Ebooks: They’re Booming. What’s Next?

We’ve all seen the experiments with ebooks lately.  Authors like Lee Goldberg are finding new life with their backlists.  JA Konrath is positively giddy about the novels he’s released as ebooks.  So that’s the end of publishing, right?

Wrong.

While the new platforms – Kindle, Nook, Sony, and iPad – certainly give new life to out-of-print backlists, the go-it-alone model for new work is in a bit of a sweet spot right now.  If you have an established name, releasing new material yourself – properly edited and using your marketing already in place – is a no-brainer.  And why not?  With the publisher out of the equation, it’s almost pure profit.  Hence, Joe Konrath is a very happy man these days.

But if the POD explosion a few years ago taught us anything, it’s that as soon as you make it affordable for anyone to publish, anyone will do just that.  In the not too distant future*, the ebook platforms will be flooded with slapped-together manuscripts, poorly edited and laid out.  When you get a flood of books that have not been edited properly or put together cleanly, people are going to say, “No, thanks.”

So is that the end of ebooks?  Are we back to depending on the Big Six in New York?

Unless the Big Six halts its march in the footsteps of the poor, deluded recording industry, that’s never going to happen.  On the other hand, I do firmly believe the epublisher is going to rise.

It’s not like this hasn’t been attempted.  Up until now, though, the effort isn’t very well funded or the stakeholders believe that ebooks are basically free money requiring no work on their part.  Many simply came and went too soon, before Amazon led the charge with the Kindle.

But now that viable delivery systems are here, one thing becomes apparent:  All those things that publishers do for you?  You’ll still need someone to do them.  No less an authority than John Scalzi can tell you why, and much better than I can.  The time is right for an epublisher.  But…

Remember, I’m one of those writers who signed with what looked like a savvy independent press exploiting print-on-demand technology to its full potential only to discover…

Yeah, they still sell print books in bookstores, which my former publisher had issues with finding.  And those stores expect you to make it easy for them to buy your book wholesale, which his printer did not.  If you think it was easy when all you had to do was upload a PDF file to a Lightning Source account, then throw together a web site to call yourself a “publisher,” think how easy it will be for someone long on ambition and short on business skills to simply upload to Smashwords and set a price, and implode a hundred times more efficiently, sending his or her authors tumbling into a careening vortex of career oblivion.  Not pretty.

That’s not to say this is not a viable model.  Quite the opposite.  The market is very good at culling the self-published and poorly published drek.  What will rise to the top are the outfits that can market an author’s work.  They will pay their authors.  And they will work with the writers associations to find the right balance in their business models.  So what will a legitimate epublisher look like?

  • Capital, capital, capital – Think about your favorite small print press.  Someone’s backing it.  The Big Six?  They’re all arms of big media companies that have cash on hand to work through the lean times, and volume enough to fund themselves through the booms.  So it will be with epublishers.  The viable epublishers will have the backing to pay editors, pay their authors, and pay for marketing.  Now, all this might be cheaper than at Random House or St. Martin’s Press, who have to buy store coop and pay editors enough to survive in New York on something more than top ramen, but ebooks will require a different type of marketing, especially if the authors are new.  So if the publisher is working out of his basement, it’s best to find out whether it’s his parents’ basement.  If so, look elsewhere to shop your manuscript.
  • Advances – A good publisher ponies up an advance, which goes back to capital.  Granted, more money should flow to both author and publisher from today’s ebook model.  But advances are a show of confidence.  Now, the days of stupidly large advances are likely over – though any author who gets one should still cash that check.  (To quote Gene Simmons, if you think it’s not about the money, guess what.  It’s about the money.)  Still, some sort of payment upfront needs to be hammered out.  Authors and their agents want to be paid sooner rather than later.  We enjoy paying bills.  Well, we don’t enjoy it, but we do enjoy a third-notice-free existence.  We also like eating, keeping our cars, and sending our kids to college so they can support us in our old age.
  • Agents – A legitimate epublisher will work with agents.  This should not even be a question.  They should, of course, take unagented submissions if that’s feasible, but agents exist to manage an author’s business transactions.
  • Fees – Like print, there should be none.  Period.  End of discussion.  Money flows to the writer.  Do not EVER pay a publisher for ANYTHING! Did I mention you don’t pay a publisher for anything?
  • Editing – Duh.  That’s why you go to a publisher, is it not?  Editors are paid to make a manuscript better, especially with newer, inexperienced writers.  This is the big knock against self-publishing.  When you’re JA Konrath and have a circle of buddies who will edit your stuff in exchange for their bar tab, then you can self-publish.  (Or you can throw some work to Clair Lamb if your budget permits.  She’s quite good.)  Again, for new authors, readers are going to want to know the material’s been vetted before they spend their money.  Just because your book is $5-$10 vs. $30 for a hard cover doesn’t mean the reader wants to buy crap at that price.
  • Marketing – The ebook market, at least for a few years after the floodgates open, are going to be swamped with anyone and everyone who thinks they can write uploading their deathless prose.  And an alarming majority of them are going to make readers regret the deathless part.  Buy your cousin’s niece’s brother’s roommate’s erotic vampire steampunk remix of Jane Austen, and you’re going to wonder why won’t this just die!!! Marketing will help make the legitimate epublishers standout.  Once again, it goes back to capital.  A good epublisher will have the resources to promote a book.  And they’re not going to waste them on something they don’t think will make them money.
  • Print partners – A good epublisher will find a print partner.  Joe Konrath pondered this recently and admitted he’s not sure of the answer.  Is print a subsidiary right?  If you go electronic first, it is, which is one more reason why you should have an agent.  Most writers, even experienced best sellers, can’t keep track of all the various first rights and world rights and electronic rights and foreign rights…  Dizzy yet?  But as print is still the primary means of delivering book content, a smart ebook publisher will find a way to partner with their print counterparts.  This could even be a boon to small independent presses looking for a new outlet.  If the tires have already been kicked, why not buy the print rights to a successful ebook?

It’s a brave new world.  A lot of questions are going to need answered as electronic books become more and more mainstream.  The main writers organizations – particularly the MWA and SFWA – will likely steer the debate.  So how soon will we see this come about?

Soon enough.

*Next Sunday, AD is not a stretch.  20 minutes into the future is, but still possible.  Your MST3K and Max Headroom references for the day.  You’re welcome.

2 thoughts on “Ebooks: They’re Booming. What’s Next?

  1. Um, as talented and experienced as Joe Konrath, Lee Goldberg and others putting their backlists on Kindle are, I think the key to ebook success has less to do with talent, industry kudos, etc., than it has to do with VOLUME. Both Joe Konrath and Lee Goldberg have substantial numbers of titles–that helps boost their revenue substantially.

    Observe, how one unknown author compared with a couple of authors with traditional publishers, awards, etc., here: http://writing4hire.blogspot.com/2010/02/great-kindle-smackdown.html

    Marketing + low price = ebook success??

  2. Wow – no wonder you are in your office typing all the time – look how long your articles are. And here I thought you were in there looking at pr0n 🙂

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