I had some follow-up thoughts on my “Is this A Golden Age Of Publishing?” article I wrote for last week’s discussion for Superversive SF.
Concerning the economics of writing, if you write novels, its seems that the math strongly favors self-publishing your novel over submitting it to traditional publishers. Over the last two years, the Author Earnings website started by indie author Hugh Howey and the anonymous Data Guy have been tracking ebook sales on Amazon US (and occasionally Barnes & Noble), and have concluded that self-published ebook writers generally sell more ebooks and make more money than their traditionally published peers. (Anecdotally, I can confirm I sell way more ebooks as a self-published writer than I ever did as a traditionally published one.) Veteran writer Kristine Kathryn Rusch had some mild criticisms of the Author Earnings (mostly its Amazon focus), but agreed that the math for self-published writers is vastly better than that for traditionally published ones.
Time is another factor with that. When I listened to the discussion, L. Jagi Lamplighter mentioned that it took her 17 years to get published the first time. Technical/SF writer Jeff Duntemann pointed out that he was 63 years old, and that he didn’t really have time to wait 17 years on the agent/publisher rejection treadmill. (Fortunately, he avoided it entirely to publish his novel.) A new writer could spend five (or 17) years trying to sell a book to a traditional publisher, or self-publish it to Amazon tomorrow. I spent from 2008 to 2011 trying to sell my book GHOST IN THE FLAMES to a traditional publisher, and self-published it in the summer of 2011. Since then, it has sold over 15,000 copies.
Truly, the math is just better for self-published writers.
One of the points of discussion was that the Kindle doesn’t handle custom fonts or images well. I can attest that this is true – I stopped doing screenshots with my tech books because handling the screenshots was a pain. In my opinion, custom fonts for ebooks are a waste of time. One one of the benefits of an ereader is that you can dial the font size up to whatever size your eyes require, which is really nice if you’re reading on a phone. The trouble with elaborate fonts is that they don’t always scale up well, and sometimes don’t scale up at all. I’ve read ebooks where you couldn’t adjust the font size because of the publisher’s font choices, and it was quite annoying. I think if a publisher wants to make a book that looks like a work of art, with beautiful illustrations and fonts and the like, that it would be better to focus on the print version.
Related to that is the idea of “enhanced” ebooks, which usually means ebooks with added multimedia content or capabilities – music, images, videos and the like. One of the criticisms of the Kindle is that it doesn’t exploit the potentials of enhanced ebooks. Apple has made some stabs in that direction with its iBooks Author application, but nothing much has come of it, and enhanced ebooks may be an untapped market. One of the panelists predicted that the age of the self-published author would come to an end as enhanced ebooks became the norm (since an enhanced ebook would take a team to produce), and publishers would reassert their dominance.
I have two thoughts on that.
First, I think enhanced ebooks don’t work for novels. An enhanced novel is basically just a clunky video game or movie, or kind of like the first live-video CD-ROM computer games from the early 1990s. A novel is a different experience than a movie or a video game, and I don’t think trying to blend the experience necessarily works well. Sometimes you just want to read a book, and sometimes you just want to play the game without watching yet another stupid cutscene. I have the feeling an enhanced ebook novel would combine the worst parts of reading and the worst parts of computer gaming.
So unless readers develop a sudden taste for novels interrupted by video clips or accompanied by a soundtrack you can’t shut off, I do not think enhanced ebooks will gain much traction with novels.
Second, I do think enhanced ebooks have potential for textbooks. Like, you could tap an equation in a math book and it would show you the steps to the solution, or you tap on the name of, say King Canute or John III Sobieski, and it shows you more information about the person in question. I do think it would be very difficult for an individual author to create something like that, which would require a publisher’s help.
The problem with writing textbooks, though, is that you then have to sell them to the school system, and selling to the school system manages to combine the worst parts of bureaucracy with the worst parts of publishing, both wrapped in a layer of political expediency and good old-fashioned cronyism. Consider the ongoing lawsuits and criminal investigations around the Los Angeles school district’s attempt to purchase iPads for every student in 2013. Calling it a billion dollar disaster would be generous. With a market that dysfunctional, it is not surprising that enhanced ebook textbooks have rather failed to catch fire.
I talk to a lot of teachers, and I suspect most of them would either prefer to make their own smartboard class lessons, or use the smartboard class lessons that are included with a paper textbook. Those that do use iPads tend to employ them for uses other than enhanced textbooks.
So I think that there is potential of some kind in enhanced ebooks, but that no one has yet realized it and no one is currently in a position to realize it. Enhanced ebooks may be a solution in search of a problem. But I have been wrong before – I though the first generation of Microsoft’s Surface computer was a bad idea, but three generations of the Surface later Apple and Google and HP and others are falling over each other to copy the design.
Finally, the discussion pointed out that many writers are unable or unwilling to find their own covers, upload their own ebooks, edit their own books, etc, and that publishers exist to provide these services for writers. I would argue that it is better to hire out those services for a one-time fee than a permanent percentage of the royalties, but not everyone might agree. I suppose it depends upon how entrepreneurial someone is willing to be. Some people are more comfortable being their own bosses, and some people are more comfortable being an employee.
There’s nothing wrong with that, though I still contend it is better to be one’s own publisher than to have a publisher.