E-publishing and the race to the bottom

As I prepare to release another book I find myself grappling once more with the question of what to do about e-books, a question that becomes more relevant with each and every passing day, as more and more readers eschew the printed world altogether to switch to electronic versions instead. The thing is that while a part of me would love to join this trend, there is another one that can’t help but to hesitate.

To begin with there is the fact of just how fragmented this market happens to be. You can choose a publisher, have your book printed and distributed by signing a single contract in such a way that you know what you are getting, but when it comes to e-books each bookstore requires what amounts to a different agreement, with most outlets claiming for themselves the right to modify the terms of the agreement. This creates a maze of shifting legalese few self-published authors can realistically hope to untangle, or even keep track of, where the possibility that the evolving contracts would at some point collide with each other cannot be entirely ruled out… and the more distribution options you seek, the higher that risk becomes.

Issue one and a half –and closely related to the previous one– is that there is no clear cut definition of what a retailer’s services are supposed to entail with regards to their customers. This means that, in their constant quest to offer those the best possible experience, and to edge out the competition, retailers keep granting themselves additional rights after the fact (such as library-like loans)… whether the author wants them to, or not. Call me old-fashioned, but this is a practice that rubs me the wrong way.

A second problem has to do with piracy. Simply put, DRM (Digital Rights Management) is both annoying and ineffective, but at the same time there is no getting around the fact that –unlike musicians, who can hope to make up at least some lost sales via live shows, or movies and TV shows, which are produced by major corporations that still operate based largely a business model that has deep roots in the pre-digital era, one that sees digital distribution as the icing on the cake, rather than as its bread and butter– authors are basically stuck with book sales as their only source of revenue. It takes months, if not years, to write a book, the royalties per copy are not that great, and at least for unknown authors there is no way to recoup these losses. Releasing a digital version makes piracy a whole lot easier (on the other hand, it is not an infallible deterrent, and failing to provide one makes piracy the only option for those who are interested in the book and that might otherwise have purchased a copy instead).

The third issue is, to a large extent, one of the authors’ own making… and by that I mean that it is one that has been caused by self-published authors, as traditional publishers apparently do know better. This one has to do with the fact that, in an attempt to attract some additional eyeballs, aspiring authors have decided to resort to the true and tried method of cutting prices. With e-publishing being basically free in terms of traditional costs, this is extremely easy to do, as the expenses are all but impossible to tally. The problem is that this approach has given rise to something that amounts to a race to the bottom, and the fact that you don’t see the big boys –the ones who would actually stand a chance in terms of benefiting from an economy of scale approach– following a similar path should be enough to give aspiring authors pause. Unfortunately that hasn’t happened. No, it’s not that the big boys are greedy –or rather it is not just that the big boys are greedy– but rather that they know their business well enough to recognize folly when they see it.

Simply put, by cutting their own prices to the point where their books are unlikely to be profitable, authors have also created a vicious circle in which a more realistic pricing scheme –one that keeps royalties more or less were they would have with traditional publishing, while getting rid of any associated costs– is unlikely to get you anywhere. Sure, authors with a high degree of name recognition can avoid this particular trap, but for unknown authors that is not always feasible, and that in turns makes e-books less profitable than printed ones.

Yes, there are e-books that have become successful in spite of this pricing folly, but those are exceptions, and I do believe that this pricing practice is going to come back to bite us.

And finally a mention to the fact that, when reduced to files, books come across as extremely expensive, especially on a byte by byte basis. This comparison may seem like comparing apples to oranges (or rather apples to orangutans), but there is a popular perception that ‘less work’ goes into a book than into a movie or a song, so why should the finished product be that expensive? In the printed world there are long established standards that serve to offer a measure of protection, but in the digital realm this perception does get in the way.

Anyway, the end result is that I am still on the fence. Yes, I would love to have my books released as e-books, I realize that –as much as I love the printed page– this is the wave of the future, and that it has some significant advantages, but at the same time I am also aware that we are still experiencing some teething issues in that regard, and I’m still not entirely sure of how am I suppose to work around those.

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