by Tess Gerritsen
Last week, after I blogged on my own website about e-book piracy, the post garnered some reactions elsewhere on the web. A few commenters felt that my fears of piracy are overstated, and that we authors should look on piracy as a good thing because, hey, it gets us more readers. Even if they’re not paying us for our work. It is far better to be popular than to pay our bills, and theft is the highest compliment one can pay you. If your work wasn’t worth it, no one would be stealing it, so cheer up! Someone thinks highly enough of your stories to swipe them!
It’s a strange new world for authors, and I’m struggling to figure out just what to expect next.
Recently I had a fascinating conversation with a man who offers paid editorial and design services to authors who want to self-publish their work as e-books. Over drinks, we got into a lively discussion about what the future holds for authors. He predicts that e-publishing will level the playing field for all authors, everywhere — and in a good way, he believes.
Every aspiring writer, he said, whether talented or not, will be able to bypass the traditional publishing route and get his own work published online, at minimal cost. Amazon.com, Scribd, plus a variety of other online booksellers will allow you to sell your poems, memoirs, recipe books, what have you, direct to the consumer. All you have to do is turn them into pdf files and upload them to the bookseller. You can also go here for further guidance. It sounds so tempting. Within hours, you could have your work available for sale, and be earning royalties. And the royalties are a hefty percentage of the cover price — a far higher royalty rate than you could get with a traditional print book from a traditional publisher. Why would anyone want to brave the gantlet of traditional publishing — the rejection letters, the dismissive editors, the astronomical odds — when all you have to do is upload your work and presto! You’re making money!
He made the whole prospect sound so tempting that I couldn’t help wondering, just for a moment: hey, why not? What author in his right mind would turn down a 70% royalty rate?
But then my logical mind clicked back in place. E-publishing has not been known (so far) to produce a James Patterson – level bestseller. I mentioned that particular detail to him, and he responded that e-publishing is just the entry point. Those authors who have really strong sales in e-format will end up attracting traditional publishers, and then they can become James Patterson.
In other words, his definition of true success really isn’t any different than what it is now: print publishing. In his heart of hearts, he still believes that e-publishing is really just the try-out for the big leagues. And the big leagues, even for this enthusiastic e-publishing advocate, is the old-fashioned printed book. A book with real pages.
From the author’s point of view, e-publishing your own book does sound enticing. It gives you a direct connection to the consumer. You are both creator and manufacturer. You cut out the publisher as middleman, and take home a bigger share of the profits. No longer will some pipsqueak editor keep you from your goal; you are in total control. And with the expanding share of readers who’ve moved to digital books, the whole world is your audience. On the face of it, it sounds like traditional publishers are doomed.
Then I came across an article in January’s Fortune Magazine. “The Plan to save the Music Biz,” by Mina Kimes, is about how the music industry has struggled, and how major recording companies appeared doomed.
When iTunes and other Internet music providers exploded onto the scene, the worry was that bands would bypass the four big music companies — EMI, Sony, Universal, and WArner Music — and earn their bling by self-publishing on the web. And indeed, more artists than ever are putting out albums online — there were 106,000 new releases in 2008, compared with 44,000 five years ago, according to Nielsen SoundScan. Precious few, however, ever break through. Of the 63 new releases that sold more than 250,000 copies last year, 61 were issued by major music companies.” Yes, occasionally a singer-songwriter like Ingrid Michaelson, whose self-released hit album, “Girls and Boys”, has sold 286,000 copies since 2006, makes it big. But as the story of Hollywood Undead suggest, the record labels will continue to play a major role, albeit a new one.
Even rebel bands who launch themselves on MySpace or YouTube still aspire to the old-style definition of success. They want to be picked up by a traditional record label. They want their work available in traditional formats.
So much for being a real rebel.
In the book world, I suspect this is also the secret desire of even the most successful e-pubbed author. Authors still want to see their book in actual print. They still want that deal with Random House or Simon and Schuster.
There’s another reason to desire traditional publication. The strictly e-pubbed author is frighteningly vulnerable to piracy. If your book is released solely in digital form, pirates can have it copied and available for free within 24 hours (as Dan Brown’s experience shows.) Which gives you only a 24-hour window for actual sales before your book turns into a freebie. Think about it. The book you spent a year sweating over has only a day to turn a profit, and then it’s dust.
Luckily, we still have a healthy audience of readers who prefer print books. But within a generation or two, that audience may be migrating to e-readers. At which time the book market could look very, very different.
With easy e-publishing available to every aspiring author, there’ll be a glut of content that’s never been winnowed down or edited. Online bookstores will be overwhelmed by the very material that now sits in the slush pile of literary agents. Some of it may be wonderful; most of it will not be. The consumer won’t be able to tell which is which, because there’s been no screening process to weed out the good from the bad. It’s going to be anarchy out there.
Then piracy will make it all free, anyway.
In that overwhelming sea of novels, though, a few writers will stand out and develop a fan base. How? My guess is, they’ll distinguish themselves not through word of mouth (which is going to be difficult to build when you’re competing with a million other novelists, all of whom start on an equal footing in the e-publishing morass). It’ll be because they’ve been anointed by — surprise! — a traditional kingmaker. A real print publisher. Or Oprah. Or a TV or movie deal.
In other words, everything old will be new again.
In the meantime, as the world spins crazily toward the future, what can we writers do?
Those of us who are now traditionally published are the lucky ones, because we’ve already been anointed. This is our chance to solidify our brand and build our visibility, before everyone in the world is self-published. By virtue of having made it through the obstacle course of traditional publishing, we’re ahead of the pack. When publishing swings to mostly digital, when everyone and his uncle can call himself an author, we’ll be known as the authors who were vetted — and found worthy of reading.