(Part of a series)
In the last twelve months, I’ve never bought fewer printed books — and I’ve never read so many books. I have switched to ebooks. My personal library is with me at all times, in my iPad and my iPhone (and in the cloud), allowing me to switch reading devices as conditions dictate. I also own a Kindle, I use it mostly during Summer, to read in broad daylight: an iPad won’t work on a sunny café terrace.
I don’t care about the device itself, I let the market decide, but I do care about a few key features. Screen quality is essential: in that respect the iPhone’s Retina Display is unbeatable in the LED backlit word, and Kindle e-ink is just perfect with natural light. Because I often devour at least two books in parallel, I don’t want to struggle to land on the page I was reading when I switch devices. They must sync seamlessly, period, even with the imperfect cellular network. (And most of the time, they do.)
I’m an ebook convert. Not by ideology (I love dead-tree books, and I enjoy giving those to friends and family), just pragmatism. Ebooks are great for impulse buying. Let’s say I read a story in a magazine and find the author particularly brilliant, or want to drill further down into the subject thanks to a pointer to nicely rated book, I cut and paste the reference in the Amazon Kindle store or in the Apple’s iBooks store and, one-click™ later, the book is mine. Most of the time, it’s much cheaper than the print version (especially in the case of imported books).
This leads to this thought about the coming ebook disruption: We’ve seen nothing yet. Eighteen months ago, I was asked to run an ebooks roundtable for the Forum d’Avignon (an ultra-elitist cultural gathering judiciously set in the Palais des Papes). Preparing for the event, I visited most of the French publishers and came to realize how blind they were to the looming earthquake. They viewed their ability to line-up great authors as a seawall against the digital tsunami. In their minds, they might, at some point, have to make a deal with Amazon or Apple in order to channel digital distribution of their oeuvres to geeks like me. But the bulk of their production would sagely remain stacked on bookstores shelves. Too many publishing industry professionals still hope for a soft transition.
In less than a year, the ground has shifted in ways the players didn’t foresee. This caused the unraveling of the book publishing industry, disrupting key components of the food chain such as deal structures and distribution arrangements.
Let’s just consider what’s going on in self-publishing.
“Vanity publishing” was often seen as the lousiest way to land on a book store shelf. In a country such as France, with a strong history of magisterial publishing houses, confessing to being published “à compte d’auteur” (at the writer’s expense) results in social banishment. In the United Kingdom or the US, this is no longer the case. Trade blogs and publications are filled with tales of out-of-nowhere self-publishing hits, or of prominent authors switching to DIY mode, at once cutting-off both agent and publisher.
And guess who is this trend’s grand accelerator? Amazon is. To get the idea, read these two articles: last October’s piece in the New York Times Amazon Signs Up Authors, Writing Publishers Out of Deal, and a recent Bloomberg BusinessWeek cover story on Amazon’s Hit Man. The villain of those tales is former übber-literary agent Larry Kirshbaum, hired last May by the e-retailer giant to corral famous writers using six-figures advances. (By the way, BBW’s piece is subtitled “A tale of books, betrayal, and the (alleged) secret plot to destroy literature”, a hard-sell come-on…). Of course you can also read the successful self-publishing poster-child tale in this excellent profile of Amanda Hocking in the Guardian.
Here is what’s going on:
— Amazon is intent on taking over the bulk of the publishing business by capturing key layers of intermediation. At some point, for the market’s upper-crust, by deploying agents under the leadership of Mr. Kirshbaum and of its regional surrogates, Amazon will “own” the entire talent-scouting food chain. For the bottom-end, a tech company like Amazon is well-positioned for real-time monitoring and early detection of an author gaining traction in e-sales, agitating on the blogosphere or buzzing on social networks. (Pitching such scheme to French éditeurs is like speaking Urdu to them.)
— For authors, the growth of e-publishing makes the business model increasingly attractive. Despite a dizzying price deflation (with ebooks selling for $2.99), higher volumes and higher royalty percentages change the game. In the too-good-to-be-an-example Amanda Hocking story, here is the math as told in the Guardian piece:
Though [a $2.99 price is] cheap compared with the $10 and upwards charged for printed books, [Hocking] gained a much greater proportion of the royalties. Amazon would give her 30% of all royalties for the 99-cent books, rising to 70% for the $2.99 editions – a much greater proportion than the traditional 10 or 15% that publishing houses award their authors. You don’t have to be much of a mathematician to see the attraction of those figures: 70% of $2.99 is $2.09; 10% of a paperback priced at $9.99 is 99 cents. Multiply that by a million – last November Hocking entered the hallowed halls of the Kindle Million Club, with more than 1m copies sold – and you are talking megabucks.
Again, aspiring (or proven) authors need to cool-down when looking at such numbers. The Kindle Million Club mentioned above counts only 11 members to date — and most were best-sellers authors in the physical world beforehand.
— But at some point, the iceberg will capsize and the eBook will become the publishing market’s primary engine. Authors will go digital-first and the most successful will land a traditional book deal with legacy publishers.
Shift happens, brutally sometimes.
Next week: the editing equation and how the rise e-publishing will segment the craftsmanship of book-making.