Nathanael Green's Blog

An advertising copywriter, novelist, and freelance writer's brain goo.

Ebooks: Publisher-Murderer, or Savior?

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Barnes & Noble's Nook

Ebooks are all four of the Horsemen of the Publishing Apocalypse digitally processed into one little, bloodthirsty file.

Or they’re the shining savior who’ll give all writers bajillions of dollars, euros, or even dirham if they feel like retiring in Morocco.

Whatever. Let’s all take a deep breath and be honest with ourselves here.

Why are publishers trembling from fear and writers from excitement?

Some publishers see revenues slipping away from them as print goes the way of the dinosaur. According to Publishers Weekly, e-book sales grew 159% in the first quarter of 2011.

Not only that, but print-on-demand and self-publishing, which often goes hand-in-hand with an author’s own e-book, is becoming easier, faster, more widely accepted than ever before. That means that authors are cutting out the editors and publishers, and in the process are raking in much higher percentages of the profits—we’re talking royalties of around 70% for self-publishing through a distributor, instead of 8% on paperbacks.

A lot of people, writers in particular, see the ebook as their chance to decentralize the publishing industry. Power to the people and all that. Sales of ebooks are ever increasing, the investment to produce one is next to nothing, and the writer’s fate is in his own hands. (Did I mention royalties of 70%?)

Just look at Amanda Hocking—this savvy novelist released her books electronically by herself and has since reportedly sold more than a million copies … ooh, me too, me too!

But wait …

Yes, e-book sales increased a lot. But Publishers Weekly also noted that traditional publishers’ output grew by 5% in 2011. If traditional print were in its death throes, would it be producing more books that won’t sell?

Ms. Hocking herself has an insightful post about this topic on her blog where she writes:

“…ebooks make up at best 20% of the market. Print books make up the other 80%. Traditional publishers still control the largest part of the market, and they will – for a long time, maybe forever.  … Saying traditional publishing is dead right now is like declaring yourself the winner in the sixth inning of a baseball game when you have 2 runs and the other team has 8 just because you scored all your runs this inning, and they haven’t scored any since the first.”

Very well said.

And let’s also be clear that ebooks aren’t going to let every writer bathe in gold. There are thousands upon thousands of people putting out their own e-book, but the stories of anyone making it big are rare.

This may be a tough pill to swallow, but here it is: many ebooks don’t sell because they’re awful.

Sure there are lots of people who want to publish themselves and are great writers, or tried traditional publishing and for whatever reason, no one picked up a stellar book. But part of traditional publishers’ job is to weed out the worst crap and give even the good stuff content- and copy-editing so it’s a polished product we can really appreciate. There’s no filter of that kind on self-publishing.

OK, Nate. So what’s your enlightened opinion?

I say everyone should just calm down. Ebooks aren’t going to make anything explode. They won’t ruin the publishing world, nor will they create a blessed utopia where every writer is read by millions.

What they will do is change some things. They can give a modicum of control to writers. They offer quick, cheaper access to books for readers. Some publishers might suffer for a bit, while entrepreneurs will do well with new technology. Ebooks make publishers consider alternatives to print books, to their contracts and to their royalty rates. They also give both publishers and writers new opportunities.

Smart, forward-thinking publishers will learn to use ebooks as part of their business model. Smart writers will take the initiative in marketing them and use them to reach a much wider audience, and yes, perhaps even increase our earnings. Both will have to deal with piracy.

E-publishing is just another tool in the publishing and writing industry’s shed, and publishers and writers alike need to learn how to use it for their benefit. But it’s not coming for us wreathed in fire.

What’s your take on ebooks? Have you gone this route or considered it? Thoughts on self-published ebooks versus through a publisher?


Awesomely-Possumly Related Links:

Bob Mayer’s Blog talks about writers are using ebooks as part of their marketing strategy, the pricing and royalty rates, and how to boost sales and profit.

Literary Agent Kristin Nelson blogs about established writers going the self-publishing route and a few reasons why at Pub Rants.

Written by Nathanael Green

June 3, 2011 at 8:26 am

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