Thursday, February 17, 2011

The Nefarious e-Book Situation

I just came from the Writing for the Soul Conference in Denver. It’s always an awesome conference although attendance was down a little this year probably because of the rising costs we all face these days. Thanks, Washington.

At the conference several agents and editors sat around and talked about changes in the industry which of course centered on the emergence of the e-book. A lot of things came out of this discussion but the overall consensus was not how to work with the situation as it now exists, but the fact that it is a fluid situation and will continue to change as technology evolves.

What does that mean? The Kindle is king right now, driven by price point and the position that Amazon is commanding in the e-book market. Will that continue? Those in the discussion felt it depends on the evolving technology. There was a feeling that the current e-books are a first generation and the situation is up for grabs as the next generation arrives. The next generation is thought to be more like the i-Pad with expanded capabilities and features. So why isn’t the i-Pad leading the pack now? A majority of e-readers are being given as gifts and the difference between the price point of e-readers and the i-Pad is making that decision. But electronics tend to come down as production increases so that may change, and/or existing e-readers may evolve to close that gap.

More and more writers are deciding to go straight to Kindle with their book. I noticed back when I first started getting submissions from some who had taken that course and (though I felt like I knew the answer) I surveyed over 200 editors to see what their position would be on receiving such a submission. It was as I expected and over 70% said they weren’t interested in a submission on a book that had already been published, including Kindle. Some did say they might look at it if the sales were significant enough, but the Kindle version had to be withdrawn first as they required the e-book rights to be in the contract. So at present those who go straight to Kindle are giving up print possibilities to do so. We may expect to see some changes there as well, but who knows when?

This may be a factor in smaller conference attendance right now as well. Newer writers that don’t see the need to go improve their craft, who don’t see the need to network with agents and editors if they are going to go straight to e-book and spending the money they would have spent going to the conference getting the e-book out. I believe those who may be making this choice will soon realize they are making a strategic mistake. Most will not make the money that way that they would make with both print AND e-book, and with publisher support behind them. However, some are making enough money on just the e-book sales. Ironically, if they are having that kind of sales, some publisher will be interested. In publishing the success of a few that defy the odds and make it big always drive the dreams of those who want to do the same.

Still, nothing is as constant as change and this emerging technology is fascinating to watch. For example those in the industry know that women buy a majority of the books and that has strongly influenced acquisitions. But with e-book readers it is proving to be gender-neutral. What? Yes, as many women buying e-books as men. This will of necessity change the mix in what will be published. 
I just saw a study report that had several other interesting facts: that there was no disparity between regions of the country, that urban book buyers bought more than rural ones, and while retirees say they have more time to read, the fully employed buy more e-books. That’s interesting.

The bottom line with the discussion was that we are not seeing the crest of the e-book revolution and change will be the order of the day. Are print books on the way out? No, there are still far too many who like a print book in their hands for that to happen any time soon. But it is a really interesting time to be involved in the publishing industry.


Timothy Fish said...

One of the things you mentioned and one of the things I’ve found interesting lately is that it seems like many authors are jumping straight into Kindle publication with no traditional book. What I think is interesting is that it appears that these eBooks aren’t going through a rigorous editing process, even by self-publishing standards. I’m sure that this is in part due to the fact that publishing through Kindle is free, while publishing a traditional book costs money. This lack of editing isn’t going unnoticed by readers. Unless some mechanism is put into place by which readers can separate the wheat from the chaff, I think it is likely that the existence of a print version of the book will be the thing that tells readers that an book is worth their consideration. Print books will, by their very nature, be considered better and more authoritative.

Author Jennifer Hudson Taylor said...

Timothy, I think you have a point. I think readers may even check to see if the book exists in print before they purchase the e-book version. It sort of signifies a quality standard--that a publisher thought it was worth the investment to publish through traditional formats and it's been through the editing process.

Terry, as for retirees having more time to read, I think by nature, this age group is still in denial and sort of fighting the technology movement--including e-readers.

My e-book purchases on Amazon have been very steady and I've noticed that I've picked up quite a few young readers--more than I had anticipated. Lots of parents and grandparents attended my book signings and purchased the print version for their teens and grandchildren.

Dona Watson said...

This is a great overview of the conference and very informative. I'm very surprised to find out that e-books are gender-neutral. That might shake things up a bit. Thanks again!

Stephanie said...

At this point, i prefer a dedicated eReader. I like the eink technology that is very easy on the eyes. ipad does not have that.

When I am browsing for ebooks, I will almost never choose a book that has been self published directly for the Kindle or a site like Smashwords. Not all the time, but in my experience, these books have not been edited well. I want a quality product when I purchase something.

And just because a book is not available in print, does not mean it is a lesser quality. My publisher is primarily digital and while some titles go to print, (my debut did) the shorter ones do not. House requires the title to be a full-length novel to qualify for print and my publisher publishes books in all lengths, 15,000-100,000 words. I have two releases coming this year that are considered "short novels," both between 15,000-20,000 words. I think these are perfect reads for smartphone users. But just because they have no chance at print, doesn't mean they are not worthy.

Cheryl Linn Martin said...

Thanks for sharing this information, Terry! Someday I hope to have an e-reader, but for now I'm waiting for that "second generation" to see what improvements happen.

And I really, really love my books! The e-reader would be for extra stuff. I'll still invest in those beautiful pieces of art--the book!

Anonymous said...

@Timothy said: "This lack of editing isn’t going unnoticed by readers. Unless some mechanism is put into place by which readers can separate the wheat from the chaff...."

In case you weren’t aware how eBook sales work, there are several mechanisms in place by which readers can separate the wheat from the chaff. Take, for instance. Readers can rate the book on a 5-star scale and write their own book review (you don’t get that when you walk into a brick-and-mortar book store). Additionally, books on come with a free sample of 10% of the book, so a reader can preview before making a purchasing decision. Finally, the market decides who will succeed and who won’t, rather than some editor in New York.

If the lack of editing isn't going unnoticed, and self-published eBook sales are still skyrocketing, then that could mean either the majority of self-published authors are doing a good job in their self-imposed editing process, or readers simply don’t care that much.

Millie Samuelson said...

Always great to have a report from a conference like Writing for the Soul, especially about a topic like e-books. Thanks for sharing, Terry!

Caroline said...

I appreciate your thoughts and observations on this evolving method of publishing. With so much still to learn, I'd much prefer to the have the expertise of both an agent and a traditional publisher backing a book. I'm pretty sure I'd feel fairly lost trying to accomplish all of that through e-book publishing on my own. (This may, of course, just be my own opinion.)

I'm intrigued by the observation you and your colleagues that "the current e-books are a first generation and the situation is up for grabs as the next generation arrives." On one hand, it seems like so many e-books are circulating that much has already been learned and seen progress. But, I'm leaning more with your statement, too. This new shift is only the beginning, and we'll see how much it all affects and changes publishing and reading. Very interesting!

Josh Guess said...

Well written, but slanted toward traditional publishing as should be expected from a literary agent. Ignoring the predictable "no rigorous editing" mantra (which varies from print house to print house, and by the way, MY stuff and all the self pubbed stuff I read is very well edited) the idea that your average writer could make more money from a print and ebook deal at one of the big six presupposes a contract being signed. I'm not looking for a deal, and would almost certainly refuse anything but an obscene amount of money. Yet, at the end of this month I will have made a total of 2,000 bucks in the last four months, almost all of that in the last two. It takes more than eight weeks just to HOPE for a reply from a query letter. So yeah, I'll take my chances...

Terry Burns said...

Getting some really good comments. Yes, Tim, many who are going straight to Kindle are indeed putting up books that really do lack in editing and it is unfortunate but those that are doing a very good job in editing may suffer from being painted with that same brush. Josh, I understand your frustration and it would seem if you continue at that level of sales that you have no need of a print version, which I believe I mentioned a number were deciding to do. Thanks for giving me a concrete example.

David said...

Ebooks are good for us for us writers. I received an email from Borders earlier this week announcing their recent bankruptcy, and IMHO, it's all about ebooks. Ebooks are just about the only books I buy anymore, and it's the same case with many of my friends. I read mine on a laptop, because of the backlighting; many others enjoy the Kindle. But either way, ebooks are ultimately good for us as writers, since the overhead to produce and sell them is so low. (Actually, almost free!)

The sooner publishing houses are able to shift the bulk of their sales over to electronic products the better, since this will have a dramatically positive effect on their profit margins--meaning that they'll be able to publish more titles, take on more new authors, and maybe even pay some of us a little better.

I've been a small businessman for most of my life, and this is a matter of simple economics. A penny saved is a penny earned. Borders has brick-and-mortar stores to maintain, Amazon doesn't. Amazon is thriving; Borders is in Chapter Eleven. Need I say more?

That's my opinion, anyway.

David Stearman

Terry Burns said...

Good comment, David, however let me comment on the "shift over to electronic" and "almost free." The difference in overhead for publishers is simply the actual cost of printing the book. All of the other overhead, production of the cover, editing staff, sales staff, promotion, the actual physical plant etc all have to be covered whether it is print or electronic. There IS an economic advantage for them on the electronic, but it is far from free. Most authors have these costs too but since they are part of keeping a roof over their head and since they do not assign a separate value to some of these tasks, they assume there is no overhead for them to do it. Even at that the author can do it cheaper, but surely cannot match the publishers distribution. Many, like Josh said, manage to deliver enough word of mouth and visibility to make up for this distribution but many can't. That should be part of the decision a writer makes to pursue this strategy. Personally, my own books are all in print but I have them all on Kindle (and other forms) as well.

Gary & Linda said...

I’ve read comments where traditional publishers seem to fear e-books. But I think they should capitalize on the interest in e-books rather than fear them.

I used to manage a Christian bookshop here in Australia. The Christian music industry uses sampler tapes to get people hooked on unknown Christian music bands. Why not do the same thing using ebooks to see if Christians would like to read something different to what publishers are currently serving them up?

Why not join hands with Christian Writers forums, Smashwords and Kindle and make hundreds of “sampler” Christian authors ebooks available in their various genres? And if after reading 5 free chapters of someone’s Christian romance or Christian sci fi novel people “vote” with their hip pockets and buy the ebook, a publisher will know which books or authors should be considered for conventional printing! Surely this takes some of the risk out of the conventional printing equation.

Ebooks are also potentially a fantastic way of tackling cultural differences. I feel this is particularly evident in the Christian fiction market. During the time I managed a Christian bookshop I got a pretty good idea of what type of books Aussie Christians WANTED to buy. They asked me what was available. What I could recommend. And I felt sad when I couldn't recommend a book that matched their criteria.

These days I’m a homeschool mother not a bookshop manager. In my spare time I write the sort of stories customers asked me for in the past. Adventure, romance, scifi with an Aussie flavour. To date, I’ve produced fourteen manuscripts which match their criteria. Realistically I know that American conventional publishers rarely invest in Aussie authors or print Aussie stories. I don’t mind. I’m happy to publish my stories as ebooks. I don’t mind whether my sales just cover the costs of the ISBNs or whether I sell enough books to build hubby’s dream shed and my dream kitchen. There are eternal issues at stake here. Issues more important than my ego – and my makeshift kitchen!

Back when I managed the bookshop I often saw people leave the store empty handed. Or they’d just bought music and had fellowship over a coffee. Publishers missed out on thousands of dollars of sales a year, because the “American flavour” books they were shipping out to Australia didn’t appeal to the Australian psyche. (You don't have to agree with me - I'm just telling you like it is. The same probably applies to your sales in other English speaking countries too!)

It’d be true to say that when Australians buy Christian fiction books it’s usually because there’s nothing Australian for them to buy. When someone comes into a bookshop with money wanting to buy something to read and leaves empty handed, publishers should take that as meaning they’ve provided too narrow a choice.

E-books are an ideal way for publishers to broaden the choice, do some market research AND make a little money on the side.