Wednesday, November 26, 2008


EBooks and the Future of Publishing

We break our self-imposed moratorium on blogging for this thought . . .

A few in the publishing world are starting to point out that ebooks and pocket books might be good investments for publishers during these lean times. The suggestion seems sensible, given the ongoing dire news about the state of our economy and the fact that some bookstores have now lost more money than they made in the months before the market's collapse and yesterday's shocker that Houghton Mifflin Harcourt has put the kabosh on acquiring any new manuscripts. That shrieking banshee of a wail you hear coming out of New York? It's people in the publishing world realizing that they, too, have been living a life of largesse. In some cases, the people are revolting.

I refuse to believe this is the end of publishing. If I might offer a tiny criticism to my industry, it is that we can sometimes be luddites, unwilling to take on the new. Yes, the book the object is wonderful, but what is wrong with a Kindle or the equivalent? Yes I, too, love to inhale the smell of a book--brand new, musty and old, it doesn't matter--but the most important thing that happens when you read is what is going on inside your mind. Plenty of old-timers thought writers couldn't make the switch from long-hand to computer. I remember being lectured as a youth that a word processor impeded my ability to write essays for school. I'm from a generation that--shock--wrote my first drafts with pen and paper! Does anyone even do this anymore? The kids in their 20s hear this kind of thing and look at me with surprise. I'm old!

Here is what I want to know: what kind of a cost analysis has been done on ebooks? To download a book for the Kindle, I will probably have to pay only $9.99. Is that because it really only costs $9.99, or is it because Amazon has come up with that number to entice the purchase of electronic books, and the number is abnormally low? Or is it abnormally high? Software people do that sometimes. I'm not clear what's the case and I'd like to know, and so should the rest of the industry.

Second, when the paperback version of a book is released, it seems almost de rigeur at this point to include questions for discussion "for the book club." In some instances, the paperback includes a little interview from the writer. When video games are released as a "special collector's edition," they often come with expansion packs. Sometimes you can even buy the expansion pack alone, though you don't get the special gold foiled packaging of the actual special edition. But still. DVDs of television shows have figured out this trick. I remember listening to Fresh Air with Terry Gross, and hearing the TV guy wax rhapsodic about the extras contained on DVDs for the Sopranos. I went off and joined Netflix just so I could understand what he was talking about.

In publishing, the debate still seems to be whether or not ebooks are viable. I say, the kids are already doing it in Japan, and the kids in this country are already reading documents on their handhelds. Barack Obama, anyone? I don't think the right question, therefore, is if we should use ebooks. I think the correct question is how we use them.

What special content can the electronic book have, that no other book can have? What the heck is wrong with some hyperlinks at the end of a manuscript? For my essay on the Japanese Crematorium, I included a page on my blog with pictures of the places and people that inspired me to write. Why can't an ebook do something similar? Why can't it come with book trailers and interviews and clippings of reviews at the end? Why can't it be "upgraded" with extras should the reader decide he likes the new book? Why shouldn't an ebook include an alert to your email box for when the author is doing a reading in your area? Why not include the author's email--or the agent's equivalent--if the reader has a question? I believe the marketing people refer to this kind of thing as an "opt in," if I remember from my days at work in the corporate world. Why doesn't the purchase of an ebook include an automatic opt in for additional services? The more attuned to the internet a writer is, the more she is going to figure out what to include in that opt in. I can see this working in particular for genre books, which have a built in audience with a dedicated online presence. But what's wrong with the literary folks getting on the bandwagon too?

I think the WRONG question to ask is whether or not books will translate to the digital medium. I think the RIGHT question to ask is how to make it worthwhile to the consumer. Right now, a handful of writers are struggling like mad to figure out how to use the internet to reach their audiences. We generate content for free that is relevant to our books. There ought to be a way for publishers to use this and, in some cases, monetize it.

Chaos breeds opportunity. Last night, my brilliant banker friend--one of the few good and ethical bankers--called aglow because she'd received yet another offer from someone in her industry desperate to hire her because she alone seems able to understand and navigate these scary economic times. There will be those in the book world who do the same.

Well, not only do I agree with you 8000%, its my hope that by embracing this and other changes, us young wipper-snappers in publishing can have an edge over our elders in the coming years....

See you at tea!

Glad the wise agree. And, yes, we'll convene at tea!
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