It’s been just over a year since I wrote about electronic books and the perils of publishing. Since then, developments have been hurtling us even faster into a future that’s already here. It’s affecting the entire book world and its components: writers, publishers, agents, bookstores, and readers. In the midst of an awful economy, we’ve seen the demise of Borders as a result of poor management, rocketing Internet sales and the e-book. In July 2011, Amazon reported that e-books were rapidly outselling hardcover books, and the paperback is surely not far behind. Anecdotally, some owners of e-readers such as the Kindle claim that they are reading much more than they used to, whether fiction or non-fiction.
If there’s a juggernaut at the center of the changing book and publishing landscape, it is Amazon. In the October 16 2011 edition of The New York Times, David Streitfeld examined how Amazon Signs Up Authors, Writing Publishers Out Of Deal and explained that Amazon will publish 122 books of several different genres this fall in both electronic and physical form.
Booksellers, especially independents, have long been painfully aware of how Amazon has gutted their sales by offering books at discounted prices with which the indies can’t possibly compete. Thousands of books can be downloaded to Amazon’s Kindle, which also now offers readers a Kindle Daily Deal – a downloadable book at vastly reduced price, e.g. a $1.99 novel at a 78% discount. How does a physical bookstore compete with that? In the US where people place a premium on instant satisfaction and not having to wait, the convenience of the rapid downloading of a book onto a Kindle, Nook, Kobo or other e-reader is a lifestyle asset.
Booksellers aren’t alone in their anguish. Publishers and agents are also feeling the pain. One of Amazon’s latest moves has been to approach top authors and provide services previously offered by publishers, agents and critics. According to Streitfeld’s article, Russell Grandinetti, a top Amazon executive, declares, “The only necessary people in the publishing process now are the writer and the reader.” For publishers already reeling from the decline in the sales of print books, this is a terrifying statement. Amazon can now coax authors off the conventional publishing path. A new imprint under Amazon Publishing to be run by Laurence J Kirshbaum, a literary agent and former publisher, has reportedly paid actress Penny Marshall $800,000 for her memoir.
Publishers also fear what e-publishing might do to their back titles (old books) which are often a source of good, steady money. In July 2010 when literary agent Andrew Wylie announced that he was going to publish Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man as an electronic book, Random House, who publishes Ellison’s physical books, was absolutely furious. A fundamental question in this debate was who really owns the electronic rights for old books first published in an era when there was no e-publishing. In those days, there were obviously no statements or agreements in contracts between author and publisher regarding e-books.
The services of good editors at the prestigious publishing houses are invaluable and possibly irreplaceable. Many therefore worry that the quality of books appearing on Amazon will be plagued by bad writing and bad editing. On the other side of the coin, others appear to relish the arrival of Amazon publishing with a certain amount of schadenfreude at the misfortunes of conventional publishing. A few examples of the comments at the end of Streitfield’s article demonstrate this:
“Publishers have only themselves to blame…Gone is the editing, developing an author, marketing that author. The only ones to get full service are the bloated and overpaid perennial bestsellers…”
“…It’s no wonder authors are looking to abandon the publishers. The only thing they provide is the brief thrill of having a book published by a recognizable house. I emphasize “brief” because the author soon learns how bad the deal is.”
“…If traditional publishing houses weren’t so enamoured of their own importance, they would not have this degree of problem…The traditional publishing houses should learn from Darwin’s treatise: It is the most adaptable which survives–adapt or die. They cannot adapt.”
Apart from booksellers, it’s the author most caught in the middle of the confusion, especially the mid-listers and those who don’t have a lot of books published. Which way should they go? What should they do now? Because the cost of e-books on Amazon can be very low, publishing at that venue often means authors must price their work as low as $0.99 for it to be competitive, meaning they are unlikely to make a living off writing. The irony is that as the economy worsens and consumers abandon print books, conventional publishers are dropping their authors and these writers may have no choice but to go the very electronic route that is already bringing publishers to their knees.
In my particular instance, Random House has let me know through my agent that they will not be doing my third novel with me, meaning I must look for another publisher and/or go the e-book route for my third novel in the Detective Darko Dawson series, which is set in the lovely city of Takoradi in Ghana against the backdrop of that nation’s brand new oil industry.
To help me move on, I think it is appropriately symbolic and healthy to change my previous working title, Men of the Rig, to something else. More on that later. Meanwhile, fasten your seat-belts. It’s going to be a bumpy ride.