Six impossible things

Musing on Ebooks

OK, I had a whole long blog post ready to go about non-traditional publishing, and then I looked at it and realized that I was just saying the same thing again: there are scams, it is a ton of work, you have to educate yourself, check Writer Beware and Editors and Preditors before you commit yourself if you’re going this route, it’s right for some people/books but not for others, etc. If people are really interested, I can put that post up some other time; in the meantime, I’m going to talk a bit about the electronic scene.

I am a little reluctant to do this, which is why I had that other post all set to go. And the reason I’m reluctant is that I don’t actually have a ton of experience with ebooks. Then I looked into some statistics and realized that nobody has a ton of experience with ebooks – at least, not with the current ebook market. Because the current market is less than two years old. If my rough calculations are correct, two years ago, ebooks were less than 1% of the total US book market; last year, estimates were running 15-20% of the total market. And nobody seems to know whether this means people are buying ebooks instead of hardcopy books, or whether they’re buying ebooks in addition to hardcopy books.

Personally, I suspect it’s a bit of both. I adore my iPad, which I’ve had all of six months, but I only have two kinds of books on it: 1) books I already own in hardcopy, but that I want the convenience of being able to read on the road (that would be things like Pride and Prejudice for fun, and The Journals of Lewis and Clark for research), and 2) books that were only ever published electronically, so I couldn’t get them in hardcopy.

This may change at some point. I can foresee a day when I’ll only want my most favorite books in hardcopy, and I’ll get everything else in electronic format. (If I start seriously running out of bookshelf room, that day may come sooner rather than later…a four gigabyte flash drive would hold most of my collection, could I get them all in e-format, and it takes up a lot less space and is only about $10 if I catch the sale at Target with a coupon.) I have no idea whether this is the usual way to use ebook readers, or whether most ebook users went fully electronic as soon as they could and never looked back.

As a professional writer, I’m deeply interested in this cool new method of publishing stuff. For one thing, it represents a possible end run around the traditional publishing system for all sorts of things. Novellas and short story collections have both been hard to sell to traditional publishers; a lot of writers seem to be putting together their own ebook-only versions and taking them direct to Amazon. Similarly, gigantic 300,000-word novels are too fat for traditional publishing; they have to be split into two volumes in order for the binding machinery to be able to handle them, and then they seldom do as well as all-in-one-volume books. For ebooks, length doesn’t matter so much – at least, it doesn’t affect the cost of publication.

I also know a couple of professional U.S. writers who’ve been unable to get British publishers interested in their work; is perfectly happy to take their ebooks and make them available direct, for a much larger royalty cut than they’d get from a traditional publisher.

I am much less sure how well all this would work for an unknown new writer. There seems to be at least some indication that the book-buying public is skeptical of novels that haven’t been through some sort of publication process involving gatekeeping, editing, and proofreading. A writer who has a following may be able to get people to buy his/her original ebook publications; I suspect it’s a lot harder for unknown newcomers to bypass the usual publication process and make a go of it.

My opinion in this regard was unfortunately confirmed by a quick run through some of the direct-to-Amazon ebooks that are available. A lot of them read like the bottom half of the slush pile – incorrect punctuation, sloppy syntax, incoherent prose, mixed-up word choices. Some of them obviously didn’t even run the spelling checker before they made their deathless prose available to all comers.

There are gems in the pile, but it’s not worth my time to hunt them down – not when I can spend that time browsing more e-editions of traditionally published books than I’ll ever have time to read, all of which have passed some minimum editorial standard, as well as having been professionally edited and proofed. I suspect I am not the only reader to feel this way.

On the other hand, I find myself a lot more willing to take a chance on an electronic freebie or 99-cent publication by an author I don’t know than I am on a $7 paperback that’s going to take up shelf space and be a lot more nuisance to get rid of if I don’t like it. I still want someone to pre-screen things for quality, though, and for now, that means traditional publishers.

What does this mean for writers trying to break into publication? More choices, and not enough information. Nobody really knows how all this is going to affect traditional book publishing, and it’s all changing so fast that today’s predictions may be totally out of date by next Wednesday. So once again, we’re back to figuring out what it is you want, how much and what kind of work you’re willing to do, etc.

If you really want to get in on the ground floor of exciting new technology (and are willing to take the risks that go with that sort of thing), then I’d say now is the time. Ground-floor time doesn’t tend to last very long. Do bear in mind, though, that e-publishing is so new that even the e-publishers don’t necessarily know the best way to publicize and sell original e-books, so you’ll likely be spending a fair amount of time and effort doing publicity even if you get accepted by one of them. If you decide to self-e-publish, the work load will be even greater – you have design and layout, editing and proofing considerations as well as marketing…and your marketing efforts will have that extra resistance to overcome in readers like me who still want the kind of gatekeeping that publishers do.

If, however, you’re interested in doing your own e-book simply because you’re so frustrated with the traditional publishing system…well, it’s not going to be any less work, or any less frustrating, really. The work and the frustration will be coming in different places, that’s all – and if you are the sort of person who can tolerate those frustrations and do that work, but who can’t tolerate the stuff that goes along with traditional publishing, it’s a possible alternative. I wouldn’t, but I’m not a risk-taker and I would purely hate doing all the promotion and marketing stuff. But that’s me. Different strokes, mileage varies, etc.

  1. “And nobody seems to know whether this means people are buying ebooks instead of hardcopy books, or whether they’re buying ebooks in addition to hardcopy books.”
    All I know is that people who comment over at Argh Ink seem to be doing both: some are buying both e and hc, some are preferring hc, some are preferring e, some are preferring whichever is cheaper or whichever is available sooner.

  2. My choice has been to buy ebooks instead of paper. My bookshelves are full. I have moved at least every three years for my adult life. Ebooks are delightfully prepacked.

    Most people are not me though. So I have no idea was the stats for ebook buyers in general are either.

  3. The comments on the straight-to-ebook books definitely resonates with me as a reader and purchaser of books. I’m willing to pay the extra $6 just to know that a book has passed minimum gatekeeping standards. It’s not just the money that’s at risk, it’s my time and energy.

    That $6 difference is what I pay to avoid the frustrating hour spent on a terrible book (or five hours if the quality problem is structure rather than prose). I’m not an agent or a publisher – I don’t want to pay to read the slushpile!

  4. I’ve had my Nook since Christmas, but I started reading ebooks with the free PC software from B&N at least a couple of years ago. I tend to go the ebook-only route for things I just want to *read* (I’ve been going through the entire Agatha Christie catalog this way, for example), but I’ll buy the hard copy version of things I want to collect/keep/display (and in those cases, I may also have an ebook version for convenient reading).


  5. I do both. There are some things that are more convenient about conventional books (no annoying `your nook is starting up…’ every time you set down to read.) But I love the mobility of the e-book. I like classics, like Dickens, on e-book because its so much easier to hold than a tome. Mostly, I’ve been trying to buy an example of favorite authors on e-book so when I travel I’ll have plenty of choices.

  6. It really is a bit of both. Ever since I got my kindle, my sister has avoided it like the plague, fearing that it signals the end of all “normal” books.
    But I honestly don’t think that’s an issue.
    Some things are great to have on kindle (like an originally 2,000 page copy of Les Miserables) but that doesn’t stop me from going to B&N every month and buying hardbound classics. The truth is, I like both, and sometimes I NEED to put the kindle away and flip through a musty-smelling, yellowing old book.

  7. I’ve had my Nook close to a year now and I find that I use it primarily for purchasing books that I am the only person in the household likely to read -philosophy, genre fiction, hard science. We have a tiny apartment and the other half has put his foot down on more than 4 floor to ceiling bookshelves. I double up on the books that I read and reread, but that’s probably only 10% of my ebooks since many aren’t out yet anyway, and on books that I read to my daugher since it means we can pick up the same book anytime. I also check out probably 5-8 ebooks a week from various libraries.

    Mind you, I never purchased hard back books. The amount of books I go through has always made that cost prohibitive but I have largely gotten accustomed to the increase in ebooks vs. my shelves of paperbacks.

  8. My boyfriend bought me an eReader for christmas last year, something I never would have bought for myself, and it’s surprisingly fun, but it will never take the place of real books for me.
    I use it mainly for travel, when I want a selection of ‘new’ things to read. That said, I usually can’t afford new hb books, and so hit up library book sales and sites like paperbackswap for books on my list.
    So for me and most of the people I know, ebooks are fun toys but can never take the place of real books.

  9. I have an iPhone and iPad and I collect e-readers. Kindle, iBooks, Stanza (Stanza *rocks*), Nook, the pathetic thing Borders put out, etc. I’ve gotten to really love having a whole library wandering around with me.

    Since books Never Leave The House Once Bought, here (unless they’re a duplicate, and sometimes not even then if we want an expendable copy for the kid), my ebook purchasing tends to be:

    1: books/stories I can’t get in hardcopy at all.
    2: books/stories I don’t anticipate wanting to share/re-read much. (Because even if I never read it again, it Will Not Leave; books leaving is Bad, ‘kay? Smaug and treasure ain’t nuthin’ on me an’ books.)
    3: books/stories I’m buying in multiple formats to support the author.
    4: books/stories that I must have now-now-now. (Baen is, by the way, a master of this — want the book NOW? Okay, $15 for the e-ARC; pay a premium for speed. Once it’s out in paperback, it’ll be $4-$6 bucks, pretty much guaranteed, so I don’t feel like I’m being e-cheated or training them to charge clutch-my-heart prices for pixels even after the cheaper paperback is available.)
    5: books/stories that I am probably not going to share with kid and spouse — or if I do, it’s because they are unencumbered by DRM and I can share them (ONLY to spouse and child, of course!) much like a physical book.

    (If you’re interested in a self-published freebie that is *not* full of typos, may I recommend the SF short story, “Freedom, Spiced and Drunk,” by M.C.A. Hogarth? (Available at Amazon and other ebookstores.) Who is not me. Though I do know the author and if I find typos, I tell her.)

  10. For me it seems to be the “instead of libraries” option. I’ve always had a shelf (or more) of my bookspace dedicated to the weekly library run. Yes…. I really do read that many books or at least I did when I lived in a big city. Now I live in a tiny town and the nearest bookstore is more then a hundred miles away! Guess that simply reflects the local reader population ‘cus the library is pathetic.

    I simply can’t feed my book addiction on even paperback prices – but ebooks are affordable. Especially when I take the trouble to hunt out all the freebies I can find. ^_^

  11. With E-books, my fear is that I will someday be unable to read them because the format has become outdated. I got seven different versions of “The Scottish Play” in VHS, and now cannot watch them unless I pick up a player at a garage sale. At least one version (“Mabete”, in Zulu) has never been released in DVD that I have found. If my heirs choose to keep my dead tree books, they will be as accessible in a century as they are today.
    Except those 1930’s British and German books on the very high-acid paper. 🙁

  12. Aside from the many considerations listed above (it seems the use varies a great deal based on individual tastes!), including those factors like shelf space and attitudes on collecting, I’ve seen two main dividing issues over and over in discussions with friends, family, and strangers: the particular device and whether or not one writes in one’s books. (And I’m done with that sentence now, I promise!)

    I have a Kindle, and there’s no “your nook is starting up…”, and no annoying backlight. I read blogs and such on my phone, but after Kindle, I’d abhor reading books on my phone. Blech. It makes more of a difference than you might think.

    I never write in paper books, but I loooove quotes. So I take down page numbers and try to remember to type them up later. So to me, electronic highlights are wonderfully freeing, and I end up having an *easier* time getting lost in a story, forgetting that I’m holding a book of any kind, when I read on Kindle. Not surprisingly, my friends and relations who already felt free to scribble away in their books don’t share my sentiments.

    I love the smell and feel of the paper, just like any bibliophile, but I prefer Kindle books when I can get them. I’ve even started to wince when I hear paper books called “real books.” It’s… well, see, recently I saw someone comment online (elsewhere) that ebooks “destroy all the magic,” or something to that effect. At first I nodded sympathetically. I knew what she meant, despite my love for Kindle. But then I thought about it for a moment. ALL the magic?! So… what about the magic in the actual words, the story? I know the girl wouldn’t have disagreed, that she’d say the stories are powerful too, it was just careless phrasing, but still… It seems to be a very common slip of the tongue.

  13. I found this post because I was searching for information on your books in electronic form. I no long have shelf room for paper books and have found that I far prefer reading ebooks as well. I would love to replace my paper copies of your books (stuck in a random box in a storage shed) with ebook versions.

    In my ebook purchases I never really try out a néw author unless there is good buzz, there are more known quantities than I have time or money for. I read enough blogs to get plenty of new author suggestions.

    I do however keep an eye out for backlist titles from favorite authors (such as yourself). I came here from a websearch because I was wanting an electronic version of your Enchanted Forest Chronicles which sadly doesn’t seem to exist.

    • JP and Kealeigh – Being able to take vast quantities of books along easily when I travel is a HUGE plus for the iPad. Years ago, I spent three months traveling in Europe, and the only thing I hated about it was that between room in the tiny suitcase and weight, I could only schlep two paperbacks along. Every so often we hit a B&B that had a trade-in shelf, so I managed to get through four or five titles, but – eight books in three months! I usually go through that many in less than a week!

      ABeth – I used to have some of that same attitude about books leaving the house when I was young, up until my home-town library started their annual book sale. On the last day, prices dropped to 50 cents a box – and those were large boxes! Mom let us buy whatever we wanted, with the understanding that whatever we didn’t like/read would go back to the library as a donation for next year’s book sale. She and Dad were still doing that til the day she died, and the “if you don’t like it, send it back for someone else to support the library” policy got me out of the habit of clinging to text without a better reason than “But it’s a BOOK!”

      StarKin – With so much available on Project Gutenberg, ebooks have MORE selection available than a lot of library hardcopy stacks, and searching them for research purposes is a lot easier! At least, if what you need is historical info.

      Jon – I have some of the same worry, but it’s lessened since I got some of the conversion tools. As long as the text doesn’t have DRM restrictions, I can convert it to rich text, from which I can put it into just about any file format (though I may lose some of the layout-and-design along the way). It’s worked for my own mss. for thirty years. Of course, converting a steadily increasing number of ms. files from old formats to new ones has become a steadily increasing pain over the years, but at least they’re still accessible.

      Marcy – I love my iPad, and part of it is because of the “instant-on” ability. I don’t think I could read much on a phone; the print is too small, even with my glasses, and reading on a phone with a magnifying glass … just, no.

      Jon Lundy – My agent and I are working on getting the backlist into ebook format, but it’s more complicated than it at first appears. One publisher, for instance, doesn’t have the ebook rights (so can’t put out ebooks themselves), but also has an ironclad non-compete clause that prevents me from doing anything with those books. For the titles where I DO own e-rights, I have to decide whether to self-publish (which is a lot of work that I don’t really have time for), or go with an e-book/POD publisher (and ALL of them are relatively new, for obvious reasons, meaning no track record to speak of and making it hard to tell the vultures from the legitimate businesses).

  14. Michelle Sagara is writing about releasing her short stories in e-Format. She’s finding that her electronic copies are usually not the final published version.

  15. I’m very sorry to hear that some of your works are tied up with complicated contracts, not only for you but for myself (since I want to purchase them 🙂

    I do NOT know the your side at all, one publisher you might want to take a look at is eReads (I know that it is run by an agent, which might complicate things). They’ve been around far longer than the current ebook boom, I’ve purchased the majority of Dave Duncan’s books from them. I would also expect you would be a good fit for ebookcafe. I of course only speak as a satisfied customer of both of these publishers, I have no idea if they business side for the author is good. If I presume too much its because I want to purchase your books in electronic form (I own all but The Grand Tour and
    The Mislaid Magician in paper (those were published after I stopped purchasing paper books)).

    However I will satisfy myself for now by purchasing Across the Great Barrier in Kindle format.

  16. My friend has a Nook, and she really likes it. She told me that one annoying thing (about the free eBooks that she gets) is that there are a lot of typos and other problems in the text (that were presumably overlooked when the freebies were converted into eBook format).

    I do not have a Nook, Kindle, or the like, but I do admire their easy-transportation aspect. I am a bit concerned that they may begin to take the place of the hardcopy book (I think that’s the right term), but I hope that it isn’t so. To me, those books are really great and special. I don’t think that eBooks will ever push out hardcopies in my life.

  17. If I have bought (or been given, or otherwise legitimately acquired) a paper copy of a work, and there is no ebook version available to buy which my eBook Reader can handle, then I have no scruples about acquiring an electronic version by whatever means I can. I have, after all, paid my dues.

    I am in the process of converting as much as possible of my library to ebooks as I have moved to a smaller house and don’t have room for the dead trees. It is surprising how few of my books I am having to scan for myself.

  18. I got a Nook for Christmas, and was looking for e-books to put on it. Everything I wanted from the Public Library was checked out, so I started searching for e-books that might be free to download and read. I read the Dragon books about 10+ years ago with my kids, so i downloaded them to re-read.

    Are these things authorized by the author? the formatting was dreadful. There were typos galore – it looked like someone had scanned and digitized a hard copy. No table of contents (so tough to navigate) and in one case the e-book was broken. I hacked the files and have reformatted them (time waiting in an airport) but I was left with an impression that this media can’t be a good thing for most authors and will kill future sales as more and more books get ripped off and published without permission.

    • Bill – No, they’re not authorized. They’re pirate copies. For various legal reasons, which my agent and I are working on, there are currently NO legitimate copies of the Enchanted Forest books available in any ebook format.

      The fear of pirating has held a lot of authors back from the ebook market, but as your experience demonstrates, having no legitimate ebook version available doesn’t stop people from pirating things. I think that most readers are happy to buy reasonably priced ebooks; for those who aren’t, there’s Project Gutenberg, with zillions of perfectly legitimate out-of-copyright works available for free.

  19. I meant to reply to your reply months and months and months ago, though it really isn’t a big deal… meh, I’ll do it anyway.

    Yes, the only reason I read blogs or anything on my phone sometimes is that I have a rather largish phone, as such things go. It’s kind of big even for a smartphone, and I can always adjust the size if I need to, zooming in and out. So, though size is certainly a difference between it and my Kindle, the backlighting is almost a bigger difference.

  20. Well I can’t say what you should do, but 100% of the books I buy for the rest of my life will be ebooks. I would like to read one of yours… but if its not available… its not available.

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