The Digital Wolf is at the Door

I was talking with my husband about the publishing environment recently,  discussing the viewpoints of Dean Wesley Smith, Kristine Kathryn Rusch, J. A. Konrath, and Mike Stackpole.  All of them believe digital books are the way of the future.  All of them are frustrated with authors who insist that traditional publishing alone is best, and will continue to be for the foreseeable future.  At most some of these authors see digital books as another medium, one that isn’t much of a challenge to the status quo.

One of the arguments I’ve heard disputing the digital revolution is that we’ve been hearing that ebooks will kill traditional publishing for twenty years — and it hasn’t happened yet. They’re tired of folks crying “Wolf!”

I sympathize.  The problem is, the wolf is finally here.

Whenever I used to hear this discussed at science-fiction conventions, there was one caveat that was always appended.  Digital wouldn’t take over the market until cheap, easy-to-use e-readers became widely available.

Guess what?  Cheap, easy-to-use e-readers are in a lot of pockets.  They’re called smart phones.  And for those who want to read on a larger screen, we have the Kobo available for under $100, and the internet-connected, color-screen Nook is only $250.  If you want even more apps and have more money, the iPad, the Motorola Xoom and other tablets are out there to help you read your digital books.  Any day now, we’ll see bookclubs offering a free e-reader with a two year contract.

None of the above named authors, not even at their most evangelic, is saying that traditional publishing will go away completely.  As Mike Stackpole has said, horses didn’t become extinct with the advent of automobiles, nor did they disappear from the streets overnight.  But no one can deny that the rate of technological change has accelerated over the last century, as has it’s adoption.  While print books still account for the majority of book sales, e-books are eroding their market share.  And it will take far less time for ebooks to become the dominant medium than it took for the automobile to become ascendant. Last Friday the L.A. Times reported that since April 1, Amazon has sold more digital books than those printed on paper – and that doesn’t even include Kindle’s free books. Industry wide, ebook sales have tripled over the last year.

It only makes sense to prepare for the changing environment.  Digital publishing certainly opens the door of opportunity to authors, especially those with backlists that would otherwise languish in the file-drawer.  Whether it’s best to sell your e-rights to a publisher, or choose to self-publish is the next important question, and a discussion that many others have already covered thoroughly.

But either way, digital rights are going to become increasingly valuable, and something no author should ignore.

4 Comments

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4 responses to “The Digital Wolf is at the Door

  1. Benita

    I haven’t made the investment yet, but it’s on the horizon. The library system in Albuquerque has digital copies of books. And for books that I don’t want to own, that’s very appealing.

    I wonder if most paper books will become items for the wealthy or eccentric, much like horses have become…for their recreational, rather than practical value.

    Certainly there will be a market for keepsake books…art books and children’s books, because there is something about a book with gorgeous artwork, or pop-ups, or embellishments as well as books that can get drooled on or gnawed on without concern.

    • Certainly there will be a market for keepsake books…art books and children’s books, because there is something about a book with gorgeous artwork, or pop-ups, or embellishments as well as books that can get drooled on or gnawed on without concern.

      Absolutely! Maybe that will be a submarket in ereaders: shock-resistant, waterproof, tooth-proof. 🙂

  2. Love your headline! Thanks for continuing to cover this subject so thoroughly.

    Many of us who were talking digital books before the “ebook” term was invented saw the end of traditional print coming (vs. new POD) and the natural end of the horrid marketing approach that insists, “tell the consumer what they can and cannot have and how much it will cost them whether they like it or not”… The sudden shock and awe from the larger community is a little bemusing. Those folks, as you mention who have been in denial for awhile are waking up to smell the antiquated air they’ve been breathing, and recognizing how a dinosaur business model does not bode well for them or anyone else, no matter which end of the equation they happen to be on. Reminds me a lot of when the computer became essential and those who refused to learn how to use one were left behind at an extreme disadvantage. It’s often very hard to predict exact dates for a major techno shift, but not as hard to predict *whether* it will actually occur, especially if it serves the larger population far better than the current way of doing things. And, I do realize these changes are causing an uproar in the industry for a lot of people, and that’s unfortunate as jobs are being lost, but then I know exactly what those industry choices are like, and I know what a lot of them don’t…that they too will be able to move on even if they don’t think so right now, and they will live to thrive and fight other battles on other days.

    I love my eReader and am finding it SO wonderful to search through a non-fiction reference book for specific things I need in an instant, instead of relying on an inaccurate and incomplete index or being relegated to flipping through 500 pages looking for specific words and data. When I went to England this month my Kindle took up no space in my purse… I can’t imagine life without it now. But honestly I’m relieved to see us finally moving toward a consumer-driven approach. Most other industries have already done this long ago or faced extinction. Having worked in the IT indsutry for the last 25 years, I think it’s about time the publishing industry joined the rest of us in providing products that work for everyone and not just them.

    For more reading and research fun on the subject, I’ve also been following Mark Barrett’s good commentary on his Ditchwalk blog: http://www.ditchwalk.com/2011/05/20/e-books-outselling-print-on-amazon/

    • Yes, I like Ditchwalk, too.

      You mention the consumer driven approach to business. This is the key. As Mike Stackpole observes in his blog post, “The Way of the Dodo Book“: [N]o one has ever gone broke investing in ideas that a) save people money, b) save people time, or c) save people space. An added plus to any of those is having an item which makes people happy and/or plays to a sense of nostalgia. When you look at ebooks, you find something that is cheaper than a normal book, doesn’t require a trip to the store, doesn’t pile up on sagging shelves, and allows you to carry all your favorite books with you in something lighter than the average hardback book. Ebooks win on all of these points.

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