The Future of Publishing:

eBooks and Time – March 4, 2012

For me, the choice to go independent and publish my earlier novels and now my new ones as ebooks on Kindle, Nook, and iBooks was not that hard. It was a case of “self-publish or perish.”

My early career with Baen Books in science fiction was launched in the mid-1980s, which was an interesting time for writers. A change to the tax law on treatment of inventories1 was already putting pressure on the book business—which put pressure on writers who did not already have an established following or were making big sales. It was also a time when more books than ever were being printed and sold, which meant more competition among this crop of new writers. My sales for eight books over about the same number of years were adequate to keep the publisher interested in my ideas, but I never made much more than pin money for myself and never saw a title sell through its advance to start earning actual royalties.

When I tried to reignite my career in the mid-2000s with new novels that were more thrillers than science fiction, I trolled The Literary Marketplace trying to attract an agent who would get my work before a suitable publisher. A few thousand letters and emails later—which garnered all of about 20 responses, expressing polite interest and then ultimate regret—told me that the literary world was full of new authors looking to make a name, established agents with too many hungry authors to service, and a reduced number of ever more selective publishers struggling to find a marketing success.2 For me, the lure of self-publishing electronically meant that at least some readers would have a chance to find and enjoy my work—and I wouldn’t be filling a storage locker with a press run of physical books, which I would then have to flog through the local bookstores.

In the 18 months since I started epublishing, I’ve learned that time is a completely different commodity in the electronic world.

First, the act of bringing out a new book no longer has to be a big splashy event. This is not because there is no publisher with an advertising budget able to host a party and invite the literary world. I can hold a party and invite my friends, if I want. But my ebook does not have to make a big impact with press releases, a tight schedule of author interviews and public readings, and a flurry of favorable reviews in prominent newspapers and magazines, followed by its closely watched entry onto bestseller lists and a climb up to some terminal position—with an eventual fall off and fade away.

Conventional paper books are under such pressure to make a big hit—all in hopes of interesting as many readers as possible in buying the book as quickly as possible—because time is chasing the inventory. The publisher has a large press run to sell off before holding unsold books incurs too much tax expense and it becomes more economical to remainder the book and pulp the copies. In contrast, the ebook has no inventory, no tax on inventory, no cost of holding inventory. It’s simply a string of digits on a server somewhere and has no physical cost to the author/publisher (except the time invested in writing, editing, and coding, plus something for acquiring cover art) or to the bookseller (except the business costs of maintaining some disk space and adding a line or two to the accounting software).

Of course, I want potential readers to know about my new book. I will post a notice on my author’s website, put a video trailer on YouTube, have a full-page description available with pricing and links to my ebooksellers, post updates on social media, send notices to friends and acquaintances, and float out other “soft” marketing.3 But the time pressure is simply not there.

Why? Because I do not have to build up a standing wave of enthusiasm in the book business among store owners, chain store buyers, and marketers, all of whom have their own inventory and shelf-space issues to contend with.4 My appeal is directly to the readers. It does not really matter (well, except in terms of my ego fulfillment right now) whether a reader finds and buys my work this week or next—or next year, or the year after.

A second consequence of epublishing is that no book is ever really old. The grand ta-dah! of publishing a new book means that last year’s book and all that went before it are suddenly ancient history. Of course, bookstores are filled with novels that have stood the test of time—those by once-prominent authors whose publishers are going back for a second dip, usually in connection with a new movie release—and a new generation of readers will find them and love them. So long as a novel isn’t too horribly dated (without the intention of becoming “historical”), it can be new and exciting to the readers who have not yet discovered it.5 But for less than big-name authors, early works are lost in the dust of crumbling paperbacks, never to be resurrected.

Epublishing now enables every author to make his or her backlist permanently available. There is no investment decision to reprint the physical books and undertake new inventory costs. Converting a printed book to digits and then proofing and coding it as an ebook can be relatively cheap. In bulk and done by professionals, the cost is about $300 to $500 per title. The more titles an author has available, the more chances for a reader to find the one work that seems interesting, like it, and then go look for another.

The great secret is that a habitual reader is not only interested in finding something new and exciting—that wave of “buzz” in the literary world and among like-minded friends. A reader with a nightstand full of books will also look for, and reward with purchases, any author who writes just the sort of books that reader likes. I think of the mother in Pat Conroy’s The Prince of Tides, who showed her children the moon rising just as the sun was setting, and they exclaimed, “Oh, Mama, do it again!” Every one of us who finishes a book we have come to love sighs, “Oh, Mama, do it again!”

In an emarket where an author’s books are continuously available, without the tyranny of inventories and press runs to take them out of the public reach on a regular basis,6 producing a new book is not so much an astounding literary event as the slow and steady building of a name and a body of work.

For the habitual reader, it means that every book ever written, and every author you’ve ever loved, is potentially available for browsing and download at three o’clock in the morning. These are literary riches beyond the dreams of Gutenberg!

Time is on the ebook author’s side. We don’t have to make our reputation among a literary marketplace of publishers, reviewers, and chain store buyers with a big and costly marketing splash. We reach our readers one at a time, often on a hunch or a whim. Then we spread a full hand of cards and let them pick. And if they honor us by liking our work, they can come back and take another, and another. The shop is always open and fully stocked.

1. See Kevin O’Donnell, Jr.’s excellent discussion of this in How Thor Power Hammered Publishing.

2. See my previous blog Traditional Publishing: Through the Eye of the Needle.

3. I call this “soft” marketing because the secret to selling on the internet and through social media is to be a gentle presence, to be inviting and entertaining, and not to scream. An author’s website is meant to attract readers through entertaining and ever-changing content (like these blogs) about the author’s active and interesting life and ideas. Social media are meant to share thoughts and experiences among friends and their acquaintances, with an occasional reference to an author’s book activities. Potential readers must always choose to click on and read these links. No one goes to a site hoping to get an advertisement.

4. And standing waves eventually crash.

5. There are any number of thrift and consignment shops with the name “New to You,” and they sell old clothes on the same terms I invite readers to try my earlier books. One of the broadcast channels used to advertised its summer reruns with the same thought: if you didn’t see this episode last year, then it’s “New to You.” Repackaging and selling established books is similarly a big part of the book business.

6. Yes, there is the local library, and many people feed their reading habit with books from its shelves. But libraries are usually as selective about what fiction they will carry as any bookstore, and not all of an author’s works are available on the local library’s shelves.