Tuesday, March 16, 2010

It's A Popularity Contest

Remember all those times you heard "it's not a popularity contest" with regards to things that clearly are popularity contests, such as American Idol, presidential elections, and... uh... popularity contests?

Well—to a certain extent—it's true of the publishing biz, as well. According to Mobclix, a mobile ad company that tracks this sort of thing, books are now more popular than games in the Apple iTunes store. Although I have been heralding the rapidly approaching e-pocalypse for some time now, even I'm surprised by this. Granted, e-books only comprise about 3-5% of the current book market (see John Grisham, below), but at this rate, how long will it be before they reach double-digits? (On a related note, e-book insider Michael Serbinis predicts a $99 e-reader will hit the market in 2010. Pray tell, dear readers: if this comes to pass, will any of you change your tune?)

Some well-established authors are also getting in on the e-book act; John Grisham's publisher announced today that all 23 of his books are now available electronically. I can't imagine it will be long before any other megabestselling e-book holdouts follow suit, which means I'm officially moving my e-pocalypse date from 2029 to 2020. (Consumption of egregiously low-end fortified wine optional.) That's right: I think it will only be ten years before e-books become not only a major player in terms of sales figures, but quite possibly the major player.

Think about it: when was the last time you bought a CD? (I can't remember, either.) Yet the glory of the iTunes music store is only seven years old this April. With e-readers, e-books, and even e-book stores rapidly entering the market—coupled with the prospect of faster, cheaper, full-color technology looming just over the horizon—I just don't see how electronic formats won't rewrite the book on publishing in the years to come.


  1. I'm not quite as zealous as you are about e-publishing, gotta say. I will NEVER take an e-reader in the bathtub for a relaxing soak and read. I'm hard pressed to come up with an e-press that offers advances to authors. And I buy music cds ALL the time, even though I own an iPod. (When was the last time you got an 'album' for $4 at iTunes? I love HalfPrice Books!)

    And I work in the industry! I do e-covers, and lemme tell ya, I have to grovel to make anything close to $100 per cover. E-publishing is a force to be reckoned with, no doubt, but it's FAR from an ideal solution at this point. Right now, it's catering to the masses, putting quantity over quality. Sure, little by little the more popular and critically acclaimed authors will offer their product digitally as a secondary outlet, but will e-publishing ever be authentic competition for print publishing? Only in the same way McDonalds is a threat to a good, nutritious home-cooked meal...my two cents!

  2. "...but will e-publishing ever be authentic competition for print publishing? Only in the same way McDonalds is a threat to a good, nutritious home-cooked meal..."

    The problem with that analogy is if you go on an eBook-only diet, you will get the same entertainment and information as if you read only Real Books. But if you eat only McDonalds, you die.

  3. Just bought some music CDs for my 23-year-old son for his birthday--his choice. All those itune gift certificates we bought him a few years ago are going to waste. Not everyone is gung-ho to go digital...

  4. I'm not sure you get the same entertainment and information value, Adam...at least not yet. The reader really has to filter through SO much crap in e-pubbing right now to get to something worth the abbreviated price you pay for it. (Unless, of course, you're entertained and informed by reams of purple prose and dime-a-dozen erotica.) That's one of the drawbacks to having a very small production cost or possible lack of any real editorial hand. My analogy might've been a bit of a stretch, but not to the degree you have it painted.

  5. Ha! I just bought a CD two days ago. Going digital is too much a hassle for me. None of my computers are reliable enough for music

  6. I bought Death Magnetic on CD but only because it was discounted to less than the iTunes store. Tad Williams' SHADOWRISE is only on the kindle, not the nook. This is the first book I've wanted to buy since I went digital last year that wasn't available to me. Everything else is available.

    On the front end, ten years seems reasonable. But looking back at the digital revolution, ten years seems ridiculously long. Ten years ago I was on dial-up using Explorer to access my Hotmail account. I bought all my music on CDs and marveled at this music sharing thing called Napster. What was an mp3? I had never heard of that before.

    Ten years later, my iPod with video has become a huge fad and then obsolete. My music/video player is supposed to be my phone. My Eee PC has more hard drive space and processing speed than my desktop did oh so long ago.

    Five years from now we'll be past ereaders and iPads and all the rest and be looking at the next thing, laughing about how much has changed in half a decade.

  7. I was just over at Fictionwise and picked up reference books, some science fiction by well known authors, a couple classics, and something by Barbara Kingsolver, so I have no idea why you think content is hard come by. For m/m romance, ebooks are the only way to go. I love my paper books, but I also love my ebooks and those don't need dusting.

  8. "books are more popular than games"

    This is the hidden salvation that hides behind the e-pocalypse (at least I hope so). I think it will bring more people back to reading. (please, please)

    Thanks for the update!

  9. I have been researching the change from illustrated manuscripts to the printed book. Its always fun to learn how history repeats itself. The illustrated book produced by monks and universities co-existed with Gutenberg's Press into the 1600s. Conservative readers damned the new printed version as inferior, swore never to buy one, and really were just pissed off by the whole idea of movable type. Booksellers were forced to deal with restrictions place by the Universities (the publishers of the day).

    That print book we all love (even those of us with e-readers) changed the world and destroyed the culture at the time. It made books available to the middle class (annoying the rich who before then were the only ones who could afford to own a book). As books became more common more people learned to read. The e-books with its access to the out of print book is making more writers available to the readers again. Both changes expanded the availability of books to readers. Both changes let both formats co-exist until the readers made their choice.
    Both changes cost people their jobs or created new jobs for others (all those poor monks out of work or all those new printers working).

    If the current change from print to electronic is like the change from manuscript to print we have only a hundred or so years left to enjoy our cheap paperbacks. It is indeed time to grab our towel and PANIC.

  10. Selfish answer. If it means a lot more books will be sold, hopefully upping our chances of getting pubbed, then I'm in love with e-books.

  11. I betcha e-books, in the long run, do not take over. Maybe for a short time out of novelty but I think people, even young ones, will prefer print for relaxation.. There will be a place for both.
    And I got two CDs for Christmas and a new, old style record player to play my old beloved records on!

  12. I'm totally into a $99 e reader. How about free though. Because my dvd player just broke and my kid won't stop screaming; she wants to watch In the Night Garden.

    So, free, please.

    Yay Me.

  13. Hi, nice post, great comments. I just published my first novel. It's a science fiction story involving time-travelling terrorists and a young couple who, for complex reasons of their own, are trying to stop them. I tell you this because I have published the book through a small press New York publisher in e-book editions only. There are no plans ever to produce print editions. CGriffin in particular might be interested to hear that:

    1. This is a normal, commercial publishing deal except that I sold only the electronic rights. The book was edited (by three different editors) in the usual way in a process that took several months.
    2. The publisher did all the usual publishery things - including the design, layout and formatting of the book, and its distribution to a variety of book sellers (in this case, online book sellers, such as Amazon and Fictionwise.)
    3. What digital-only publication means is that people who do not read ebooks now have a restricted choice. I'm not unique in being a digital-only author in a genre outside the usual romance and erotica genres. It is going to happen more and more.
    4. My own prediction for the e-pocalypse is that it will happen when the first digital-only or digital-first novel blockbuster arrives - some time in the next ten years.

  14. Graywave - thanks so much sharing that!

    Eric - Have you seen this?
    The End of Publishing

  15. CGriffin: I think you and I are talking about two different things. You seem to be talking about the method of publishing (self publishing vs. traditional publishing), while I'm only talking about the medium (eBooks vs. Real Books).

    I believe Eric's post is about the medium as well. But if your argument is that self-publishing will never replace traditional, professional, edited books, then I think we have no argument :-)

  16. That's great for you, graywave! I'm not saying e-presses are ALL of a certain model, but the vast majority of them are. Can I inquire...did they pay you an advance?

    I work for several e-presses (as a cover artist freelancer) so I am cursorily aware that most DO provide some editing and formatting. I also know that the best way to make a killing with most e-publishers is to write voraciously and keep your name in the market as copiously as possible. I can't say that I'm sure the standards for e-publication are as rigid as they are for print. But I could be totally wrong there, as I don't have an e-reader and have only read a few digital novels. I welcome thoughts on that!

  17. Adam, I work for e-publishers as a freelance artist, and they are NOT self-publishers, nor are they vanity presses. Their business model provides some editing and complete formatting, and they do not offer advances. They pay the author a certain percentage, period. They also do a fair amount of marketing, and sell the novels through their own sites as well as Amazon and Fictionwise, as a rule. I AM talking about the medium, and the differences between how print presses behave vs. e-publishers (that is, companies that are digital-only). It really is apples and oranges, at this point. And I see a LOT of authors hopeful that digital publishing will make it easier for them to get a book out there. And it IS...for a great many reasons!

  18. CGriffin is right about e-pubs: they're not self-pubs and they're not vanity presses. I think of them more as micro-presses, that focus on e-books (and sometimes do POD print books).

    I'm curious to hear Eric's take on e-publishers, because I don't see a lot of chatter about them in the publishing/agent/writer's blogs. Are they the "small press" of the future?

  19. Fair enough, CGriffin. But I still think we're talking about two different things. With your new definition, it sounds more like you're talking about small presses, I guess. Regardless of the semantics, you're still talking about the method.

    What I'm talking about (and what I believe Eric is talking about, though anyone feel free to correct me) are eBooks strictly as a medium -- meaning anything published electronically. Any book, regardless of the publisher (or lack thereof), can be published digitally, in print, or both.

    Eric said, "I think it will only be ten years before e-books become...the major player." What he means is that in ten years, people will be buying their Dan Brown books online, downloading them to their computer or e-reader, and reading them in an electronic format. As opposed to buying their Dan Brown books printed on paper and sold in a bookstore.

    Here, try this definition. You'll notice it talks mostly about the medium (e-readers) as opposed to the method (how the book got published). That's what I mean.

    I hope this makes sense.

  20. Eric, that was a really thoughtful video, and it made many good points! I guess what I'm trying to say isn't so much about the format of the book after all, but how the company is treating the authors and artists. Why do e-publishers have a reputation for producing a less-quality novel? Or is it just that there is so much more product being produced, of COURSE you'll have to weed through some stuff? I'm really trying to understand what's happening to publishing right now, and I'm not altogether convinced its spinning off in the right direction.

    Speaking (loosely) of packaging, do you guys think digital releases need cover art? (Sorry for dominating your blog, Eric! Just let me know if I’m being a royal pain…)

  21. Adam, I have no doubt e-books will become a major player in the very near future...but I still will never take one in the bathtub with me! Unless they make a water-proof model. :D

    At this stage in the game, however, the quality of original product being produced by digital-only presses is a mish-mash.

  22. "...I still will never take one in the bathtub with me!"

    I don't think we have any argument on that point :-)

  23. CD's! 3 last week!
    Though technically hubby bought them for me... and before that, a stack at Christmas :D
    I only ever buy moosic from iTunes if I can't find in the shop, or I want a single song.

    Regardless of my obsession with paper and ink books, I do think eBooks will become more and more popular. But hey, if it gets people reading, surely it's (at least in part) a good thing?

  24. @CGriffin, I think you're right that the quality of digital-only books has been lower, on the whole, than print. However, I can see this changing a lot right now and certainly over the next few years. The amount and quality of editing has fallen dramatically in print books lately - mainly because the publishing houses have been cutting staff and service levels. I think those digital-only publishers, who have been churning out erotica and romance at low cost to audiences that are not very discriminating, have been able to get away with quality levels that they cannot sustain as they move into (for them) new genres, where expectations are higher.

    Certainly the amount and the standard of editing on my book was comparable to what writer friends report from their experience with big-six print publishers. Yet I have seen print editions lately (especially from small presses) that looked as if they had not been edited at all!

    On the subject of advances, there are all kinds of historical reasons why ebook-only publishers and print publishers differ (also why the big publishers differ from the small presses) and the industry is in a process of shake-up at the moment. Some print publishers are experimenting with lower advances and, even zero advances, to give themselves more flexibility. Some electronic publishers are starting to pay advances to attract better authors. I didn't receive an advance but my royalty rate is about twice the 'industry standard' for print publishers who also publish electronically. This suits me very well and was a big incentive to publish with an e-publisher. As I see it, the only benefit of an advance to an author is if you don't earn it out. If that happens, you might have a couple of extra $K you didn't earn, but that seems like little compensation for the fact that your book failed to sell. If you have faith in your work (and your long-term staying power as a writer) the higher royalty rate seems like a far better option.

  25. That really sums it up, graywave. Spot on! Thanks for the input, and I wish you great gobs of sales!

  26. Wow, what an education just listening in. Answered all kinds of questions that I hadn't even thought of asking, but wanted to know, particularly on advances vs royalties, and where this industry is heading. Thanks!

  27. IMO e-publishing has a lower reputation than traditional print because the erotica/port publishers were the first who seriously switched over to it. I'm sure this will change as more and more "respectfull" publishers start to e-pub.

    I'm old enough to remember when video cassettes (Betamax, VHS) came out: it didn't take long for the porn/erotica industry to move distribution to that media. Same with sales via web: the adult entertainment industry was the first to switch over. Nowadays videos, dvds and internet is perfectly respected sales media and channel for all kind of publishers.

    And to answer Eric's question: an e-reader costing USD 99 (=EUR 72)? Yes, please! Providing of course it's not totally crap - esp. the display has to be supergood.

  28. Did you hear about the guy on the plane with a kindle? All passengers were directed to turn off ALL electrical devices. He kept on reading. Really ticked off the passenger next to him who called a flight attendent. The guy got in bug trouble. The guy next to him figured that since he'd had to be body scanned, had to take off his shoes and had to have his baggage searched - all to keep the plane safe, the least the passenger could do was to turn off his blankety-blank electric book. Ahhhh, the basic paper kind will always be permitted. No problems - and no batteries to recharge. ;-)