E-Book Boom: Bust or Bonanza for Publishers?

The closure of Border stores reflects the publishing industry’s archaic structure that has been exceedingly slow to adapt to a changing environment. I lament with others the passing of the great grazing fields of these brick and mortar stores in which I spent hours of browsing; but I must admit since at least 1998 I have purchased many of my books online. Because I can still look inside the books, browse all authors’ titles, read reviews, and buy at lower prices; I find online booksellers offer more and at any hour of the day or night. Browsing the physical store was something I did because I wanted to get out of the house. Currently, I divide my purchases approximately half and half between electronic and print books. Publishers Weekly projects that by 2015 e-books will outsell print copies.

A shrewd publisher could get on board this trend or continue to let the boat pass by.  Until the e-reader began to sell widely, the structure of the publishing industry has been loaded against the author who has had to jump through several hoops before seeing his book in print, if ever–a crap shoot from the start–getting an agent, the agent finding a publisher, the editor preparing it for publication, getting it in Borders and getting media attention. A fat chance, a roulette game. Finally, the wheel has turned in favor of the author. E-books put the writer in the driver’s seat without middlemen, thereby, increasing the author’s earnings. Kindle and Nook self-publication programs enable readers to decide what they want to read rather than agents, editors, and media taste makers; although I think the publishing houses will still pander to celebrity books.

I propose a model that can also increase the publisher’s share of profits and lower the risk of taking on unknown authors. Bypass both the agent and over-the-transom submissions; reduce mailroom costs and go to the heart of the matter. Editors should study the sales and rankings of self-published e-books.  They should read excerpts of the books that fit the type that they publish.  They should offer print publication contracts to the ones that stand out. Similar to the entertainment and sports fields in which talent scouts go to  the minor leagues, community theaters and cabarets; editors should mine e-books to uncover outstanding, well-written ones with promising sales and rankings. These books have established a readership that the editor can expand into the print market. At this point, an author is free to get an agent to negotiate terms, movie rights, etc.

This model is premised on the belief that there will also be a demand for print books. That will never go away. Bookmaking is an art form too. The beauty of bound books on a shelf will always draw book lovers, if my own habits are any indication. I want the print copy of a book that I know I will read again or that I value as an enduring work of the world’s great literature.  That will not change. What has changed is that the locus of power has moved from New York to the writer at his desk and the reader holding his Kindle, Nook, iPad, or other device. Another cause for excitement is my feeling (maybe just a hope) that those e-books are making readers of more Americans whatever their age. And that is very good.  What a bright prospect for children to gain the life-long pleasure of reading through today’s e-readers.

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One response to this post.

  1. The announcement in the NY Times today that John Locke, the first self-published e-book author to sell one million copies on Amazon, signed a contract with Simon & Schuster follows the model for the publishing industry that I proposed in this post. The agreement gives Simon & Schuster rights to print and distribute the paper back editions of his eight Donovan Creed thrillers while Locke retains the e-books rights. Locke now has expanded his market to readers who prefer to read traditional books. I look for more of the equivalent of “headhunters” from the publishing industry roaming the e-book world to find “good reads.”

    Reply

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