By Aaron Wise
"Times they are a changin." That Dylan lyric has been true for many industries, but the publishing world has gotten away with sticking to its tried and true methods for decades. The major publishing houses barely altered their game plan to accommodate the shifting market, and several analysts warned they were doing this at their own risk. The analysts were right.
The public was slow to embrace the ereader movement, and this lack of enthusiasm bolstered the publishing world's opinion that the medium wasn't a threat. The first Kindle was released in 2007, and just like most first generation tech devices, people weren't sure how they felt about them. Sales weren't slow, but they weren't setting many records either. Those who speculated that ereaders would do for books what mp3 players did for music were proven wrong as the vast majority of people still preferred holding a book in their hands over fiddling with a device.
Fast forward to 2012 and it's an entirely different world. The public has accepted the shift from physical books to digital, and it didn't take nearly as long as the publishing companies hoped it would. This is not the place for me to mount a defense of ereaders over physical books. That's an argument to be had in bookstores or libraries, and while the people doing the arguing can get excited and angry in defense of physical books, it's an argument that will be extinct in 20 years. Sorry, but like Dylan said, "Times they are a changin." Our children's children will prefer holding ereaders to books, just like kids today prefer mp3 players to hauling sleeves of CDs around in their cars.
To anyone looking in at the publishing world from the outside, the simple truth that digital books are the wave of the future would seem obvious (and to be more truthful, the future is in tablets like the iPad. Kindles will seem like quaint, useless technology in 5 years when the tablets we carry around can do the same thing as the best home computers of today.) However, the publishing industry chose to ignore the shift, and that folly is going to end up closing a lot of their doors as the market evolves without them. In the very near future, ebooks will outsell physical books, and the slow decline of the publishing industry will come to a sad end.
The only way for the publishing industry to compete in this new world is to fully embrace what is happening, but they are reluctant to try. If you go onto ebook sites, you'll find that books from major publishers are priced far, far higher than they should be. It's not uncommon for an ebook to be priced identical to hardcovers, which is baffling. It's as if they think the buyer is under the impression there's an equal value between the two, and no one thinks that. When I spend money on a physical book, I understand that a portion of the price pays for shipping and printing. To price your digital books equal to your printed versions makes no sense to anyone.
Honestly, there is a victim in all of this that I should bring up: Bookstores. The reason publishing companies are pricing their digital books so high, and also why they release physical copies in advance of digital releases (sometimes by several weeks) is to give brick and mortar stores a chance to compete with a new distribution model they can't hope to win against. Their attempt to bolster the quickly withering bookstores should be applauded, and I am sympathetic to what is happening. However, ignoring the inevitable shift will end up killing the Publishing Industry as we know it.
The key to the Publishing Industry's survival lies in the very thing that they are allowing to kill them: Self Publishing. Five years ago, no one took self-published authors seriously. Today, self-published authors are posting massive numbers thanks to the ereader revolution. Writers have sprung up, ready and willing to take advantage of the newfound ability to put their work out for people to enjoy, and it has given the ebook market the weapon it needs to irrevocably change the written word. Not only is it easier than ever to publish a book and have it read by thousands of people, but writers have never enjoyed so much of the profit either!
Let's use my experience as an example. In November, 2011, I self published my very first book. It was a novella that I put onto the net to test the water of internet sales. I didn't know what to expect, but I wanted to see what happened, and my life has been forever changed. In just two months, over 6000 copies of Deadlocked have been downloaded! I've published two short stories as well as two sequels to Deadlocked, and they are selling quick. I'm building a fan base that is hungry for more and I'm making money doing something I love. Compare this to what would've happened if I'd published through traditional means.
A publisher would only accept my series of novellas as a full novel. For that novel, I would've received a standard contract stripping away all rights to the work for a period of time in exchange for an industry average advance of $5,000 (3,177 GBP) against the accruement of future royalties. In the vast majority of deals, a first time author doesn't get enough sales to collect royalties past their initial advance, but if you do, you'll receive about a 17% royalty. Effectively, writing a first novel will net you between $5K and $10K over a 5 year time period. And we haven't even factored in the cost of an agent!
As a self-published ebook author, you receive an average of 70% from each sale. If you price your book at the low end of the spectrum, $2.99 (1.90 GBP), you will keep $2.07 (1.33 GBP) from each sale. That means you need to sell 2,415 copies to earn $5000 (3,177 GBP). Over the course of 5 years, you need to sell 1.3 books per day in order to earn the same. Now, take a look at my personal example with Deadlocked in which the one novel has been split up into 4 novellas: I'm giving away the first one for free (go get yours today!) as a marketing tool, the second for $1.49 (which actually gives me a much smaller royalty percentage due to Amazon's structure. I earn only 30% on the sale of anything under $2.99, but I've priced the second novella low as another attempt at marketing), and the third at $2.99. The fourth, when it comes out, will also be priced at $2.99. That means that this ONE book, if each part sells just 1 copy of each per day, will end up earning me far more royalty than the standard traditional publisher's deal. And let me just say, I'm selling a lot more than 1 per day!
While it is noble to try and save bookstores from extinction by ignoring the world of ebooks, the Publishing Industry is going about it wrong. How long is it going to take established writers to realize they are getting royally screwed in their contracts with major publishing houses? A best selling author going through a traditional publisher earns a pittance of what they could've made had they self-published through digital means. Mark my words, major authors are going to begin to demand control of their digital rights to sign with traditional publishers in the near future. When Publishers start to sign those deals, the end is nigh.
What's the answer? The Publishing Industry must embrace this revolution, and they need to do it in a very public, and very generous manner. The average reader is still leery of self-published authors because they are afraid of buying a book that is written by a hack in desperate need of an editor. That's a valid concern, but it's one that will disappear once major authors start switching to self-publishing (and they will.) The answer is to capitalize upon the public's fear of self-published work before it's too late. Traditional publishers need to invite new authors into their arms in an attempt to cultivate new talent. The fact that this hasn't happened yet baffles me.
Let's say that Harper Collins announced a new digital publishing wing that offered writers a service similar to what Smashwords does. For those of you that don't know, Smashwords is a site that will publish your work and distribute it to all of the major ebook sites in exchange for a very small cut in your royalties (they do not currently offer help with Amazon, but Amazon is easy to do on your own.) If Harper Collins could offer the same service, and add a premium option that would set them apart. Every book published through their digital service could be put up for premium review, and every book chosen for that would be reviewed by a Harper Collins editor and, if chosen, would be subject to a smaller royalty percentage for the author (perhaps 50% instead of 70%) for inclusion in their premium catalogue. This would allow them to cultivate new talent while also helping to ensure potential buyers that the books in the premium catalogue were of a higher quality than a regular self-published title. Seems like a win/win to me.
However, good luck convincing a publishing company that they should offer any writer a 50% royalty deal!
All in all, it is a tremendously exciting time to be a writer, as well as a reader. Authors can earn more money than ever before and readers are enjoying a surge of new talent unlike anything seen before. Unfortunately, it’s not a great time to be a publisher with your head in the sand. They need to wake up and embrace what's happening around them. If they don't, we'll be standing over their graves and whispering about all the dead giants.
AARON WISE is the author of the Deadlocked series of books which are widely available in a variety of eBook formats.