January 7th, 2010


Is this a brave new world or is publishing going up in flames?

Although I love my Kindle, I have to admit it has lived up to its name and started a conflagration. The sudden popularity of ebooks has thrown the publishing world for a loop, and brought editors, agents, and publishers into direct contact with technology whether they wanted it or not. Every year in Las Vegas, geeks and gadget lovers gather for their very own con, the Consumer Electronics Show (CES). This year for the first time, books and reading are being discussed at CES— always assuming you're willing to call ebooks books, which I guess some folks aren't. The explosion of eReaders is now bigger as the QUE from Plastic Logic has made its official debut (it's pretty but pricey). Conversely, book folks are actually paying attention to CES!

Between that and the new year starting, everyone is making forecasts about ebooks. Indeed, this post on the Big Money blog argues that eReaders will wipe out book marketing as we know it. Blogger Marion Maneker has a point. Most of the money in today's book marketing goes into either schmoozing distributers and book buyers for chains, plus co-op dollars that pay for specific placement in bookstores. Ebook "distribution" is a whole new ball game. Ebooks don't need bookstores, nor do they necessarily need distributors. Maneker's most interesting point, I think, is this idea which I quote here:

. . . self-publishing will be the most cost-effective way for publishers to discover new talent. But to get authors to invest in themselves, publishers will have to increase the size of the prize. In this scenario, you bill the authors for marketing consultation and increase the royalty to 70 percent or 80 percent. Lower the publisher's risk and increase the author's reward.

In some ways, this sounds a lot like publishing prior to the 20th Century, when you needed money to publishing a book. Not sure I would call that progress. In fact, I'd called it closer to CreateSpace or Lulu than the current model of traditional publishing.

For a different, less drastic view of possible changes ahead, literary agent Jane Dystel gave GalleyCat her predictions for what publishing will be like in 10 years. She mentions ebooks only in reference to rights (she sees publishers and agents battling it out over rights) and to "windowing" (delaying release of ebooks; she thinks it will stop because revenue will go down because of it), but her point about rights brings up this week's NY Times Op ed piece by Jonathan Galassi, president of Farrar, Straus & Giroux. Galassi seems to be arguing that once a publishing house invests time and effort into a book, the author (or his/her heirs) ought not to be able to cut them out of future deals.

Which I think pinpoints the most interesting (and disruptive) aspect of this whole situation. Technology has outpaced law. Where there were no ebooks, contracts between publishers and authors didn't mention ebook rights (which is why there is squabbling about it now). It used to be reissuing a book meant investing in reprinting it. Not any more.

And that's the game changer. Contracts now will spell things out. If publishers expect to be paid by the author for their editing efforts, it seems to me that limits their long term rights to the work. On the other hand, if they continue to provide editing services while still paying the author for the privilege of publishing his book, perhaps the version that reverts to the author will be the unedited version, as delivered by the writer? Who knows?

It might not be a brave new world, but it surely will be different.

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