Tuesday, February 9, 2010

thinking 'bout ebook publishing

NOTE: Updated this to include mkay's comment for greater clarity:

At Making Light, mkay wrote:
I had a realization the other day as I pounded off a mini-rant about the flaws in ebook proponent arguments: Someone Was Wrong On The Internet.

I have come to the conclusion that anyone announcing the death of print publishing who writes one of the following:

• An idle mention of financial interest in the success of ebooks (via job or company)
• Ebooks will replace print books as an industry.
• Publishers are greedy because they already have massive profits.
• The reduction of distribution costs makes all other costs simultaneously disappear.
• Production and editorial staff are worthless, unnecessary or overpaid.
• Ebooks are too expensive to buy for my $300 ereader.
• Look at music!
• You don’t need publishers at all. Self-publish and make millions!
• Think of all the previously unpublished books that elitist publishers wouldn’t look at that will now be published. (In fact, I woke up screaming in the night at the very thought)

…is a troll. A troll that appears to be a rational conversationalist because he/she raises the very points publishing is grappling with, but really has no idea what he/she is talking about. A better spoken troll, but a troll nonetheless. I’ve decided to stop taking the bait. Okay, I will still poke fun at them but I will not try to have a rational conversation.
I answered here, then decided to post the reply to this log as well:

mkay, deciding that anyone who disagrees with your basic beliefs is a troll is convenient, and certainly subjectively accurate, but it means you may miss things that matter. For example, from your list:

• An idle mention of financial interest in the success of ebooks (via job or company)

People who object to the current model of publishing want publishing to thrive. If you don't care about books, you don't take strong positions on them.

• Ebooks will replace print books as an industry.

As a generalization, that's true. The white brick that publishers have been selling will become a specialty item. (You can still buy buggy whips.)

• Publishers are greedy because they already have massive profits.

Most people know about the recession, and that publishers are scrambling to find new ways to cope.

They also know that the Big Six are corporations, and their first obligation is to their stockholders.

• The reduction of distribution costs makes all other costs simultaneously disappear.

There's some naivete here, but I've yet to see anyone say, "Oh, right, proofreaders and editors. Well, no one needs them." (Since it's the internet, I'm sure someone has said that. But I haven't come across anyone who did.)

If you want to educate the public, it would be helpful if publishers would share full figures on specific books. When people wave unverified numbers and claim that really, ebooks cost almost as much as white bricks, they're less convincing.

• Production and editorial staff are worthless, unnecessary or overpaid.

I'll trust that you've seen someone say that.

• Ebooks are too expensive to buy for my $300 ereader.

Many ebook readers bought their machines as longterm investments. They thought Amazon would have more strength to keep prices low. You may think they're like SUV drivers who complain about gas prices, but they bought their readers because it seemed like an ecologically and economically wise decision.

• Look at music!

Publishing would be healthier if it looked at more models of producing entertainment. Frankly, I would be surprised if people at the top of the Big Six weren't looking at the music industry and saying, "How the hell do we learn from this?"

• You don’t need publishers at all. Self-publish and make millions!

There have been self-publishers who made millions. It's not the smart way to bet, but self-publishing is a valid option.

• Think of all the previously unpublished books that elitist publishers wouldn’t look at that will now be published. (In fact, I woke up screaming in the night at the very thought)

You may want to believe that every good book has made it to market. (That's the flip side of believing publishers only publish good books, I think.) But there are many books that were only published by traditional publishers because the writers persevered and finally got lucky after many rejections. As a reader, I like having trusted gatekeepers to recommend work to me--but I have more faith in reviewers than publishers to do that. For all my love of Tor, I'm not going to assume that every Tor title will please me. And I know painfully well, from my own experience and that of other midlist writers, that Tor rejects books for perceived commercial worth, not quality. That's just how the business of publishing works.