E-publishing is a Revolution in Slow Motion
Jack Miles & Douglas McLennan
all the hype, the impending e-revolution in book publishing
has been awfully slow in coming.
blame the technology –it isn’t good enough yet, publishers
haven’t figured out how to deliver their product, and consumers
aren’t ready to give up paper for pixels.
But perhaps a bigger reason is the industry itself. Traditionally,
book publishing has been an intensely collaborative effort.
An agent typically sells an author’s book to a publisher,
who then engages a copyeditor, book designer, jacket artist,
compositor, printer, proofreader, publicist, and finally a
wholesaler and sales force to deliver the book to retail booksellers.
Each link in the chain is typically an independent business,
and each attempts to get as much from and give as little as
possible to the adjacent links. Authors argue with agents
over commissions; agents argue with publishers over advances,
royalties, and rights; publishers argue with their various
suppliers over fees; and booksellers argue with publishers
over discounts. It is a wonder that anything ever gets published,
and hardly surprising that money is more easily lost than
From the outside, this unlikely coalition
of adversaries has often seemed ripe for commercial
streamlining [Village Voice], but efforts to do so have repeatedly
failed. Even as all of the individual players – authors, agents,
publishers - have changed, the chain has remained intact.
Each link is forged by the technology of the book itself as
a manufactured object delivering stored written language.
Nonetheless, the book is a 500-year-old technology and an
for an Information Age upgrade [New Republic] Any gathering
of the publishing industry in the past two years has been
dominated by visions of new technologies, and attendant fears
about what direction those technologies might take.
Yet for all the hype and fear, the revolution has so far failed
to take place because each of the links in the existing chain
has its own access to new technology, and each is attempting
to reconfigure the others to its own advantage.
Begin with the
author. Why can’t an author eliminate all intermediaries between
himself and the reader and sell his own work online? To enormous
media attention this is just what ultra-popular novelist Stephen
King did with his serialized novel The Plant.
King said he would add new chapters only if 50 percent of
those downloading it paid $1 per chapter. By chapter four,
however, only 46 percent were paying. So King killed the
project, blaming his readers: [Wired] “First, many Internet users have the
attention span of a grasshopper. Second, users believe that
everything on the Web should be free or almost free of charge.
And third, book-readers
don’t regard electronic books as real books
Allgemeine Zeitung] They’re like people saying, ‘I
love corn on the cob, but creamed corn makes me gag’”.
Of course, even partially complete, “The Plant” netted
King $463,832.27 online [Ottawa Citizen], a payday most authors would regard as a bonanza. So why give up on the experiment?
King can make more than that with his conventional publishing
deals. Conventional publishing had already
made King (at 38 books and 225 million copies) the industry’s
biggest brand name [Saturday Night] long before his
online experiment began. Authors who don't have King-size
followings have little chance of
reaching even a fraction of those numbers [Wired]
when new titles are appearing on the Web at the rate of half a million every
eighteen months, a rate three or more times that of traditional
book publication. Conventional
publishing had already made
King (at 38 books and 225 million copies) a household name.
The vast majority of traditional printed books already go
un-reviewed. The possibility
that an electronic book will be reviewed [Athens
Daily News (Georgia)]in print is minuscule Given sufficient
time and money, an e-author can buy publicity or advertising,
but legitimacy does not come cheap or quick. Though consumers
do not base their buying decisions on a publisher’s imprint,
overworked book reviewers do use that shortcut, and so do
booksellers. No ad hoc advertising or publicity can begin
to equal the service done for a new title by a long-established
publisher’s imprint on the title page.
If the author cannot easily escape the chain, how about the
agent? In the more distant past an agent would hand-deliver
an author’s work to an editor, not infrequently during the
legendary lunches of the industry.
In recent years, some agents have become “packagers” or “content
managers,” delivering finished (copyedited and designed) texts
electronically. But once they have so strong a grip on the
first link in the chain, why should agents/packagers not try
to extend it? Some do dream
of empire [Publishers Weekly], but their pockets
are not likely to be deep enough to defeat conglomerate-sized
Traditional publishers would seem to be in the best position
to re-establish their business electronically – simply opening
an e-imprint as another line of business, and establishing
distribution of traditional printed books over the internet.
Some have done just that. Random House has launched an e-books
“At Random” [CBC]. Rosetta Books is a new venture in the
of titles already published in print [Publishers
Weekly]. A sign of how much advantage traditional publishers have in the e-book
world came last fall when most of the first-ever International
e-Book Awards went to major print publishers who
had simply re-published their stars electronically [Salon]. The reason is simple. Straight e-publishers are not in a position to capture
They can’t because though conventional
publishers' royalties to authors might be small, they do guarantee
payment. While the alternative e-publishing model might promise
larger royalties, advances are small or non-existent. In some
cases lesser-known authors pay up-front fees and are paid
back as sales come in.
But when sales are nonexistent or low
even compared to university press sales, royalties mean little.
E-publishing, with its astronomical lists of works on offer
sometimes seems to work against its own success – how to distinguish
the titles worth reading from those that aren’t? How
to stand out among the thousands? [Village Voice]
Yet direct-to-consumer e-publishing by the majors faces huge obstacles as
well [Wired]. One is that, as already noted,
readers do not shop for books by publisher but by author:
The web sites of even the most prestigious publishers generate
few direct sales of e-books.
Author resistance is another obstacle. When production costs
(printing, paper, binding, warehousing) go down, the relative
contribution of the author to the final product goes up; agents
and authors have demanded that royalties go up accordingly.
Random House has offered a 50% royalty for e-published work,
a dramatic increase over the standard 10-15% paid on a new
hardcover book, but the struggle is far from over.
Authors who wish to retain e-rights and sell their publishers
only ink-on-paper rights collide with publishers who want
to retain rights to future publication even in still-to-be-invented
media. Authors who claim to own e-rights to books published
before the current new media were invented may find their
e-publisher in court with their print publisher. Random
House is suing Rosetta Books [CBC], claiming that
the authors who sold e-rights to Rosetta did not own the rights
So far then, neither traditional publishers nor new e-publishers
have found a way to make online publishing pay. Traditional
publishers can afford to subsidize their electronic adventures,
but already there is shakeout among the e-publishers.
MightyWords, an online publisher that has paid royalties,
half of its 5000 authors [Wired] that they were being kicked off the site
and the others that their royalties were being reduced. Xlibris,
which launched in a flurry of promises about making it possible
for anyone who wrote a book to get it published, also has
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