Publishing’s dark clouds and silver linings

I side-swiped the .99c price point for ebooks in last night’s snark, and it’s something that does concern. Fortunately, I found this morning that someone else (that would be Patrick O’Duffy) has freshly minted what I was going to say. And more besides.

I’ve come across so many people with Kindles who only use them to download free books – and then almost never read them, because it turns out they don’t want to read Moby Dick, they just want to feel like they own the book

O’Duffy also links to a discussion at Terrible Minds about the pros and cons of the .99c price tag and how it can be used as a marketing tool.

For my bit, I can understand trying to make a swag through throughput, but I can’t help wondering what pricing a book at less than a cup of coffee says about the product. I realise that you can by dross from a mainstream publisher priced at over $20; that in books, quality is in the eye of the beholder; that you can find favourite authors languishing in the remainder bin for the price of an espresso. But don’t you just want to save them from that? Don’t you say, oh man, that is worth so much more!

Thing is, books aren’t like tables and chairs; they aren’t purely functional products. They’re art, and nowhere more than in the art world does the adage that, something is worth what someone is prepared to pay for it, hold true. For me, a book is worth a damn sight more than .99c (especially one that I myself have spent months and years honing), but I guess if I was e-reading and saw something I liked in that particular bargain bin, I’d be saying ‘score’ and downloading it.

So I’m not preaching or even protesting, really; just conflicted.

O’Duffy has also linked to two items that caught my eye arising out of the Edinburgh Book Festival but I hadn’t got around to pondering. One, a dire prediction from Ewan Morrison about the future of publishing (to my mind, a dire future for publishing is a future without editors), and the other, an analysis of the uncertain times from Lloyd Shepherd.

An example from Morrison:

The digital revolution will not emancipate writers or open up a new era of creativity, it will mean that writers offer up their work for next to nothing or for free. Writing, as a profession, will cease to exist.

And from Shepherd:

So where does this sense of authors being squeezed come from? It could simply be a sign that publishing, as an industry, is becoming more commercial, more competitive, more efficient. You may not like that. You probably don’t. There is a profound queasiness which breaks out at the conjunction of art and business. But the pressure is definitely there.

I’m quite tired, already, of the ‘death of the book’ scenario. We’re talking semantics, splitting hairs between paper and pixels, and I think that people such as myself who prefer the reading mode of a paper book will always be catered for, though perhaps at a price. As e-books, with their non-tree and space-saving advantages and the extra functionality that comes with being essentially a website (see, I learned something at Bookcamp), fill the middle ground now occupied by mass market paperbacks, paper books are likely to become objects of desire: beautiful stories beautifully packaged.

I’m not even that concerned by the rumoured death of the author. The industry has always been a crap shoot, in which some crap sells gazillions and some truly talented writers get crapped upon, languishing inside their niche of true believers. If anything, e-publishing means more crap to sift through now that the established publishing filters are being broken down — new filters will arise — but those niche talents will have a more accessible audience. At least, those who can harness the potential of the new publishing reality, whatever that turns out to be.

Putting the eeeeee! into e-books

I am returned from Bookcamp. I have seen the future. It is now.

Yes, I am tired, and yes, I have drunk too much coffee, and no I have not joined the Marines or some weird exercise cult. Rather, I joined 70 to 80 interested people at an ‘unconference’ about the publishing industry, run by if:book Australia in conjunction with the Melbourne Writers Festival.

the scream by edvard munchFor the most part, the story was comforting and even exciting. Writers write, people called publishers disseminate the written work in the hope of finding an audience and making income for everyone involved. But the publishers ain’t what they used to be — Dymocks has just announced it’s hitting the POD and publishing pathway, for instance, and even agents are (controversially) getting in on the act. And, of course, authors are acting as their own publishers. And, presumably, their own editors, designers, legal department, advertising department and PR firms. And, also importantly, distributors. Or they’re outsourcing those tasks they can’t or don’t want to do, to specialists who can.

For instance, I’ve recently received a handful of press releases from Australian and American public relations outfits touting the attractions of self-published novels. That’s a serious investment.

Probably my greatest, scariest realisation during the course of the day was that, now more than ever, my stories are truly not mine once they’re published. Not only can readers review them, in whatever fashion, and indeed convert them within their mind’s eye to whatever text they want to — the story is, and always has been, theirs to interpret — but they can, more easily than ever, mash them, adapt them and generally fuck them up any which way they choose (within the bounds of copyright at least, if they’re playing fair). There’s a suggestion that this is a good thing, art sparking conversation and more art, art as the centre of community; but part of me shrivels at the thought of all that work being edited, altered and re-visioned. Another part of me asks, what’s my cut? If I’m being remixed, do I at least get my name in brackets?

It is indeed a braver new world.

Another item emerging from the discussions, in amongst the generally accepted wisdom that the traditional publishers are still way behind the 8-ball on the whole digital thing, is the ability to ‘enhance’ e-text with stuff: music, hyperlinks, comments, annotations, pictures, videos, behind-the-scenes … you get the idea. This stuff not only adds interest for readers, but adds to the conversation generated by the text. It’s a cafe chat on the interwebs centred on the text. Which is kind of neat.

A cited example of how a narrative, in this case essentially a children’s picture book, can be enhanced through the web, and spin off user-generated adaptations in the great tradition of fan fiction, was Inanimate Alice, proving a hit in classrooms as a means of getting kids interested in storytelling.

An e-book, one of the guest speakers, Hugh McGuire, said, is essentially a web page with limited functionality. Food for thought, that.

But what if you don’t want bells and whistles? What if you want that escapist submergence in the text and only the text, without pauses for even dictionaries? You just want words making pictures — indeed, an entire world — in your head.

It’s an issue that Louise Cusack has fortuitously blogged about, sparked by an article in Publishers Weekly, which examines the advantage vs disadvantage of e-adding.

Thankfully, we can have our cake and eat it, too. Just as with a DVD with extra features, we can choose which version of the story we want. The Inanimate Alice producers found that their audience was split 50-50 for enhanced vs unenhanced, so new episodes are being made both in enhanced and unenhanced versions.

paul hogan in shrimp on the barbie tourism advertisementSo now I’m imagining by nasty little outback vampire story romping in the e-wilderness with pop-ups for the Strine-challenged reader. No more Americanisation required (I’m still bemused that English is converted for North American readers but the reverse does not apply — aren’t North Americans insulted by not being trusted to handle colour with that pesky u? Of course, fanny is more problematic…). Don’t know what the boot of a car is? Enable the special features and *pop* — even better than a footnote. With pronunciation guide, aural or text-only. With a picture, even. This would be fun, even better than a glossary at the back of the book. Paul Hogan could resurrect his career doing voice overs for books — “g’day readers: in Aw-strayl-ya, we throw prawns on the barbie; if you throw on a shrimp, you’ve got a small lad with a nasty burn”.

OK, maybe not.

Still, exciting times as the world gets smaller and the barriers between writers and readers are increasingly broken down. But let’s not forget that, regardless of format, regardless of Flash, regardless of publisher, the readers still deserve something worth reading (and please, gods, at the barest minimum, something proofread). Hell, maybe they’ll even consent to pay for it.

Meanwhile, if you’d like more information about the digital age and what it means for writers, check out the Digital Writers conference in Brisbane on October 15, organised by the Emerging Writers Festival with support from if:book Australia, Queensland Writers Centre and Avid Reader.

Digital books to boom

An interesting forecast from James McQuivey of Forrester Research about the changing face of the book trade and how it will impact on authors, including this key par:

Meanwhile, authors won’t like that advances are going down, marketing spend is plummeting, and royalties are shrinking (especially now that 30% of the eBook price goes to the bookseller in most cases). Suddenly, self-publishing is a real alternative for anybody with even a modest Twitter following, especially when Amazon (NSDQ: AMZN) is offering 70% of the retail price of ebooks—paid monthly, not twice annually.

I wonder if this means authors who might be getting a smaller advance might also reap a higher royalty?

I do hope Amazon doesn’t become a publishing behemoth — I distrust monopolies and, besides, as much as I enjoy being able to access their store, it still irks me that their little customer loyalty mp3 vouchers are only available to customers within the US (thanks for shopping with us, Aussie, here’s something you can’t have that others can). I think the breaking down of the publishing regions will be a fascinating and angsty process, something perhaps we are seeing being eroded already with global (well, UK/US/Oz) market approaches from the likes of Harper Collins’ Voyager and Hachette’s Orbit.

I can foresee a time, alluded to by McQuivey, when the hard copy will be a collectable and the ebook will be the equivalent of the modern mass market paperback. I don’t mind that, either as consumer or content producer. McQuivey’s earlier post offered a neat summary of how going digital completely changes the economic model of business:

In the end, once the only channel from which revenue is derived starts to get remodeled, it’s not long before the whole structure gets torn down and rebuilt to accommodate the new dominant distribution model.