eBook Week, We Are the World

Living in Interesting Times

This week, March 7 through 13, is “Read an eBook Week.”  Mark Coker, the founder of Smashwords.com, has an interview at Huffington Post with Rita Toews, who created the annual event in 2004, long before all the recent hoopla and turmoil in the publishing industry regarding pricing, devices, digital rights management (DRM), Google’s attempt to monopolize access to every book ever printed, Apple declaring war on Amazon, and Macmillan picking a fight with Amazon while bloodying the collective noses of its authors.  Add to that mix a reading public getting very used to “free” content on the internet and print on demand (POD) technology and things are getting very chaotic.  The publishing business as we have known for the past hundred years or so is rapidly changing, but it’s hard to know what it’s changing into.  Gutenberg knew he was changing the world but probably never imagined that his printing technologies would drive the Renaissance and create the modern world.

Maybe we’re on the verge of some new Renaissance, maybe we’re not.  Where things are going right now is completely unknown.  Unknown to the publishing houses, the major retailers, literary agents and the technology enablers.  All of the people who are supposed to understand their markets and their businesses are clueless.  Some are embracing change, others resisting it, all are jockeying for position and trying to corner markets no one can understand.  Some are heroes, some are villains,  some are both at the same time.

The publishing houses, aware of what happened to the music industry, have not resisted the digital revolution, and have been offering their books in digital formats for several years now.  eBooks still make up only a small percentage of their total sales, but each year the percentage increases significantly, fueled by improvements in eBook devices.  Growth is still hampered by one major factor: The lack of a single electronic format that works seamlessly across all devices.  If eBooks are going to displace print books, it’s going to be an uphill battle.  If you include the codex, the printed book at nearly two thousand years of age, is still the most perfect communications device ever invented.  All it takes to read a book is at least one eye and one hand.  No expensive electronic equipment, batteries, Wifi, or USP port required.

Unfortunately, this problem is not going away and it’s actually getting worse because the major players are hell-bent on monopolizing the distribution channels.  Amazon, to its credit, has created the most successful eBook reader to date, the butt-ugly Kindle, and has done more to popularize eBooks than anyone else, but they use the eBooks themselves as loss leaders in an apparent strategy to become the sole means of distribution, able to dictate prices to suppliers.  If that doesn’t sound so bad, go ask a former employee of Rubbermaid what they think of Wal-Mart.

To the rescue came Apple, with its announcement of the iPad, and its own eBook pricing model.  Instead of being a retailer, Apple will function as an “agent” of the publishers.  Publishers get to name their price, and Apple will take a 30% cut.  Macmillan immediately took advantage of this and demanded the same kind of deal from Amazon.  Initially Amazon refused and retaliated by removing the buy buttons from all Macmillan and Macmillan imprint books on their site.  Eventually, Amazon had to give in.  Interestingly, it took over a week to restore all the buy buttons when it had only taken them a few hours to remove them.  I’m a computer guy, and quite frankly, that does not compute.

While this battle was going on, I visited various blogs and news sites where this was being discussed.  There was the Amazon-is-evil faction, there was the Steve Jobs-is-evil faction, and there was Micro$oft Sucks faction, even though Microsoft didn’t seem to have anything to do with it.  Then there were those blamed it all on those greedy publishers and authors (note that this is the first time in this article that the actual creators of “content,” authors, are mentioned).  While there are some authors who earn millions of dollars from their writing, the other 99.9% have to have day jobs.  Greed is not an option for them.  Unfortunately, our consumption driven society seems to regard “everyday low prices” as a right, no matter if denies everybody else the chance to make a living, or forces third-world sweatshop workers to live in poverty, or causes environmental devastation in Asia.

Obviously, eBooks should cost less than their print counterparts, but it still costs money to create them.  Aside from the author, there are editors, proofreaders, graphic designers, marketing managers, advertising copywriters, lawyers, and accountants all involved in producing them.  All of them are entitled to be paid for what they do.

I complain as much about the major publishing houses as any other unpublished author, but there are a few things that I’m willing to accept.  I wish that HarperCollins hadn’t inflicted Sarah Palin’s ghostwritten nonsense on us.  On the other hand, it was HarperCollins that took a chance on first time author Ryan Smithson’s important memoir, The Ghosts of War.  Trash finances art.  This has been true ever since the beginning of both trash and art.

Apple shouldn’t be given a free pass in this.  They are not a white knight.  It’s true that they are adopting a strategy that is the exact opposite of what they did with the iTunes store, where they dictated terms to the music industry.  Their goal, however, is no different than any of the other players in this game: to gain proprietary and monopolistic control over the book publishing business.  The danger of this is made apparent by an action Apple took recently in censoring iPhone applications.  Based on some complaints from a family-values group, Apple removed all adult-oriented applications from its iPhone App Store.  Along with all the strip-poker games and hottie-of-the-day viewers, applications provided by literary magazines, such as  Keyhole Magazine, were removed because the short stories had adult language and controversial themes.  What will Apple do when they open their bookstore and the family values crowd complains, as they always do, about Lolita, Ulysses, The Catcher in the Rye, and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn?

A Smashing Idea

In the midst of all this chaos is internet startup Smashwords.com, Mark Coker’s eBook publishing company.  It’s not a publishing company in a traditional sense, but acts as a distribution company.  For no upfront cost, an author can upload his or her ebook where it is made available for purchase at a price set by the author.  Smashwords takes a set percentage of whatever the price is for each sale.  Additionally, an author may choose to make his or her book available for free or to allow the purchaser to name their own price.

In order to make the books available to the largest audience possible, Smashwords provides the books in a variety of formats, including Kindle, Barnes & Noble ereader, Sony ereader, and adobe PDF.  It takes a lot of technical wizardry to take a single Microsoft .doc file from an author and to publish to all those formats, and to have them look reasonably good.  A program, affectionately known as “The Meatgrinder,” does a pretty good job of it, provided the author has followed some strict formatting rules. Given the fragmented technical landscape that now exists with all the competing digital formats, the Meatgrinder, is the key technology.  As a software product development manager, I tip my cap to Mark Coker and company.  They looked at an emerging market and asked, “What’s the specific problem that needs to be solved, what can we do about it, and can it be a viable business?”   They’re still in start-up mode, but they seem to have put more thought into it than all those hare-brained companies that fueled the first internet bubble in the late 90’s.

Unlike any other business that offers its services to unpublished authors, Smashwords doesn’t try to scam writers.  Unpublished authors are a particularly vulnerable bunch.  Vanity presses, illegitimate agents, and other unseemly types prey on writer’s dreams and separate them from their money.  I wrote about this in a post last year.  Even POD publishers who ask for nothing up front, push all sorts of premium services that can end up costing an author thousands of dollars just to publish a book that will be bought only by the author’s family and long suffering friends.  Smashwords is completely up front about it.  “You aren’t going to make a lot of money,” they say, nor do they try to sell you premium marketing or editorial services or make any money outside of what they make from selling books to customers.  They don’t do any advertising for your book either, they’re honest about that too, and that’s what you get for no money down.  Marketing is your job.

The honesty in a field normally filled with scam artists is refreshing.

In addition to individual authors, there are also some small publishing companies that have signed up with Smashwords that have published multiple titles.  In that case, the companies are providing the sorts of things that traditional publishers do – editing, cover art, marketing – and are using Smashwords as a sales channel.

Smashwords has also made distribution deals with the other major retailers.  All Smashwords books that meet a set of formatting standards are shipped electronically to online retailers such as Amazon, Sony, and Barnes and Noble.  More relationships are promised to be on the way.  This is a very shrewd strategy.  Let the war among those giants rage on, and in the meantime, do business with all of them.

This may be a glimpse of what the future of publishing will look like.

We are the world, in prose.

One of Smashwords most recent releases is short story collection, 100 Stories for Haiti, the brainchild of a group of editors and writers in Europe.  About six weeks ago, in the aftermath of the Haitian earthquake, word went across the internet that submissions for the book were welcome from all around the world.  Smashwords had signed on to handle the ebook distribution.  One hundred percent of the proceeds are going to the Red Cross for Haitian relief.  It’s an absolutely brilliant idea and it’s also nice to see that while the rest of the publishing industry is scheming how to corner this or that market, a grassroots movement can leverage technology in a new and creative way and actually do something altruistic.

I’ve bought my copy and it was well worth the money I donated.  It’s filled with exceptional writing.  Kudos to Smashwords and all the writers who contributed.

Books mentioned:

© 2010 – 2011, Fred Bubbers. All rights reserved.

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