Insights on EBook Trends

I touched last week on traditional publishing’s downfall. I want to share some points I gleaned from the Smashwords eBook seminar I took. Mark Coker started his site just a few years ago in order to provide a site for authors to upload and distribute their books in electronic form to the world. Smashwords is just one distributor “out there” that gets your book into dozens of catalogs worldwide for readers to access.

Here are some of the interesting facts about traditional publishing and why they are going the way of the 8-track, the carrier pigeon, and the telegraph (I’m sure you can think of a gazillion more things that faded away as tech replaced it). Big publishers are facing major problems right now because of the structure of their industry. Below are listed some of the problems that are responsible, according to Coker (and these are greatly generalized. I’m sure there are some exceptions but these are the generalities governing the decline):

  • Traditional publishers judge books based on commercial merit. Why is this a problem? Because they don’t really care about the reader. Because they are financially exposed to so much risk, they have to always second-guess the market years ahead, and money/profit is always their bottom line. It has to be or they would go out of business. They have to pay advances and they put a lot of investment into the printing, marketing, and distribution of a book (for it to become successful). Yet, 30 percent of books get returned to the publisher.
  • Traditional publishers have customer-unfriendly books. They look for famous authors and books with commercial potential. They set high prices and limit worldwide distribution. They are not primarily searching for great writers with amazing stories to tell. Acquisitions editors look for books they know will sell. Period. It’s nice if it’s a fresh, unique book, but few books by new authors are ever widely and generously promoted.
  • Traditional publishers have author-unfriendly policies: acquisition editors have to get lots of approvals first, acquire fewer books from proven authors, blackball authors who haven’t earned, pay lower advances, and require authors to assume more responsibility for editing and marketing. They are not willing to work with authors for years to build a readership and following. If your book doesn’t come “out of the gate” a blockbuster best seller and, in fact, flops with a mere few thousand books sold, good luck getting another book contract—ever.

In the weeks to come, we’ll be tearing apart the trends and seeing what broad new horizons are out there for writers. It’s an exciting, promising time—dare I say it? A brave new world out there that will welcome a wonderfully, beautifully written story. Do you have one ready to present to the world? Then subscribe to this blog and stay tuned for more.

13 Responses to “Insights on EBook Trends”

  1. John Raab January 3, 2012 at 3:49 pm #

    Hello Susanne,

    I spent the last year on this topic with our magazine. While I’m a big fan of Ebooks, I have to disagree with you that traditional publishers are in trouble. If you would like a friendly debate on the topic, let me know. Thanks.

    John Raab
    CEO / Publisher
    Suspense Magazine

    • cslakin January 3, 2012 at 3:54 pm #

      Hi John and thanks for the comment. I am only replaying what Mark Coker said at the workshop I took. I look forward to hearing all sides and thoughts on the topic, so feel free to share yours. Or write me a guest blog post I can put up for writers to consider. I think Mark has some very astute observations, and my experience with my publishers’ limited abilities and/or interest in really helping to promote my books has shown me their limitations as compared to what I can personally accomplish through my own efforts with my books in eBook format. However, I believe we will all have to wait and see how trends unfold over the next few years. If eBooks end up taking over the market, just where will that leave the big six, especially if their top authors continue to refuse to give their print publishers any eBook rights?

      • Kimberly Hitchens January 12, 2012 at 11:23 pm #

        With all due respect, what would one EXPECT Coker to say? His entire business model is based on eBooks. Of course he’s going to say that legacy publishing is going the way of the Dodo. We create eBooks for a living, and have for several years now; but I would not say that legacy publishing is dying.

        The idea that somehow, Big Publishing is “evil” because they seek commercially-viable books–the horror–seems bizarre to me. How many authors do you think are publishing on the KDP without secretly harboring the dream of becoming a successful, quit-your-day-job author? What writer doesn’t want to be the next Dan Brown, Grisham, Meyer? Why should publishers publish books that people DO NOT WANT TO BUY? This is the irony to me; that far too many writers think that publishers should invest, upfront, in books that the public does not want to buy. Why would they do this? Publishers aren’t charities; they’re businesses. Would YOU knowingly invest in business opportunities that you know, in advance, will lose money? This is that blurry line between ‘art’ and ‘commerce’ that FAR too many artists allow to cloud their judgement–that the “art” of books should somehow outweigh the obligation of the writer to deliver a product that the public *wants* to buy.

        This is precisely the glory of e-publishing; the risk now falls entirely on the shoulders of the creator of the story/book, as does the reward. The public gets an opportunity to find new authors; new authors get the opportunity to find a reading/buying public–all without investing tens of thousands of dollars.

        But don’t castigate publishers for wanting the books they procure to be good business opportunities–that’s WHY they are publishers. Otherwise, they’d be vanity presses, procuring the purchases of friends, family and relatives of the authors. Let’s not confuse what this BUSINESS is all about, folks.

        Just my $.02, FWIW.

  2. Sheryl J. Dunn January 4, 2012 at 5:58 am #

    I believe the need for publishers with submissions processes and editors will continue; they won’t be gatekeepers in the same way they are now, but will be arbiters of quality – not the only publishers of quality writing, of course, because some self-published books are excellent. Unfortunately, the vast majority are not. But it may be that discerning readers will search for books from particular publishing houses or ‘brands’ rather than try to sift through the morass or depend only on books that go viral.

    I also believe that some ‘traditional’ publishers will survive the ebook revolution, but they will have to change to do so. Some are changing already. These people aren’t dummies; they’ve been around for a long time, have great contacts, and some are responding as quickly as they can to the changing technology. One of the results of their changes will be less reliance on trying to predict bestsellers.

    Will ebooks take over the market? Of course, because people latch onto convenience, but print books will survive, too – in niche markets, i.e., the print book itself will be several niche markets.

    What I worry about as a new publisher is whether quality writing itself will become a niche market, i.e., whether there will be a dumbing down of the population of readers. But perhaps quality writing has always been a niche market. The challenge for anyone, whether publisher or writer, may become finding the audience for a particular book or writer. Again, not a new challenge, but one that we must learn to meet in different ways.

    The freedom to self-publish is wonderful, but with every freedom comes correlative responsibilities, and in self-publishing, one of those responsibilities, I believe, is to create a great product first, before you foist it on the market. If more people self-publishing accepted this responsibility, we wouldn’t need publishers, but since most self-publishers either don’t care about that responsibility, or don’t recognize that their work is inferior, publishers will survive.

    I use the word ‘most’ advisedly; the statistics bear me out: quality self-published work is rare. That said, I could list a ton of self-published books that deserved to be published by the majors, but weren’t, for the reasons Coker states. But a ‘ton’ is still an insignificant percentage of the multitudes that self-publishers produce.

    Should we restrict people’s right to self-publish? Of course not.

    Should we find ways – other than market forces – that help readers to find quality books? Yes – and publishers are one of those ways.

  3. Mark Beyer January 4, 2012 at 6:51 am #

    For more than 20 years, traditional publishing has basically given authors one chance: if your first book doesn’t sell, you’ll not publish another (at least not with that imprint; but then, “word gets around”).

    While John Raab is correct, for the time being, that publishers will be around for a while, that doesn’t mean small presses, POD, and ebooks haven’t already made huge strides to help authors ignored by traditional presses. They have made a huge impact on publishing, and on the availability of books. Now what we need are better books available the people who want to read high-quality fiction, stories that place character and theme — and beautiful writing — above “the quick read” that is all about plot and wise-crack (or just plain bad) dialogue.

    I’m speaking specifically of literary fiction, which has not been well represented for two decades, and is ever in decline. Why? Because genre fiction sells lots of books. Of course, the big names of lit fiction sell lots of books, too. So then, if more lit fiction books were published, then it stands to reason that a lot more people would be reading quality stories.

    Mark Beyer
    author of “The Village Wit”

  4. Dr. Andy Rose January 4, 2012 at 2:11 pm #

    Healthy discussion. The one clear point is that we are witnessing change in the publishing industry. I tend to agree that some publishers will adapt and survive.

    How about the issue of print vs. digital books? Will traditional books survive?

  5. Lez Lewis January 7, 2012 at 6:13 am #

    While I do agree with just about everything said I do take it a step further. Commercial Merit is not entirely bad as it does have real life relevance, what I find disturbing is letting personal biases affect the choice of authors and books. The profile that a publisher wants is fixed by not just marketability but also by age, sex and race. This I find totally unacceptable and without merit.

  6. Shawn Kuhn January 7, 2012 at 8:15 am #

    Publishers will adapt because they are profit motivated. The changes that they make will be made because they are first and foremost a business. Traditional or self published books MUST have broad reader appeal to be viable commercially.

  7. Mary Lou Webb January 7, 2012 at 5:13 pm #

    As a consumer, I would like to see both eBooks and print books flourish. I love the convenience of taking multiple books with me on my eDevice, but there is just something about the feel and smell of paper in a brand new, print book.

    As an author, I’m open to any venue that will help me publish. I agree that there are a lot of self-published books that probably should not have been published, and that we do need a higher quality of self-published eBooks. I’m afraid that until the educational system changes, the quality of writing will continue to decline. When I still worked in Corporate America, we were seeing new hires come on board who could not construct a complete sentence.

    Traditional publishing will have to change to survive; that much is clear. As to how they will change or how much they we change, we will have to keep an eye on the fallout. I hope we end up with the best of both.

  8. Mary January 10, 2012 at 5:25 am #

    Hi, found your blog through LinkedIn. It really seems to be an author’s market these days. Traditional publishing is so flawed right now, for many of the reasons Coker suggested. Trad’l publishers are still pushing their dated hardcovers, overpriced eBooks ($9.99-12.99, really?!), combined with slashed marketing efforts. I’m not even sure why a new writer would want to pursue the traditional model at this point. It is not where the opportunities are.

  9. Vikram Karve January 12, 2012 at 12:41 am #

    A very apt and insightful post. I think traditional publishers are themselves to blame for their downfall as they did not see new avenues available to authors like online publishing, blogs, ebooks and self-publishing. However, in India, traditional publishers seem to be ruling the roost and display the same symptoms you have listed and it may not be long before things change for the better, at least from the authors’ point of view.

  10. Daan Spijer January 12, 2012 at 7:57 pm #

    That traditional publishers are finding it harder financially (or, perhaps, they are trying for a larger profit margin) is indicated by the increasing number of mistakes, typos and incorrect use of the language I see in print books (including those from large publishers that have been around for a long time). They seem to be investing less in editing and proofing. In the last few years I have reviewed a number of books that had whole paragraphs repeated. As an editor, I know how much work goes into helping a writer produce an excellent book and that this can be an expensive part of the publishing process. However, this striving for excellence is important if the reader is to be honoured – whether the book is to be printed or distributed electronically.

    • cslakin January 12, 2012 at 8:29 pm #

      You make a great point about honoring the reader. We write to entertain and move the reader. They are investing their precious time in reading our book (and may have invested their money as well). They deserve to be given respect and value by our diligence to not only write the best book we can but to ensure it has been edited and formatted professionally for their reading enjoyment. We are providing a product to a consumer, in essence. I know when I read a book, I don’t want to be irritated by a lack of good editing. What amazes me, though, are books like the Twilight series. With the amount of money being made by such products, you’d think both the author and the publisher would want to invest in a copyeditor to clean the books up so they aren’t ridden with grammatical, punctuation, and spelling errors. They can afford that, but they don’t seem to care.

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