The rising wave of manuscripts moving from writers’ keyboards direct to readers’ hands built momentum recently. In case you missed the rumble of the latest break in this evolutionary cycle, Amazon has entered into publishing, both electronic and traditional paper. In fact, it is committed to publishing 122 books this fall.
Publishers' responses to Amazon's publishing authors directly is reminiscent in some cases of the record industry's response to iTunes' disruption of its business model in 2001.
Self-publishing is leveling what has been a uneven field of competition for authors, for readers, and for book sellers. Writers still write books on spec, but now they can manage rights, take responsibility for when and how their work is published, participate more fully as equal partners in their work's publication, connect more directly with readers, and be better literary citizens.
Book Publishing is Becoming Self-publishing
The Internet has made every individual a potential publisher. And technology is making every idea, story, and work of art marketable. Even the business side of the transaction is returning to a one-to-one exchange.
JA Konrath has six books in print and thirteen e-books available from Amazon. He has projected that he will earn up to $100,000 this year on sales of his e-books alone. Each sale is initiated by an interested reader who decides to download one of his novels to their Kindle, iPad, PC, Mac, iPhone, iTouch, Droid, or any other of an expanding universe of personal e-reading options. Amazon's online Kindle Store (or Apple's iBook and others) completes the transaction within seconds. No shipping. No waiting. From JA Konrath directly to Ima Reader wherever she is on the planet.
There are thirty-nine e-readers on the market. Considering the quantum leap forward in quality of the user experience, it is tempting to rephrase that device snapshot to something more like: the Apple iPad and thirty-eight others.
The iPad provides an excellent, even transformational e-reading experience. It feels good cradled in your hands, on your lap or propped up against your thighs for those middle of the night reads. It has a high resolution color screen that is easy on eyes, especially aging eyes. It responds instantly, enthusiastically to any impulse. Turning the page is almost as satisfying as leafing pages in that 600-page Dickens anthology you've had since Lit 101. And you can look up words in the dictionary without getting up to go find it. Plug in some ear buds and you can even listen to the voice of your choice read your book to you.
The iPad will dash the ambitions of many early e-readers and the field will inevitably narrow to a select few devices. Sony and other quality device manufacturers will accept iPad's challenge and up their game. All for the better. Whatever makes the author's work available in a high integrity transaction, on an enjoyable-to-use device, and to more people is good.
Opportunity is Calling
When in your lifetime did obstacles to getting your work published actually diminish in number? If you have a good book, some appealing cover art, a compelling description and the ambition to grow your audience, now would be a good time to get out there and share your work.
Ken Auletta offers a short course on the agency business model and the ever-evolving history of publishing. This article also includes a situational analysis about the stakes for authors, publishers, bookstores, and device makers in the current competition between the printed page and the panel of pixels known as the e-Reader (Kindle, iPad, Nook and others coming online). The writer, journalist and media critic at The New Yorker has been a keen observer of media trends. His Three Blind Mice: How the TV Networks Lost Their Way put the failing big three television network model in stark context for us in 1991. Now, he has once again captured a dynamic period in media history on the page.
His recent article, Publish or PerishCan the iPad topple the Kindle, and save the book business? (The New Yorker, 30 April 2010), is similarly timely and incisive. A 'must read' for authors, agents, publishers and readers.
The climate for writers is changing as it is changing for so many other professions. At least three writers I know believe that we are approaching a tipping point where a sustainable writing career might slip beyond the grasp of many talented and deserving writers.
Contracts written prior to 1994, when Random House modified its contracts to include electronic rights, are subject to interpretation as to whether e-rights are covered. It is primarily these backlist titles that are the focus of much of the current dispute. Large publishers' legal departments see sufficient ambiguity in older contracts to claim the rights advantage before the courts intervene and define these terms for them. While publishers, agents, lawyers and judges argue whether imprecise pre-ebook contract language amounts to legally defined rights, the practical result is denied opportunity for writers. This is not meant to ignore that the economic downturn and the paradigm shift in technology have also forced publishers into an urgent sprint to develop a business model that works for them. My focus here is on writers and their ability to continue to create the raw material required by the publishing industries. Uncertainty in publishing leads to risk aversion among all parties, delay, and ultimately a degraded environment for writers whose professional survival is already a marginal existence. Last night, I dreamed I was a polar bear on a small floating patch of rapidly melting ice. Nothing symbolic there, right?
Are traditional publishing's aggressive responses to the evolving e-book market threatening the careers of writers who invent, research, and craft original literary fiction? Probably not in the long-term, yet it seems that way sometimes.
Publishers are lining up for a high stakes confrontation with writers and agents. Traditional publishers are positioning for expanded control of individual author's rights, including wrapping e-rights into their traditional print rights contracts. Authors want to share in the revenues produced by e-books at a level that reflects the lower cost of marketing e-books vs. print books. If publishers will not honor this proportionality, then it seems reasonable that authors would want to retain the opportunity to market the e-rights to their books. The Authors Guild sides with the writer. Where will the courts side? Which Golden Rule will guide them? Ultimately, enterprise and economics will decide. In the meantime, we writers have to keep writing, keep finding ways to support ourselves while writing, and keep faith that our work will make a difference.
Amazon made it official yesterday, filing a brief in the Google case claiming that someone else might gain a monopoly in bookselling. It seems we're compelled to state the obvious:
Amazon's hypocrisy is breathtaking. It dominates online bookselling and the fledgling e-book industry. At this moment it's trying to cement its control of the e-book industry by routinely selling e-books at a loss. It won't do that forever, of course. Eventually, when enough readers are locked in to its Kindle, everyone in the industry expects Amazon to squeeze publishers and authors. The results could be devastating for the economics of authorship.
Amazon apparently fears that Google could upend its plans. Amazon needn't worry, really: this agreement is about out-of-print books. Its lock on the online distribution of in-print books, unfortunately, seems secure.
The settlement would make millions of out-of-print books available to readers again, and Google would get no exclusive rights under the agreement. The agreement opens new markets, and that's a good thing for readers and authors. It offers to make millions upon millions of out-of-print books available for free online viewing at 16,500 public library buildings and more than 4,000 colleges and universities, and that's a great thing for readers, students and scholars. The public has an overwhelming interest in having this settlement approved.
Just as when the IBM personal computer arrived (1981), Steve Jobs introduced the Macintosh with GUI (1984), the venerable Selectric and Selectric II became obsolete, and a universe of entrepreneurial and artistic opportunities opened to writers, the Kindle, Sony Readers, iRex, Lexcycle's Stanza and other downloadable readers have opened doors to a new world of publishing possibilities. While the major players sort out the e-Publishing landscape, engineer the infrastructure, and build the new e-pub world, we writers are exploring, beta testing, and blazing new entrepreneurial paths ... all while continuing to write, write, write. This is a good time to be a writer, don't you think?
Kindle UPDATE - Kindle vs. B&N Free eReader: See David Pogue's PERSONAL TECH column, "New Entry in E-Books a Paper Tiger," in the August 6th edition of the New York Times. Barnes & Noble's new e-reader offers PC access to e-books. The eReader tablet itself is promised for later.