Tuesday, October 27, 2009

In Defense of Print

Lately the majority of email I get, and the authors I meet, all want to know one thing:

Are ebooks going to replace print books?

Right now, ebooks are a supplement to print, much like audiobooks are. They're less than 2% of book sales. Some industry pros think they cater to a completely different audience than print, and the two can coexist peacefully. Other industry pros are in complete denial. At a recent convention, I was talking to a well known agent about how publishers are artificially inflating the cost of ebooks by charging etailers hardcover prices, and this person told me "You're making me angry. I can't talk about this with you."

Amazing. Ebooks are the big elephant in the corner of the room that everyone sees but refuses to acknowledge, even as it craps all over the floor.

I don't reach hasty conclusions. I like to gather information and learn all I can about something before forming opinions or predictions.

Anyone who reads this blog knows that I do believe ebooks are the future. I believe this based on my personal experiences in publishing, and what I know about the industry. I can also draw conclusions based on my knowledge of other media industries, namely music and newspaper, and my interest in the Internet, digital media, file sharing, and formats.

I'm still in the minority. People are fond of quoting me, or pointing others in my direction, but I haven't seen any industry professionals brave enough to either agree with me, or open a debate with me to disprove my assumptions.

But I have seen a lot of statements, and heard a lot of questions, repeated over and over. Here are a few that stand out:

I love the feel of a regular book.

I hear this a lot. The tactile experience of cracking open the spine and turning the pages. The smell and feel of paper. We grew up reading paper, and we have a good relationship with it that fosters warm feelings.

But what if we grew up reading ebooks? Would paper have a single advantage? Who's to say you can't form that same bond with an ereader?

Actually, if you've ever listened to someone who owns a Kindle, you'd know that not only can you have feelings for digital books, but the feelings are even stronger than with print. Whenever I meet an ereader owner and ask them if they like it, they don't just say yes and move on. They evangalize.

These people are so enthusiastic, so happy about their discovery, that they gush on and on AND ON about it.

Remember that the written word can be written on anything, and it still has power. Books aren't on the page--books take place in our heads. While you can be nostalgic about the delivery system, I highly doubt you still listen to music on 8-track or 78.

I want a tangible product.

Me too. I have over five thousand books. I love owning them. I love how they look on the shelf. I love perusing my library.

But I'll be honest here. I used to have over a thousand cassette tapes. I loved owning them. I loved how they looked on the shelf. I loved perusing my music library.

Then CDs came along, and I repeated the love affair.

Eventually I got my first iPod.

I don't even own a CD or cassette player anymore.

I still love to own. But now I own digital files. I still love to persuse my music library. Except now I do it on iTunes.

Tangible is only a state of mind...

Ebook readers are too complicated.

If a computer is too complicated for you, than an ereader might be, too. But no too long ago, vacuum cleaners, clothes washers, and microwave ovens were considered complicated. Fear of technology is pretty common with the older generation. But the longer a product is around, the easier it becomes to accept, and to use.

Future ereading devices will become simpler and simpler as the developers strive to reach those late adopters.

Ebooks are a niche market.

Well, no duh. All new technology begins as a niche market.

But this is a niche market based on the written word, just like printed books. Except it has many advantages over books, and doesn't kill 40 million trees a year or involve shipping and returns.

By all accounts, more companies are developing ereaders, and more consumers are buying them. Ignore this at your own peril.

You can't autograph an ebook.

I've signed over a dozen Kindle covers, and one Sony cover.

When is some smart publisher going to give away skins or ebook covers that feature the cover art for their latest novel? Or at least sell them cheaply? Wouldn't it be cool to carry around a Kindle that looked like Whiskey Sour or Afraid? I think so too.

Ebooks can be shared and stolen.

The fear over digital rights being abused is real, but there are no clear indicators that sharing ebooks, free ebooks, or stealing ebooks have any effect on sales.

In fact, I think freebies promote sales. Which is why I still give away ebooks on my website, even though I'm selling the same books on Amazon and elsewhere.

Copyright can't be enforced in a digital world. Those who try are going to get more frustrated, protective, and paranoid, and ultimately they aren't going to protect a damn thing. Ask the MPAA, the RIAA, and the billions of people file sharing.

EReaders are too expensive.

The Kindle debuted in 2007 at $399. Two years later it's $259. Give it another two years, and we'll see $150, or less.

Tech prices come down. Always.

Books will never disappear.

I agree. There are billions of them on the planet.

But will the printed book remain the main mode of delivery for the printed word?

I doubt it. Anymore than newspapers remained the main form of delivery for news, or CDs remained the main form of delivery for music.

Remember all the music stores? Remember Coconuts, FlipSide, Tower Records, Musicland, and Sam Goody? Where are they now?

Amazon sets the price on ebooks, that's why they're expensive.

I've had a few industry pros echo this. So let's clarify it.


Guess what? I bet Amazon, Sony, and the other etailers would love to open negotiations for fair and reasonable ebook rates, which would result in the price of ebooks going down, which would result in more people buying ereaders and ebooks.

But the print industry doesn't want that.

Ebooks hurt my eyes.

I hear this all the time. And, in the case of standalone ereaders, this is wrong.

E-Ink technology doesn't cause eyestrain. At all. It's as passive as reading paper.

Some lament the tech of ebook readers, saying black and white displays are so 1998. They're waiting for color models.

But the fact is, E-Ink is very technologically advanced, and reading in black and white (or grayscale) is the easiest on the eyes. Include the no-flicker technology, and E-Ink is high tech that just looks low tech.

If ebooks are so great, why haven't they taken off yet?

In one form or another, it can be said that ebooks have been around since 1993. So why haven't they dominated the industry like mp3s?

I believe there are two reasons.

First, there has never been a universal format. I've blogged about this before.

Second, because publishing doesn't want ebooks to dominate the market. Why would they? The traditional role of publishers in this industry is to print and distribute books. In an ebook world, their role would be largely reduced, if not completely eliminated.

If I were a publisher, I'd be doing several things in order to prepare for the future.

1. Drastically lowering the prices on my ebooks.
2. Making ebooks available on my website, so I didn't have to share profits with etailers.
3. Publishing my backlist inexpensively in ebook format, and securing rights to as many out-of-print titles as I could get my hands on.
4. Directing the majority of marketing and advertising dollars toward ebooks.
5. Partnering with etailers and ereader manufacturers and offering them exclusive content.
6. Moving toward a digital future where all ebooks are free, funded by advertising.

But I'm not a publisher. Or an agent. Or an editor, or sales rep, or publicist.

I'm just a writer.

Here's the thing, though. I'm secure I'll still have my writing job in ten years.

Since April, I've sold over 6000 copies of THE LIST on Kindle. It will soon be on Sony, iTunes, and B&N. I expect these numbers to climb dramatically over the next few years.

Now I'm actually contemplating a sequel to this book--a book that was rejected by NY publishers--to release exclusively as an ebook.

That's crazy. That's absolutely crazy. I've dedicated my life to getting into print. I've dreamed of having this career since I was a little kid. I've busted my ass trying to succeed in this business, and have the battle scars to show for it.

I love print books. They're the reason I became a writer.

But my career isn't about printing my words on paper. It's about reaching readers with my words.

If readers want to read my words on a Kindle, I'd be stupid not to give them what they want.