thousands of books at places like Fictionwise to every one book they sell at their publisher. People want one stop shopping even if it's cheaper to buy direct from the publisher.

  14. Absolutely and not at all.

    "Publishing" and the major houses are so diverse, any broad stroke affecting the whole is impossible to conceive. However, certain types of books will probably slide more into e-world while the print publishers are going to become more selective in their lines and quality.

    Fiction - by its very nature on bookshelves in the superstores - will be the most dramatic shift to epub. This will be because of classification and shelf space. Like B&N has a few shelves for Romance, Mystery, SciFi, etc. yet these categories have the widest genre range and broad readership bases. E-world will be able to categorize and label these stories into groups so a savvy reader can pick the type of story they like, regardless of the author name. A reader will be able to query a database for time frame, tone, sexual content, gore, science, and maybe even literary style or merit. Someday the query may even be about theme, character careers, location...

    The potentials are endless for avid fiction readers to suddenly be able to find THE TYPE of stories they like - without having to wander through a FICTION - BY AUTHOR NAME array of bookshelves.

    As for The Rejectionist - yes my precious, we are going off the grid from utilities and Walmart, but know we will have our wireless, satellite internet and electronic funds accounts. It's choices we have, precious. It's time to bring stories out of the tunnels and into the light where readers can find them.

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  17. (Sorry to monopolize the blog for a bit: off-track rant and then typos.)

    IMHO, agents, editors, and other publishing professionals provide a valuable service to authors and readers alike. I believe, no matter the medium or points of sale of creative writing, a significant number of readers will still be willing to pay for the polished end product those services provide.

  18. Yes, this may well be a trend -- that wealthy, connected, hugely bestselling authors that already own their own publishing operations may well do their own e-publishing. Franklin Covey is not a fly-by-night operation, even if it is technically "self-publishing."

    For those of us with long memories, the terms of this deal sound like an electronic version of the deal Stephen King made when he jumped to Scribner's close to a decade ago. It's the kind of deal bigfoot authors can make: they're more important to the publisher than the publisher is to them.

    The answer why publishers don't sell their own e-editions is two-fold: first, they do, quite frequently. Secondly, they don't want to compete too strongly with their own customers (who might then decide not to be customers anymore). And they're at a double disadvantage to begin with: they're trying to do something (selling direct to consumers) which is outside their usual skillset, and trying not to annoy important customers, who are much better at that skillset.

    To get into specifics, Amazon owns the Kindle format, the Kindle store, and the proprietary process for transforming a eMobi file into Kindle format. So publishers can sell eMobi files through their own websites (which don't get a fraction of the traffic Amazon does), and hope that consumers are tech-savvy enough to get those files onto their Kindles...or they can sigh and work through Amazon, where they will make more money and have fewer hassles. Many of those publishers do still sell e-books otherwise, even directly -- I work for one of them -- but we all need to remember that ebooks are still a tiny piece of the business, and direct-selling ebooks is a tiny piece of that tiny piece.

  19. Wow, that's kind of amazing.

    So if I want to read Covey's next book, do I have to download it onto a Kindle?

    Which means that if I have any of the other e-readers that will hit the market in the next few years, I'm out of luck?

    Covey = Kindle.

    So the e-reader that becomes the Biggest and Best won't necessarily be the one with all the best and latest features, which at some point they'll all have anyway, but the one with the best available *content*, which means the best stable of authors and/or books exclusive to that particular e-reader?

    Content is king, after all.

    Which means that editors aren't going anywhere, and this isn't about self-publishing.

    This is a new kind of publishing.

  20. Well, Kind of e-pocalypse, not exactly. But still there is more to come.
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  21. I still think the concept of e-readers as a standalone device is going to go away quickly, as devices that only do one thing are pretty inefficient as soon as some other device comes along that can do multiple things (Apple tablet and/or giant iPhone, for example). Why would I buy a Kindle when I know that several years down the road, some electronics company is going to make an e-reader that is also my mp3 player, hand-held gaming device, and celery chopper? This is something I hope Amazon is thinking about for their later versions of the Kindle. But that's a bit off topic. :)

    As several others have mentioned, this is something that works largely for authors with an already established presence. For new authors, there's no benefit in going directly to the vendor because consumers still know that something released by a publisher is guaranteed a certain amount of quality while a book directly released by an author without a publisher is much riskier to spend money on. Publishing's role will certainly shift in the wake of the "e-pocalypse" but they will not disappear. Having a publisher behind you is kind of like having a venture capitalist backing your startup company. Without that VC, it becomes infinitely harder to create a success on your own.