Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Electronic candy

I've been doing a lot of research on e-books and the current state of publishing, mostly noting that several big authors--Ian McEwan, Stephen Covey, Paulo Coelho--have signed exclusive deals with Amazon to release their books on Kindle only. They are using Rosetta Books as a "publisher," so they aren't getting all the money, but I expect very soon some high-profile author, probably a thriller writer or SF writer, is going to announce a do-it-yourself deal with Amazon. It's tricky right now for many authors, because they rightfully don't want to alienate their publishers. If they have a true partnership, then they should mutually benefit. If the publisher is holding the author back instead of rocketing the author into the future, then that author should take a serious look at the Five Year Window.

I've been reading entries at iReader Review about the rapidly changing environment, the pressures that will shape ebook prices, and the bizarre industry notions out there. My favorite is that publishers have been holding closed-door meetings with Apple so that the new tablet becomes the preferred method of electronic distribution. Hard to see that happening, and it's hard to see the Nook or Sony eReader gaining ground on the Kindle. Now, Amazon is currently the Walmart of electronic distribution and it could get to a point (if it's not already) of the tail wagging the dog. Amazon started as an online bookstore, for those new to the Internet--and it was content to lose money on those sales to corner a market, branch off, and sell gadgets and gimmicks at high profit margins while losing money on low-ticket items like books. Just as Amazon is paying $14 to publishers for a $10 ebook (a decidedly insane model), publishers are probably happy but a little uneasy about it. Their $14 books are no longer worth $14, and never will be. And from $10, they go down from there. And this doesn't even get into the erosion of a hardcover's value, if any.

But does anyone seriously believe Amazon is worried about the cost and value of ebooks? They can make lots of money selling Kindles, or getting ebook consumers to their site to buy other high-tech devices, because ebook readers are early adopters of technology. And technology produces lots of toys.

Amazon is raising its royalty cut to 70 percent for independent authors and that immediately sets off the radar. Well, gee, that's mighty generous, and plenty of unpublished writers, disgruntled writers, prescient writers, retired writers, and casual writers were thrilled to be getting the current 35 percent (especially compared to publisher royalties that generally varied from 6 to 10 percent for most deals). Some were so happy for a platform they were giving their books away free. The real genius of Amazon came in establishing the price range for which the 70 percent applied--between $2.99 and $9.99, thereby establishing the "worth" of ebooks. There are tons of articles and posts heralding "Writer beware," but very few labeled "Publisher beware."

So what is the value of an ebook? $14? No, never again, except for certain technical manuals with meticulous research. Is it the current "hardcover ebook" standard of $9.99? Only for six months at the most. Is it zero? Well, soon it will be. Book piracy is in its infancy and enough writers seem willing to give away their work in some strange hope of becoming valuable. In limited doses, maybe, (such as blogging) but they also say don't do anything for free that you're good enough to do for money.

For writers, should you wait for a universal platform before you make a digital decision? Apple tablets WILL be the future...for five minutes, just like every other future we've been sold in the last 20 years. I still listen to music on cassette tapes in my car. In 1998, I gave away what might have been one of the last functioning 8-track tape players, a format that didn't function well even when it was new. I finally put together a CD collection about the time iPods and iTunes showed up.

I still submit to agents and publishers because I believe in making allies and forming positive partnerships, and I still love paper books. But I am also presented with a historic and fleeting window of opportunity. I put my backlist novel The Red Church up, I am formatting two printed story collections (one was rather ineffectually sold by a pioneering electronic publisher), and a novella Burial to Follow. A print deal for one of my unpublished books recently fell through. I'm not quite ready to go to original digital release for it, and of course Amazon is not knocking down my door to sign me to an exclusive. I'd still rather get it on a bookshelf somewhere, but how long do I wait? The first draft of that novel was written 10 years ago, and I think it's pretty good, and it will appeal to audiences that would never pick up The Red Church or any other book that looks remotely spooky.

It's a window. Through a glass darkly, draw the curtains, or turn on the light. What's the future?

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