Do Editors Dream of E(lectric) Books?
Like most affairs, I swear I never meant for it to happen. I’ve always been devoted to my books. And by books, I mean signatures of thick creamy white paper, folded together, glued between two hard binder boards, and wrapped in a beautifully designed jacket. I love books so much, in college, I enrolled in a class at the Minnesota Center for Book Arts and after one session, I went on a crazed shopping spree and bought bobbins of waxed linen thread, fancy papers, bone folders, and my very own awl. I learned how to sew a pamphlet stitch, a longstitch binding, and a multi-signature case binding. I made crazy conceptual book art and enough blank journals to last two or three lifetimes.
And then I met Him. One day, he downloaded Microsoft Reader onto his PocketPC and filled it with classic novels. Practically overnight, he went from someone who picked up a novel possibly once or twice a year, to a compulsive reader who carries his ereader with him everywhere, just in case he has a spare moment to read. Even he was surprised by how much he suddenly loved books again. Was it the gadget factor? (He’s a gearhead after all.) Or the easy access to books? The soothing glow of the screen just before bedtime—the lack of distractions allowing him to visualize the world of the story? Yes, yes, yes, all of the above.
Month after month, he would ask me if I wanted to try ebooks too. He gave me a digital reader. He bought ebooks he thought I might like. But I protested. I could never love an ebook. What about the feel of the pages in your hand? What about the smell of fresh ink? I love looking at book jackets, reading the back copy. Besides I’m an editor, for goodness sake. What would my friends think?
And then one night, my resolve wore thin, and lacking a new novel to read, I fell into the arms of the ereader. From that moment, I was hooked. I have since owned or tried out nearly every ereader software and almost every version of every ereader device from the SonyReader to the Kindle. Physical books and I now have an open relationship—I still buy and read art books, picture books, fantastically designed books, hardcovers and trade paperbacks written by authors whose work I love and want to collect. But now I buy ebooks in equal measure, check them out from the library, and even sometimes download a public domain version from the Internet. And I’m reading more than ever before. I love having an entire library of books at my fingertips, anytime, anywhere. I used to lug a full carry-on of books on vacation, terrified of being caught without something to read. Now I just plop my reader in the bag. And when I wake up in the middle of the night, finish a book, and am dying to read the sequel, I only have to wait five seconds for the download and I’m lost in fantasy land again.
So it may be no surprise that I don’t believe the digitization of books is as apocalyptic as so many in the industry seem to think it is. As with any major product evolution, there are some complicated issues to work out. What will we charge for ebooks? Currently, it seems Amazon’s discount pricing model (around $9.99 plus or minus) has set a standard, a standard that publishers feel is unsustainable. There’s movement to create an agency model, where the publisher sets the price based on demand (versus the wholesale model where retailers set the end price for consumers) and there’s a whole lot of negotiations yet to go before we settle on a final business model that everyone can stomach. We also have work to do on the consumer end. We need to educate our readers that books have a cost that is much greater than the paper they’re printed on. I have heard readers complaining that even $9.99 is highway robbery for something as simple as a digital file. But what they forget is that authors need to be paid fairly. The behind-the-scenes crew (editors, copyeditors, marketing managers, administrative support and so on and so forth) all need to make a living wage. Publishing companies have rent to pay and many have stockholders to answer to. Just because it’s a digital file, doesn’t mean the people involved in creating it shouldn’t have the right to make a profit.
And then there’s the question of DRM (Digital Rights Management). Everyone is terrified of piracy. But the truth is some amount of piracy will occur whether you refuse to join the digital revolution or not. J.K. Rowling has famously refused to allow Harry Potter to exist in digital form, and yet (if you’re willing to be unethical), downloading every single volume of the series is as simple as logging onto your favorite pirate file sharing network. The effect of her protest has only been to rob herself and her publisher of the profits they deserve.
Change is always scary. I can’t claim to see the future but I do know that anyone who stands in the way of progress is bound to be left behind. My belief is that books, physical books, will never go away completely. I see ebooks as a format choice, akin to the difference between hardcovers, trade books, and mass market paperbacks. Perhaps ebooks will become the dominant format. But there will always be value in owning a physical book, depending on your purpose as a reader. Recently college students tested the Kindle as a replacement for textbooks. From a cost and convenience factor, it seemed like a no-brainer. And yet the students gave the Kindle a thumbs-down. They missed being able to read their textbooks nonlinearly. They couldn’t dip in and out of the book as easily to check a fact or cram for a test. Their review resonates with my own experience. Any kind of book that I want to use as reference, a picture book I want to share with a little one, or a book that I love so much I want to read again and again, I’d rather have the physical version. I like to have it on my shelf and to be able to come back to it again and again, like an old friend. Physical books in the future may serve as much as a collectible object of value as a repository of information. An author can’t sign an ebook after all.
I tend to consume ebooks the same way I used to consume mass market paperbacks: fun thrillers, twisty mysteries, rom/coms—the kinds of books I gobble up in a few days and never think about again. So if my own reading habits are any guide, perhaps the rise of ebooks means the end of mass market paperbacks. But is that such a bad thing? Printed on ugly newsprint with cardstock covers, mass markets aren’t made to last. They have a fairly predictable price point of $7.99 and the profitability margin is tight. What they miss on profitability, they must make up for in volume. And if the demand ever dips below a threshold that doesn’t justify the cost of warehousing them, the books are declared out of print and tossed in a landfill en masse.
If we can eventually get the economics right and the demand is there, I would celebrate replacing those bricks of newsprint hogging space in warehouses and eventually landfills with a digital version that never goes out of print and can zip into your reading device at the click of a button.
Change in an industry that still uses a Depression-era business model is going to be anything but easy. Retailers and publishers are going to have to face up to some unpleasant paradigm shifts. But perhaps there will be as many upsides to the ebook-volution as there are downsides. On the backend, an e-book-based business eliminates the costly and inefficient system of returns that has plagued book publishing for decades. And perhaps ebooks will herald a new audience. How many more “reluctant” readers are out there who could be turned on to reading again by the innovations possible with a digital format? How many more foreign readers will now have access to books they couldn’t buy until now because the publisher had no distribution in their country? What if the ability to instantly purchase an ebook instantly, on a whim, means people read more than ever before?
Here at Wizards, we’ve finally joined the e-book-volution. We have many books now available in the ebook format, including the very first series I edited here, which has been out of print for years. Give one a try. But I’ll warn you. You might get hooked…