Tag Archives: ebooks

The Service Savvy Authors Would Pay For (If It Existed)

Part I – Nobody wants to read the great novel you wrote:

Without going into a whole history of digital self-publishing, let’s just admit the current situation sucks. Sure there are now self-published e-books regularly featured in The New York Times Sunday Book Review combined e-book and paperback top 25 bestsellers. Yes, there was a write-up in Slate last week on the phenomenal success of Wool, but aside from a very few winners, most authors are losers, and readers aren’t too happy either.
Continue reading The Service Savvy Authors Would Pay For (If It Existed)

Who Still Buys Hardcovers?

My loyal readers (both of you) know that I keep an eye on the publishing industry, and try to make sense of pronouncements and prognostications, especially as they regard e-books and the future for those of us outliers.  But here’s something that still mystifies me:  Who buys hardcover books?

The better-half and I are book junkies.  We have far more DTBs than anyone living in a cramped apartment ought to.  But very few of these are hardcovers.  A quick perusal of the stacks shows that the b-h has more hardcovers than I do.  Mine tend to be graphic works — Mondo Boxo, by Roz Chast for example, or movie books like Lulu in Hollywood, badly damaged by certain bored kittehs who used it as scratching post.

The b-h has more hardcovers than I do reflecting his varied interests — eco-systems, travel, botany, geology, etc.

Both of us have a smattering of fiction and biography in hardcover.  Generally, these are books that were purchased used, gifts or found in the laundry room.  It is exceedingly rare that either of us buys new hardcovers.  Generally, when we do it’s a question of impatience.  The last new hardcover I bought, I purchased shortly before I got my kindle.  It was The Girl Who Kicked the Hornets’ Nest, the last of Stieg Larsson’s Millennium Trilogy. I came late to the series.  I’d devoured the first two books, and the third one had just come out in hardcover. I broke down and bought it after finding out that I would be 504th on the New York Public Library waiting list.

Here’s the thing: hardcover books aren’t just expensive, they are big and bulky.  I’ve never seen them as “better” from a reader’s point of view.  I bring this up because there is a constant debate on the Kindle forums regarding the price of e-books.  Much has been said about the “agency pricing” model and how Amazon wanted to cap prices for ebooks at $9.99 but got outflanked by big publishing.  Many readers complain that e-book prices for new books often exceed the paperback prices, but that doesn’t matter much to me. As a consumer, and avid reader, I’m likely to buy the cheapest version of a book I can get. I prefer to get books from the library (since I’m likely to only read a book once) or to get them used or free from my laundry room and then “recycle” them by leaving in the laundry room when I’m done.  Usually, I can wait for a book from the library or to be discounted, but on the rare occasion when I don’t want to, getting the book on Kindle at a lower price than I’d pay for a new hardcover feels like a bargain to me.

I finally paid more than $9.99 for an e-book when I decided I “had to” read Stephen King’s 11/22/63.  The initial Kindle price was $26; apparently this was an “enhanced” version, which included some old CBS footage of the Kennedy assassination.  That was more than I was willing to pay, but once the price came down to $14.99, considerably lower than the hardcover, I grabbed it.  It’s now back up to $16.99.  My reasoning was simple:  I wanted to read it.  I wanted to read it THAT SECOND.  I wanted to read it at the lowest available price and without having to leave my house or wait for a delivery.

What I don’t get, however, is who, under normal circumstances buys hardcover fiction when less expensive e-books are available?

I took a quick look at the Publisher’s Weekly hardcover bestseller list.  The first 17 books listed were mostly mysteries, thrillers, or fantasies, Sue Grafton, Michael Connelly, even the very late Michael Crichton was represented.  General fiction as represented by Nicholas Sparks came in at number seven and Janet Evonovich at number 9.  It’s safe to say that none of the books represented would be considered literary fiction or serious fiction.  So is it all people who simply can’t wait to read the next one by _______?  Or do people prefer to read hardcovers because they think they are more “classy”?  What happens to these books once they are read?  Are they resold? Given away?  Placed proudly on bookshelves for years to come?

I’m imagining that’s it’s an older demographic, but then I wonder who precisely.  Kindle early adapters skewed old, and the main selling point for the “traditional” non-backlit e-readers was that they read like print, not a computer screen, which appeals to people who grew up reading print. Given that the price of e-reading devices has come down and that e-book prices remain below hardcover prices, it would seem likely that more traditional hardcover buyers will switch to ebooks.  I’d like to know why they haven’t made the switch already.  I don’t know what the market researchers have uncovered but my guesses would be (1) they don’t like “e” anything and would prefer to just read their books (2) they like the feeling of “ownership” they get from print books, and on some basic level you don’t “own” your e-books no matter what Toni Morrison says, (3) while they might consider price, they also take into account “sharability”.  They always pass the book along and then discuss it with at least one other person, and so far e-books with DRM don’t provide a good system for doing that.

So here are my prognostications on book formats and pricing:

DRM will continue to have a negative impact on e-book sales since it’s still much easier to share your DTBs, and even circulate them within your family or non-virtual social network.  While having all your books in a “cloud” somewhere may be great insurance in case your devices are stolen or destroyed, there’s something off-putting about a company like Amazon controlling your cloud. It’s not irrational for consumers to be concerned, not just about sharing, but that someday Amazon (or a competitor) will simply scoop up your “books” or impose a new rule: “Henceforth, you will pay to us the sum of $100 a month for “storage” or we will hold captive and eventually destroy your entire library.”

Possibly Amazon’s hedge against this is that we are moving toward what AOL founder Steve Case, referred to as a “sharing economy.” While entrepreneurs like Case, believe that younger consumers are more interested in “use and experience” then ownership, the model that has made Zip Car profitable, might not work for books.  Books have almost always been shared, passed along between friends, stored on shelves where guests were welcome to them.  They are available for free at libraries.  Like movies, most be people don’t mind sharing, and  we may only experience the same book once.  Yet unlike movies, people want to “own” their books, and “ownership” seems to add value even though the same book will probably only be “experienced” once by the same consumer, and most books won’t be resold.  It’s not that people don’t want to “share” the experience of reading a book; it’s simply that they want to do so without the interference of a big company, or with a big company getting a cut every time they share.

It wouldn’t be against Amazon’s self-interest as a publicly “consumer-oriented” company to create a different system.  They could probably even figure out a way to make money from it.  How’s this: Instead of a virtual lending system that is amazingly complex and restricted, why not a DRM that sells you a license that still can’t be copied, but can be removed from the “cloud” and lent a limited number of times before it self-destructs?

Right now Amazon “storage” is free because this sells more books.  People can buy ebooks and read them with the kindle app whether they own a Kindle or not.  That would still be the case.  The difference would be that people could remove books from this “virtual” library without having to have Mother’s permission to do so.

If you could, in fact, actually “buy” your download, then Amazon could, without raising too big a ruckus, actually charge a storage fee. They might offer different pricing schemes for this — book recovery (in case of device loss or damage) for any ebook purchased through Amazon and not purposely removed from the cloud by the consumer, could remain free, but the ability to read books on multiple devices could have a fee that could rise with the number of devices.

Like the current used book market it wouldn’t be so great for publishers or authors, but consumers would love it.  Let’s say you limited a book to five moves before it self-destructed. That would be pretty similar to what happens when you loan someone a book and they loan it to someone who loans it to someone. While that might lead to some online swapping systems that would cut into profits, it could also work out for sellers and publishers.  The “books” themselves would be more valuable (and Amazon could charge more) because they could be loaned or resold, and there’d be no danger of Amazon coming to reclaim them. Amazon could as it does now, get a cut on resales or become a direct seller.

Just as there are now different formats for print books with different pricing — hardcover, trade paperback, mass market paperback, there could be different e-formats as well — a “first run” that comes at a higher price with bonus features (as was tried it with 11/22/63), a lower-priced version that comes out later without the bonus, and a third run, equivalent to “mass market” that’s considerably cheaper but maybe with a more limited number of loans or no free storage.

Granted, the Internet makes a lot of things easy, and it might be very easy to set up a “used e-book” website and offer people money to sell e-books that still had loans (just as it’s almost as easy now to became an online used book seller). But how much would that actually cut into sales given that “used” e-books would have fewer if any “loans” available and couldn’t be stored free or used on multiple devices?  Amazon currently makes a large profit selling used print books, and could continue the trade with e-books.  Publishers and authors could demand something they don’t currently have with print — resale rights and restrictions.

In short, it could be done in a way where almost everyone wins, except of course brick and mortar bookstores.  I have also ideas about that, but I’ll save them for another post.

Nobody Knows Anything (About Publishing)

The title phrase was of course coined by screenwriter William Goldman and refers to the entertainment industry. It is most applicable now to publishing though I thought of calling this blog, There’s Something Happening Here, but then got afraid that ASCAP would come after me.

I’m just an interested bystander, and my theories aren’t worth the paper they aren’t printed on, but I’ve been doing some reading and have listed below some interesting pieces. What’s it mean? Draw your own conclusions and by all means, feel free to drop by and spout off your opinion and relevant links.

Here goes:

Publish or Perish from The New Yorker in which Ken Auletta explains how big publishing is hoping the IPad will break Kindle’s hold on the ebook market and allow publishers to charge print prices for ebooks because of course we all know that that will save the book business. (If you go to The New Yorker’s website you’ll also see lots of blogs, letters and articles on related topics.)

The Rise of Self-Publishing in which The New York Times not only discovers self-publishing, but declares it respectable!  (which means that it’s now officially over.)

Man Bites Dog, no that’s not the name of it, but here’s an article from Publisher’s Weekly explaining why award winning writer John Edgar Wideman decided to publish a story collection on Lulu.

There’s More to Publishing Than Meets the Screen by Jonathan Galassi. The head of Farrar, Strauss & Giroux makes a not so subtle case for why publishers should hold digital rights FOREVER. This was as the youts say a pretty lulz-worthy piece of work and led to many responses including one of my own, though my favorite was by Heather Michon in Open Salon who boiled Galassi’s point down to “There is no “I” in book.”

You could also do worse than check out The Militant Writer blog in which Mary Walters takes a hard look at the industry. One of my favorites from that site is a piece where she blames literary agents for the mess. Some of the more blogactive agents posted replies making the discussion uh spirited.

Happy reading!

(Update:  Not too many comments at this obscure website, but there is an ongoing discussion over on a thread on Authonomy.  Anyone can “listen” in, though you’d need to register on the site to participate.)

Proud Independents — Five Books You Won’t Find in Chains

A trip to any indistinguishable chain bookstore will tell you what you need to know about the current crisis in publishing — glossy-covered bestsellers by the usual suspects, characters from classics transformed into “vampyres” and zombie-killers, second-rate celebrities eager to tell all. But where are the fresh new writers? Where are the strong stories and original voices?

Sadly, the big publishing houses are taking fewer chances and more emerging authors are self-publishing. It’s easy to create your own micro-imprint, and on-line nobody knows you’re a POD (print-on-demand). While getting onto store shelves is difficult, the web has made it simple for authors to market themselves, and e-books offer a great way to break in. For a writer, uploading a book on Kindle is as easy as sending an e-mail, and companies like Smashwords offer free e-publishing in ALL digital formats.

While this creates opportunities for writers, it creates confusion for readers. With so many books, what’s to read? Without the traditional gatekeepers — agents and publishers — how do you find books that are high quality, original and well-written?

Fortunately, e-books can usually be “sampled” before purchase, and most online booksellers allow you to “browse” print versions electronically. If you are an e-book aficionado or ready to take the plunge into print-on-demand, here are five great picks.

1) Dorkismo — The Macho of the Dork , by Maria Bustillos (2009) — available in paperback and on Kindle.

In a series of brilliant, accessible and funny essays, LA-based cultural critique, Maria Bustillos posits that the dorks are saving civilization. Her revolutionary manifesto celebrates true self-expression. In a world where hipness has become a commodity signified by the proper attire and technology, a world of branding, where children refuse to go to school without designer clothing, Dorkismo is the antidote. All the important creative thinkers and innovators are dorks, she tells us. They/we/us are the true iconoclasts. This is more than simple cultural critique. It’s self-help that’s nothing short of inspirational.

Bustillos, by offering her examples of authentic coolness, urges readers to be proud of who they are and their intellectual pursuits and obsessions — even if they involve fluency in one or more fictional languages. Her motto, “to thine own self be cool,” redefines hip making it clear that creativity, art and even happiness come from following your own path, enjoying yourself, and learning to embrace your dork-nature.

2) Babylon, Daisy Anne Gree (2009) — available in paperback and as a FREE e-book in all digital formats.

Gree published this novel in association with Year Zero a writers’ collective dedicated to “restoring the direct conversation between reader and writer.” Babylon, barely more than novella length, is a stunning debut.

Fired from a restaurant job in San Francisco, schizophrenic Daniel attempts suicide and winds up back in his parent’s old house in his small Texas hometown of Babylon. Voice is everything in fiction and Gree has it. Daniel’s head is not a comfortable or pleasant place to be, but Gree brings us there in a way that’s true and sharp. She teaches us more about the mind of a schizophrenic than anyone is likely to get from a medical or psychiatric textbook. Gree goes beyond the writing workshop adage, “Show don’t tell.” Her descriptions are simple yet visceral, and they hit like a shot of mescaline straight to the heart.

Chapter one begins in the restaurant where Daniel is working:

“I counted my breath in and out, rough and ragged. A fractious rhythm among the others, the slamming oven doors and the clanking plates, that surrounded me. The air inside was so thick and heavy that breathing felt like drowning. As the seconds wore on, one noise began to swell and smother the rest: the slow and steady buzzing of the fluorescent bulb above my head. It was feverish and nauseating, as jarring as a jackhammer on asphalt.”

By the time Daniel comes home and slashes his wrist, we’ve seen the shadows jumping from the walls and heard the voices calling his name. We understand the desperation that drives his actions.

While this all sounds bleak, and it is, there’s also a deadpan humor that shows itself in snatches of dialogue and imagery that is achingly beautiful throughout.

3) Harbour, by Paul House (2009) — available in hardcover, paperback and coming to Kindle.

Harbour, a historical novel set against the Japanese invasion of Hong Kong, was initially published by the author through Lulu as a POD. It was recently picked up by Dragon International Arts, a small publisher in the UK.

At over 400 pages and with several story-lines, Harbour, is better suited to print than digital. Its characters include an elderly drug-lord, his beautiful young wife, a mixed-race girl, a British doctor, a Japanese barber with a secret, an embittered invalid and assorted others. None are especially heroic which is both the novel’s strength and probably the reason it wasn’t picked up by a major publisher. If you’re a fan of formulaic historical fiction — the Michener model, this isn’t for you. It’s character-driven even as history unfolds. Which is not to say, that there isn’t plenty of attention to historical detail.

As we read, patterns begin to emerge within the tapestry before us. We understand more of the connections between characters and the focus shifts to two couples — Tung Nien, the drug-lord’s wife and her lover Dr. Laughton — a married, British ex-pat, and Molly a mixed-race girl taken in by Tung Nien and Molly’s friend, Wu.

Laughton and Tung Nien are in an impossible situation. They’ve gone from having an affair to being truly, deeply, passionately in love with each other. Their story of longing and compromise becomes one with which any reader can identify. Molly, our young heroine, has ideals and innocence. She’s probably the most heroic of the bunch — the least cynical and sullied, while her beau, Wu on the precipice of manhood, may make the wrong choice. When the chaos of the invasion finally arrives, these are the four we hope will emerge not only alive but somehow, against the odds, with each other.

Without giving anything away, one can report that the ending was deeply satisfying.

4) Songs from the Other Side of the Wall, by Dan Holloway — available in paperwork and FREE in all e-book formats.

This is a book truly made for the digital age — hip, sensuous, smart and very up to date. Holloway is the founder of the Year 0 collective and believes that making books available for free digitally is one way to grow readership. Songs has become the number one most downloaded literary novel on the e-book publishing site, Smashwords.

Szandrine was born in Hungary shortly after the Berlin Wall fell. Abandoned by her British mother, she was raised by her father on a family-owned vineyard. Szandrine is part of the Budapest art scene and lives with her girlfriend, Yang — a sculptor.

Set in 2006-2007, besides it’s exotic setting, what sets this novel apart is the invention of a truly contemporary character. Szandrine, at seventeen, is post-Wall Europe, at ease with the non-issue of her sexuality, and more at home in certain corners of the Internet than anywhere else.

New Year’s Eve 2006, Szandi witnesses a tragedy during riots in Budapest. What she sees impels her to explore her past and brings her to an understanding of her future. The story unfolds in real time, flashbacks, letters and in chat-rooms.

It’s a complicated tale involving the recall of an online friendship with a dead man, a mysterious letter, and an unsatisfactory reunion between Szandrine and her mother. Holloway, never loses control and the strands are woven together with the connections becoming clear. As Szandrine explores her recent and more distant history, she comes into her own with knowledge and wisdom.

With flashbacks, and switches in time and location, this may not be the easiest narrative to follow, but it captures the rhythms and nuisance of how we live now in a way that has rarely been done better.

5) Glimpses of a Floating World, by Larry Harrison, (2009) — available in paperbook and FREE in all e-book formats.

Larry Harrison’s dark and dazzling first novel, Glimpses-of-a-Floating-World takes its title from the phrase used to describe the red-light district of 18th century Edo, now known as Tokyo. Edo’s floating world was a haven of pleasure and illusion, filled with kabuki actors, geishas and courtesans. Harrison’s work is set in London’s Soho, 1963, its denizens — anarchists, mods, rockers, beats, and others, among them our protagonist, seventeen year-old, heroin addict, Ronnie “Fizz” Jarvis who loves feeling that he is part of “the scene.”

Harrison skillfully allows the reader to identify with Ronnie despite the character’s being vain, selfish and occasionally cowardly. He is, after all, an adolescent trying to understand the world and his place in it. Ronnie reminds us of other young, unreliable characters reaching adulthood in an imperfect world. The reader is immediately aware that no matter what else happens, Ronnie will either grow and change, or he will not. We root for Ronnie’s potential, hoping he will live to tell the tale.

Glimpses is well-plotted, taut and suspenseful. Ronnie becomes a reluctant police informant and tensions rise as we head towards a likely bloody conclusion.

Harrison who has written nonfiction books on alcohol and drug issues, seamlessly weaves in the growing panic over narcotics. Britain — influenced by the US — was changing its policies, moving from treating addiction as a public health issue to criminalizing addicts. Ronnie is as much a victim of these changes as he is of his abusive father and his own romanticized self-destruction.

Glimpses of a Floating World is described on its back cover as “a lyrical and triumphant elegy to a seedy, vice-ridden London of the 1960’s. ” It is that, but also a tale of familial tragedy, a history lesson, a novel that offers much more than simple glimpses. It reads like a lost classic.

(This posting originally appeared as a guest blog at can also be found as a guest blog at LA Books Examiner.)

There’s More to Publishing Than In Jonathan Galassi’s Recent Op-Ed

In a New York Times opinion piece, There’s More to Publishing Than Meets the Screen, (1/3/10), Jonathan Galassi — President of Farrar, Strauss & Giroux, writes of the decision by the heirs of William Stryon’s estate to put out e-book versions of the author’s work. Galassi wonders whether e-books are “a new frontier in publishing” or “simply the latest edition of the books produced by publishers like Random House.”

He points to the contributions made by traditional publishers in creating the finished product that goes to the public. In addition to marketing, design and layout, Galassi speaks of the role of editors in making sure that the final version of a book is the best that it can be.

Galassi does not discuss the other important role of traditional publishers. They have been the gatekeepers, not only ensuring that no book would bare their imprint before it was ready, but that any book with their stamp would be one worth reading. Publishers could be depended upon to bring us new and interesting authors, and beyond that to expand the very foundations of literature.

But the publishing industry abandoned these tasks long before e-books came on to the scene.

Any visit to a bookstore will show that nowadays it’s only name brand best selling authors and celebrity writers getting onto store shelves. If William Styron were starting out today, an editor would never have taken a chance on a book like Lie Down in Darkness (unless perhaps Styron added vampires or zombies) and Styron himself might have been forced to publish only as an e-book if for no other reason than to prove to potential agents or publishers that he could gain a following and his books would sell.

While books may still need “the care and dedication” of a good editor, publishing houses are not going to provide that to any novels they don’t believe are marketable and most of the books they believe will sell, no amount of editing will help.

The result of this is that sales are down and the publishing industry is in trouble. If only it would occur to those involved to look inward, they might find that the problem is not competition from e-book distributors. Perhaps what they need to do is look for books that have literary merit to begin with. Maybe they should be using that marketing acumen to make serious reading “sexy” again, or to find out what kinds of books would compel readers who aren’t buying theirs. Of course they need to make other changes as well. Changes might include a different type of distribution, the realization that e-book and print pricing can’t be the same, a rethinking of how royalties are set, and new ways of incorporating digital marketing. As in any industry, new technologies require new approaches.

Galassi makes a valid a point. The publishing industry plays an important role in the production of books. If they are going to continue to play an important role in the production of important books — both print and electronic, they need to change.

(This blog also appeared in Marion’s Open Salon page with lots more comments.)