Saturday, January 21, 2012

The Future of ebooks - Anecdotal Evidence Files (Plus a little bit on pricing)

I got a Kindle Fire for Christmas. So did my 11-year-old. I gave my 75-year-old mom a Kindle for her birthday. Yeah, you say, so you got a Kindle, big whoop. But in a way, it's a snapshot: three generations of inveterate readers and how they react to a new reading format. You see, we are a family who loves books. I grew up surrounded by piles of books. We loved the library, loved Okie's Used Book Hut in Manitou Springs, loved the indie Chinook Bookstore (which along with the Chief Theater and Levine's Toys is now just a melancholy memory), loved to come home from someplace with a towering stack of new places to go inside our heads.

Well, in the past month, I've really been thinking about the question of ebooks and how they fit into publishing and consumption of books as a whole. Last year, kid #2 asked me if I'd thought about getting a e-reader. Well, yes, I had thought about it, but it didn't seem like an imperative at the time, even though I was sticking my toes in the swirling pool of e-publishing. Fast forward to the release of the Kindle Fire. Now that was something I really DID want. We're not Apple people by nature, even though we are gadget people, so the iPad seemed expensive and, well, really Apple-y. I could wait. I didn't wait that long, because midway through December, the S/O came home and thrust a box into my hand, saying, "You're not going to have anything under the tree, but you seem like you could use this now." Apparently I'd been a tad whiny about the number of things I had to read, and the difficulty I was having in reading them on the computer when I spent so much time sitting in my car.

I love my Kindle Fire. More importantly, I love reading on it. It's quick and effortless and if I want to switch streams and stop reading the novel I'm on and switch to a short story, with a few flicks of my fingers I'm there. I have enough books on my Kindle to fill 4 shelves and they're with me wherever I go. I've sampled a ton of free works, and, yes, reading a good free work has induced me to buy a paid book from an author I never would have tried if I didn't have my Kindle.

But here's what got me really thinking: I received a request from one of the big six publishers to review an upcoming book. I could get a bound galley or an e-galley or both. This week I got the bound copy in the mail a day before I got the e-galley. Given the choice, I started reading the e-galley.  Then I thought back the week before, when I'd started a paperback from an author I really liked. Well, I was busy and running around, and to read it at night, I had to sit up with a hooded light so I wouldn't disturb the S/O. I set the paperback down and promptly lost in the stack of paperbacks that I have waiting to be read. Instead, I read 3 books on the Kindle. Yep, that's right. I forgot all about the paperback I had been looking forward to and read three books by authors I hadn't read before on the Kindle. Put that in your pipe and smoke it, traditional publishing.

OK, but I'm a technology adopter, what about my mom? Conventional wisdom says that older people are going to be less likely to make the switch. Well, my mom LOVES her Kindle. She can change the type so it's larger, her cats don't shred the pages trying to get her attention while she's reading, she can borrow from the public library with almost no effort (and as soon as a book on a waiting list is available, she's got it right there), and she can get loads of free books (she reads 3 or 4 books a week), low cost books, and find new authors when she's exhausted the supply trickled out by trad publishers. Plus, when she does find an author she really likes, she doesn't have to go hunting for their backlist. It's right there.

But what about kids? It's hard to get kids to read, right? The most stunning revelation for me was the adoption of ebooks by middle schoolers. My son immediately began reading on the Kindle. They have a program at his school called AR (Accelerate Reader -- most parents will be familiar with it) where you need to read such-and-such a number of books worth so many points. He spent his Amazon gift certificate on books. And when school was back in session he came home and said, "I need to take my Kindle to school." It seems the majority of the kids in his class had gotten Kindle Fires. (There were a few Nooks too, but 90% Kindle Fire) and that's how the majority of kids in his class are now reading. (You see, you can't take an iPad to school, but the administration views the Kindle Fire as not a multimedia platform but as a BOOK platform. This may change the first time they find a kid playing Angry Birds or Stupid Zombies instead of reading, but for now, the Kindle is the must-have accessory.) But the most important thing is this (and listen very carefully): kids see ebooks and paperback books as totally equivalent. There is no "but that's not a 'real' book" stigma attached. In fact, they think ebooks are superior to paper books in some ways. My takeaway from this is that ebooks are going to be the dominant book format as time goes on. Kids growing up now are going to see ebooks as the dominant form, NOT paper books. (For proof that the Kindle Fire is helping spur book sales, see here.)

I bring this up because last month I was doing a lot of research on book bloggers and book review sites (to be addressed in a future column). I was mainly looking for sites and readers who wanted to see ebooks as opposed to paperbacks, because most self-publishers at least start with ebooks exclusively. I found lots of reviewers who did not accept ebooks, or accepted them reluctantly. These reviewers/bloggers fell into two categories: those who said, "I can't afford an e-reader yet" and those who said, "Egad, I would NEVER read an ebook, I want a REAL book, one I can hold in my hands. This stupid ebook phase will never catch on, at least not with discerning readers!" (And to be clear, I'm really not disparaging people who prefer paper books; it's perfectly legitimate and cool. It's just that a lot of their protestations take on this kind of shrill air of semi-hysteria, as if even considering an ebook somehow shakes the foundations of decent society.)

Which, in a way, may have a kernel of truth, at least as it concerns traditional publishing. Like any big industry that has held a monopoly on content delivery, the book publishing industry is moving at a glacially slow pace in adopting smart epublishing practices. They seem to shoot themselves in the foot given the slightest opportunity. In an attempt to squeeze everyone into paper sales, they price ebooks too high for the market. The DRM them. They don't put out ebooks at the same time as paper books to reach a broader market. They offer authors the same lousy royalties as they do on paper books, but now with less transparency and slower payment.

They may well adjust (in fact they'll have to), but in the famous words of Simka from an old episode of Taxi, that's like "locking the barn doors after the horses have already eaten your children." Authors are wising up. Slowly, but they are. The balance of power is shifting. Ebooks are here to stay, and perhaps to dominate. Paper books aren't going to become extinct, by any means, but they're also not going to the only "real" books forever.

Which brings me to the bit about pricing I promised. I've been playing with pricing and studying the numbers released by authors regarding free, 99 cent, $2.99, more than $2.99, and the high prices asked by trad publishers (Anything over about $9.99 for my purposes).  Again, I'm planning a future column on that.

But there are two things to think about here, and this goes back to the "real" versus ebook argument. First of all, I want you to think about how much a book is worth and who deserves the lion's share of that compensation. One of the best things about self-pubbed books is that most of the royalty goes to the author, the person who produced the actual product. This is important because publishers are greedy. Yep, greedy. If you want to argue that with me, I'll give you some change and you can call someone who cares to argue that fact with you. Compensation to authors is crappy. (Leave out the bestsellers who make a gajillion dollars and then sometimes don't earn out their advances -- they are the exception and not the rule.)

So I think that complaining about high prices for ebooks published by big pub companies is totally on target. You're just shoving more money in their pockets and not into the pockets of authors. Screw that. Until publishing companies offer better royalty splits on ebooks, scream louder. (In fact, until they offer better compensation on ALL books, scream louder. Maybe they'll hear you before they lose their stable of writers and go bankrupt.)

But I want you to forget that fact for a minute and join me in a thought experiment. What is a book? Is it the paper it's printed on, or is it the story, the characters, the emotions it makes you feel, the joy or discovery or entertainment it brings to your life? Answer that honestly. Does the same book written by the same author have any less or more intrinsic value because it is ink on paper than pixels on a screen?

I ask this because a really good writer, one who is self-pubbed and very savvy about both writing and publishing, recently said something to the effect of: "I would have bought that book if it was in paperback for that price, but since it was an ebook, I thought it was too expensive." (I have changed that quote enough so that the the author's identity is oblique -- I'm not really picking on them.)

And I thought, the hell? What's the difference? This is the kind of thinking that marginalizes good writers who have adopted ebooks. It makes self-publishers into the kind of not-really-writers that the trad publishing industry is trying to convince you they are. In other words, if I'm willing to pay $8.99 to read a really good book by a self-published author in paperback, why should I not be willing to pay $8.99 for a really good book by a self-published author when I can have the added convenience of reading on my Kindle?  (You can insert your own numbers in here -- I'm trying to get at the reason behind the basic sentiment.) I'm purposely ignoring production costs. Everybody knows it costs more to produce and distribute a paperback than it does an ebook. What I'm trying to get at is the book is the same, regardless of the medium used to transport it into your head. You, the reader, are paying the same price and getting the same book, it's only the writer who's making a little more money.

Part of the new paradigm in publishing is to actually pay the writer instead of the publisher. If paying the same amount of money for an ebook as you would for a paperback allows a good writer who you enjoy to make a living and continue writing, I would think a reader would find that a bargain. Of course, I'm a writer, so I may be biased.

Whatever your thoughts, go buy a book, or even download one for free. Because, to put words in the mouth of the 11th Doctor: Books are cool.