Of Universal E-Book Formats and Midlist Writers

Two of the e-book heavyweights, Apple and Amazon, sell electronic books through their own stores. But neither is compatible on the other device. Many publishers are pushing for the EPUB format, which is an open standard. Sony has shifted to EPUB for its e-readers.

E-books are too often device-specific. This means that when the device dies, the e-books die with them. Unless you buy a newer upgraded version of the device. If you decide to switch to another device, thanks to a combination of DRM and format incompatibility, your new device often won’t be able to read the e-books from the old device.There are format converters and DRM-strippers, but your average person will not resort those methods. Only the tech-inclined will do that.

All of this talk is also about how e-books (once a universal format is settled upon) are going to wholly transform book publishing.

Eileen Gittins of Blurb, which helps authors and companies self-publish, predicts e-books will make up half of all sales in five years. In 2009, the global publishing business, including print and digital, was worth $71 billion, according to PriceWaterhouseCoopers.

Until e-reading devices come down to about $100, you won’t see a mass migration to e-books. And even then it’s going to be slow. Why? Again, the new technology doesn’t necessarily do something better than the old technology. The transition will be much slower to digital reading, and the printed book will never go away. The book does what it does extremely well.

Long Play records (LPs)s were better than cylinders. Eight-tracks were portable. Cassettes were portable but didn’t have that goofy shift when one track “ran out” and went to the next track that eight-tracks had, and they were recordable. You could make a tape of the songs you wanted to listen to and thus was born the mixtape. CDs produced better sound and clarity than cassettes, and didn’t go on to produce the pops, cracks, and hiss that eventually befalls the LP-listening experience. Nor did you have to get up and flip the CD to “the other side” like did a cassette or LP. MP3s allowed people to put their entire record collection on their computer, and share them in ways far more convenient than CDs. Then came the iPod, and the portable music player had been perfected for the digital age. Now high-bandwidth Internet access is allowing streaming of music (and movies) to gain a foothold.

“We’re seeing now in book publishing what had happened previously in the music publishing industry. And that is, a massive disruption of the business model,” she told Reuters.

This ignores one big difference between the music and book business: people have always needed a separate device of some kind (record player, eight-track player, cassette player, CD player, computer or MP3 player) in order to listen to music. Books are a self-contained portable technology. You can buy one and (as long as you have sufficient light) read it anywhere you want for as long as you want. You can exchange them with friends and family without fear of running into problems with incompatible formats.

The problem is that the cost of printing is a minor cost of publishing whereas developing work with an author and marketing it consume the lion’s share of costs.

That means, she said, that the book industry will become more like the movie business. “The book publishing industry is becoming more blockbuster focused,” she said.

With regards to the big publishing houses, the book industry is already like the movie business. Midlist writers have been squeezed out from the big publishing houses for more than a few years now. What’s happened since the big recession is that this process has accelerated at a much higher rate.

From a 2004 article in Salon, “The confessions of a semi-successful writer,”

“Hardcover publishers lose money on most of their titles and depend greatly on a few bestsellers … the large publishers are increasingly inclined to concentrate their resources on books that have the greatest potential to become bestsellers. Like Hollywood, book publishing has become a business driven by the quest for blockbusters.”

— Phil Mattera, op. cit.

I highly recommend reading the whole article, It contains all the nitty-gritty details of what life is like for a midlist author; the vast majority of authors (people not named King, Steele, Sheldon, Grisham, Patterson, or Dan Brown, etc.).

Since printing and distribution are one small portion of the total cost, it’s going to be the indie presses and indie bookstores that keep midlist writers afloat. The blockbuster model requires big advances for writers, big promotional budgets for marketing departments, and big print runs for Borders, Wal-Mart, and Barnes & Noble. E-books will have a negligible impact on this model.

But they could easily help the midlist. They could easily offset some of the printing and distribution costs of small scale print runs and marketing budgets, thereby keeping midlist writers afloat. Midlist writers are ripe for what Seth Godin called “leading your own tribe.”

If you want to write the fortunes for the cookies that don’t exist any more, you may need to make your own organization, lead your own tribe and hire yourself.

Now, all I gotta do is get that book published and start my own tribe. Who’s willing to join me? 🙂

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One thought on “Of Universal E-Book Formats and Midlist Writers

  1. Pingback: Michigan Bloggers! Read Some or Add Yours | Michigan Literary Network…Motown Writers Network

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