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Jessica Steiner ([personal profile] jessicasteiner) wrote2011-03-27 08:05 pm

The Impact of New Media on Publishing

I've been listening to a lot of interviews lately and a similar theme keeps popping up amongst the various authors - how is the internet, and in particular, the popularity of ebooks, going to affect the publishing industry going forward?

There are a couple of things that come up over and over, which I'm going to summarize for you here really quickly (basically because the point of this article isn't really about what the impact will be, but what in heck are the best ways to deal with it).

Firstly, the publishing industry as a whole is not really geared to protect the author. This isn't that surprising, even if it is disheartening. Despite the fact that no one in the industry would have a job if it weren't for authors spending a lot of time and hard work writing books, authors only get perhaps 10% of the revenue from the books they write. If they're lucky.

Even though there are many aspects of how publishing works that at best fail to support the success of authors - or at worst, actively sabotage them - the author has little to no say in how a book is marketed by the publishing industry. Authors take on nearly all the risk of the sale of a book (if a book tanks, you can basically kiss your career goodbye while everyone else gets to keep their job), but they can do little to actually improve their own chances. Authors are expected to do all of their own marketing, even though they have no resources in particular and publishing companies are large. Authors are expected to wait years for portions of their royalties because book stores are permitted to return any books not sold with no penalty and no time limit.

I imagine the reason for this is that the publishing company figures, I guess, that for every author that they let go because their trilogy didn't sell as well as they hoped, there are hundreds of people who are eager to take their place. Why spend money helping your existing people to succeed when there are so many others around who might be the next J.K. Rowling? Even though the one you actually have might be that person, if you just helped them along a little.

Secondly, it appears that the publishing industry as a whole is not really prepared to embrace the ebook industry. They are treating it as an adjunct, an additional, but comparatively unimportant part of their market, while they flail around madly trying to prop up flagging sales figures on paper books. The price of paper books is skyrocketing, major chains and independent book sellers are going out of business, and I am given to understand that Amazon now sells more ebooks than paper books.

But despite all this, we have seen little change that I'm aware of in the publishing industry's business model. They're still focused on selling paper books, and they're selling ebooks for as much as the paper books (at least the paperbacks, thankfully I haven't run across any $20+ ebooks in my searches so far). And their sales figures continue to be uncertain.

And no matter how much most of us might love paper books, no matter how fearful some might be that they will become extinct and we will never be able to curl up in bed with a paper book in our hands (a future I honestly doubt we will ever see) ebooks are the future. They are hugely popular and growing in popularity. They are convenient, and if the people in charge of getting books to readers don't embrace the technology and figure out how to maximize their usage of it, it is those people who will become obsolete and disappear - not the ebooks.

It is this lack of certainty and the resistance to change which causes even more uncertainty for the authors. Because authors take on all the risk and have no control, if the publishing industry fails, it is the author who suffers first.

And since I'm an author, this is something that's been weighing on my mind as I listen to these interviews - if I know that even if I break in and sell a first novel that is no guarantee of success or even fair treatment, how do I try to increase my own odds and take control of my own future?

Well, there are a couple of ideas.

Idea 1: Direct E-book Sales

Michael A. Stackpole (whom I wrote about last week) has started selling ebooks directly. All it really takes is a website, a Pay-Pal button (and/or an Amazon seller's account), Microsoft Word, and persistence.

The obvious advantage is complete control. Your overhead is basically nil, and for every book you sell, you get 100% of the profit. If you've got a following already, you're pretty much golden. Otherwise you've got to work at it, and work hard at it.

One big disadvantage is the lack of gatekeeping. Just because you might want to write books doesn't mean you're actually any good at it. The traditional function of the publishing industry has been to fill this role, though they haven't always done a very good job at it (Twilight anyone?). Still, people tend to assume if you're good enough that the book is published, they're safe to read it. But if you're just some random Joe on the web, they're not going to pay for your unedited drivel unless they know it's good.

There are two ways around this that I can see, and both are pretty easy.

One is to include free samples of your work on your website. They may be whole stories that you're willing to give out for free, or they may be first chapters of novels that you're selling.

The second is to get editing help, from people who know what they're doing. They may be other authors, and you can pay for their assistance by editing their work. The bonus of this is that you can promote each other's books and cross-pollinate your fan-bases. If none of you are traditionally published authors, this could be a situation of the blind leading the blind, but it might work well. Or you can even hire the same freelance editors that the publishing industry uses, though I have no idea how much they charge and you should be extremely wary of scams.

I would suggest a combination of these two - get editing help and then show people a sample of what they're buying so they know it's good. You can't go wrong with that.

In his podcast, The Secrets (which I reviewed last week), Mr. Stackpole suggests a pricing scheme as follows:

$2.00 for a short story (less than 10,000 words)
$3.00 for a novella (10,000 - 40,000 words)
$4.00 - $5.00 for a novel depending on the length

That's a heck of a lot cheaper than most books on the market, and he gets all of the money immediately instead of a 10% or less royalty he may not see for 15 months. One can make a good living even if you're actually making far fewer sales at this rate, I would say.

Idea 2: Small print runs

Tracy Hickman said in an interview that I recently listened to, (and I'm paraphrasing because I couldn't find the exact wording if I tried now,) a book is just a souvenir of the story that you read and loved.

Not every book you read is going to be a keeper. I don't know about you, but I have bookshelves and bookshelves crammed with paper books, and I haven't even purchased that many books in the last ten-plus years since I moved out of my parents' house and had to start paying for my own books. (Thanks, Mom and Dad)

Going forward, in the age of the ebook, the books you really want to actually have in your hands are the ones which are truly important to you. The ones that changed your life. The ones that you will go to for comfort and want to curl up with like an old friend. Other books you may read and enjoy and never really want to have that book to keep on your shelf and remember forever the experience you had with those characters.

Once a person has read your ebook they may want to buy your actual book, but they may not want to pay full price twice. You could have them pay the difference to get the full copy of the book, reduce your profit margin a little, but get a loyal fan who isn't turned off by the lack of a print option. You could even do limited runs of signed copies. There are several services which allow anyone to self-publish small runs. If you could sell enough copies, paying for Lulu would be worth it.

Idea 3: Serialization

Some of you may have heard of Dragons Bard, which is a series by Tracy and Laura Hickman. They are selling the experience of a story in a far different way than normal. People who buy in to this book get the chapters week by week as they are being written. They get access to forums where they can discuss the book as they go, and receive access to special additional content (I presume maps and little tidbits about the world). And at the end of the whole process they get a signed, limited edition copy of the book to keep.

I would presume that you would pay a bit more for this than you would for the average ebook or paperback, but I think the experience would be well worth it, if it's a book you enjoy. And you do get the book at the end, as your souvenir.

Serialization doesn't appeal to everyone. I know when I was talking to Miko about these ideas that she said she wasn't interested in a serialization model because she reads too much and would get frustrated waiting for the next instalment to come out. She prefers to wait until a whole series is out (even when we're talking about a series of novels!) before buying the whole set.

Thank goodness not everyone is like Miko or we wouldn't have any series.

Serialization is a tried and true, traditional model, and not everyone minds waiting. The anticipation can be exciting, and many successful art forms continue to work with this model, such as comic books. It wouldn't be difficult to build a community of subscribers who pay an ongoing fee to get chapters of your books, if you can keep them on the edge of their seat and continually put out good stuff.

Idea 4: Adding Extras

What if your e-book had pictures? Animation? Music?

What if fans of your book could pay a small fee to get a membership to your website, and gain access to essays about the magic system, about the technology, about bits of the world they wouldn't normally get to see?

What if they could buy short side stories that add to the richness of your main story?

These are things that the publishing industry has really never touched to my knowledge, but which could really deepen and expand the experience of reading your book, making it memorable, and making it more likely that fans will remember and return to buy again.

Idea 5: Traditional Publishing

Obviously I'm not discounting this! Traditional publishing still works for many people, and could work for me. Going this route doesn't preclude also supplementing income and creating security by using some of these other ideas.

In fact, none of these ideas are mutually exclusive, in my opinion. I could see application for doing all of these, or some combination.

I'd like to get some discussion going, so here are some questions:

  1. What do you think of these different ideas I've outlined?

  2. Any other ideas that I haven't touched on or potential implications of each idea that I haven't mentioned?

  3. Do you think that the prices quoted for direct sales are fair?

  4. Is there anything in particular that really captures your attention and you want to talk about?