Friday, September 03, 2010

Dave Zeltserman on ebooks

This first appeared in Kevin's Corner, Kevin Tipple

From: Kevin's Corner

Guest Blog--E-Books and The Future by Dave Zeltserman
Please join me in welcome Dave to Kevin's Corner with his thoughts on E-books and the future of publishing.

There’s a lot of fear and loathing right now among authors and publishers regarding eBooks. Is this the beginning of the end for print books? The death of publishers? Will eBooks be a boon or the final stake in the heart for the midlist author? Nobody out there has a clue how all this is going to shake out. I certainly don’t, but I’m going to throw out some random thoughts on the subject and see where that leads. I’ll also be tossing out a few predictions. If I toss out enough, I’ll get lucky with one and will later proclaim myself the next Nostradamus!

First, eBooks are conceptually brilliant. Have one device replace 1000s of physical books, being able to buy books at the touch of a button, easily magnifying the text so those of us with declining eyesight can read without magnifying glasses. All this is great, but there are problems lurking in this. Right now the cost of eBook readers (Kindles, nooks, iPads, etc.) is between $139 and $829. This gets worse when you think that each reading member of the family will need a device. So the old paradigm was you buy a book and share it among family and friends; new paradigm, each family member has to buy an expensive eBook reader before they can share their books. This becomes even more problematic as eBook readers break, are lost or become obsolete. Think of it, you lose your eBook reader, you lose your library, at least until you replace it. You drop your eBook reader while on vacation, you lose your library and all the books you wanted to read. You might not even have to lose or break your eBook reader to lose your library. A glitch in their software might lose your library for you. Can’t happen? Hah! Happened to me and the tunes I bought for my iPod from Apple. And there’s little doubt that technology and the marketplace will march on and your eBook reader will at some point (probably a lot sooner than you ever imagined) become obsolete (think 8-track tapes, cassettes, etc.) and you will need to replace both your reader and library. Not going to happen? Ebook formats will always be supported by the next generation of eBook readers? If you believe that I’ve got some swamp land to sell you. Now some people are predicting that eBook reader prices are going to come down dramatically, which leads to my first two predictions.

(Prediction 1) Dedicated eBook readers, like Kindle and Nook, will try to lower their prices to gain marketshare, but they will go the way of the 8-track as consumers gravitate towards multifunction devices like iPads, which will not be lowering their prices substantially.

(Prediction 2) You think ATD is bad now, just wait until we have a generation of readers constantly interrupting their reading to check Facebook and email.

I can’t see the Kindle and Nook surviving, not when consumers can buy devices like an iPad which gives them also movies, games, and thousands of other applications, especially websurfing. Plus the iPad solves the biggest problem dedicated eReaders like the Kindle and Nook have now, mainly graphics, which children's picture books and textbooks need.

How are eBooks going to affect bookstores? I’ve read predictions that the tipping point is 25 percent, and bookstores can’t survive, and that this will happen by the end of 2011. Namely, once 25% of the book buyers have moved to eBooks, that will be the death of bookstores, and enough iPads will be given out as Christmas presents by 2011 that we’ll hit that 25% number. I don’t know if that’s true or not, but there’s no doubt that eBooks are putting pressure on bookstores. Amazon announced earlier that they’re selling more eBooks than hardcovers. For anyone who thought Amazon was stretching the truth, Harper just announced that for the first week of Laura Lippman’s latest book, they sold roughly 4800 ebooks compared to 4000 hardcovers. We’re in the midst of a recession, and this is not making it any easier for bookstores to survive. It would be a very sad cultural loss for bookstores to disappear, and as an author, it would be devastating. This leads to my next two predictions:

(Prediction 3) Large publishing is starting to diverge where they’ll be publishing in print only books for the large box stores, everything else will be digital only.

(Prediction 4) Small independent bookstores that can integrate themselves into the their neighborhoods will survive and flourish, and will sell mostly books from small independent presses.

Over the last year I saw a statistic that the large box stores (Walmart, Target, Costco, etc.) sell 60% of all books. I don’t know if this is still true, but it sure seems as if the large publishers are rapidly increasing their blockbuster only mentality. With the chain stores struggling and the increasing pressure caused by eBooks, I see them only printing the so-called blockbusters that they can continue to sell to these box stores, and all other books will be put out only as digital with maybe small POD runs. On the other hand, the independent publishers will increasingly publish the books that these large houses ignore, and these are the books that will excite readers sick of the same old formulaic blockbusters being constantly recycled by the large houses. These more exciting independent press books will help allow smart independent bookstores to flourish during these uncertain times. But what about publishers in general? On the one hand they must love the distribution costs associated with eBooks ($0) as opposed to the high distribution costs associated with print books. But here’s the thing, if readers get sick of these large blockbusters, or stop buying them from box stores and instead buy them as eBooks, then these large publishers are dead. There’s no reason in that scenario for bestselling authors to cut them in. They’ll do it themselves. Which leads me to my next predictions.

(Prediction 5) The large publishers who continue to follow their current blockbuster only mentality will die.

(Prediction 6) The smaller, independent publishes who keep publishing the books they love instead of chasing after blockbusters like the big six, will flourish as they form a symbiotic relationship with like-minded small independent bookstores.

So this begs the question why wouldn’t the authors being published by the smaller houses do it themselves like the big boys will? Simple, the support by these publishers and small bookstores are critical to us smaller known authors. You look at the bestselling crime authors today, and few of them would’ve made it without small bookstores handselling them for years and developing them a readership. That’s what has been happening to me over the last few years as bookseller who discover my books recommend them to their customers. This is going to be needed more than ever for writers in the eBook free-for-all that’s coming.

So these are some of my thoughts and predictions. While I think it’s clear things are going to be changing rapidly, I do see a glimmer of hope. Is #6 wishful thinking or an honest prediction? We’ll see.

Dave Zeltserman lives in the Boston area with his wife, Judy, and his short crime fiction has been published in many venues. His third novel, Small Crimes, was named by NPR as one of the 5 best crime and mystery novels of 2008. His novel, Pariah, was named by the Washington Post as one of the best books of 2009. Killer, the 3rd book in his 'man out of prison' noir trilogy was published in the US this May. His most recent book, The Caretaker of Lorne Field, is out now, which Publisher's Weekly in a starred review calls "a superb mix of humor and horror" and Newsdays calls "a delicisious horror-ish novel". His upcoming novel, Outsourced, is currently in development by Impact Pictures and Constantin Fil


Peter L. Winkler said...

Mr. Zeltserman may be a fine writer, but he's a terrible business analyst.

Independent bookstores have been going in the same direction as the family farm for some time. There's no reason to predict a reversal of this trend.

Small presses will stay small and the big 6 may experience some contractions, but they're not going to become extinct, because successfull distribution of entertainment, whether a book, movie or video game requires mucho dinero in promotion. Small companies don't have the capital to make bestsellers.

The blockbuster is a function of the existence of mass media and communications technology. There is a star system in just about every field, not just entertainment. Their are even celebrity architects, doctors and scientists.

Ebooks may supplant print books, but many aspects of publishing that some are predicting the imminent demise of are constants that will still exist in a predominantly e-centric book business.

The future will look a lot like the present.

Dave Zeltserman said...

Peter, the beauty of making predictions is if I bomb out on all of them nobody will know for years. Maybe I'll hit one of them, maybe your outlook will be closer to what will come to pass. The only thing I think we know for sure is that publishing is changing rapidly and that nobody knows what the future holds. I am probably coming from this at a different perspective than you. There's about a dozen or so independent bookstores I talk to, some frequently, some less so, and I'm seeing quite a few of them holding their own, some even thriving in the current environment, and they're pretty optimistic about their future, and their reasons make sense to me. As an author, I can also see the way the large houses are moving more towards blockbuster only mentality--not only with the way they're reacting to my books but also to some very good authors I know. If their bestsellers move mostly to eBooks, why would these bestselling authors stay with these publishing houses at 20-40% royalties when they could make 70% doing it themselves?

Anyway, here's Davids Morrell's interesting perspective on the future of publishing (and he also sees independent bookstores thriving):

Anonymous said...

A thoughtful speculation, which I enjoyed. I'm leaning toward the idea that electronic publishing is simply another medium. It gives publishers another way to sell books. There will be an increasing range of delivery options, which will ultimately benefit publishers and authors. I am pleased that publishers now have more ways to deliver my books to more readers.

Anonymous said...

I should add that Ebooks and POD publishing virtually eliminate returns, which are the bane of print publishing (and the bane of authors). It seems likely that the established publishers will ultimately do very well, much better than at present, thanks to these changes.

Kevin R. Tipple said...

I'd like to publicly thank Dave again for stopping by my little corner of the internet world. I also thank Ed Gorman for showing the piece off again and expanding the range of readers.

Thank you both very much.

Anonymous said...

I found this discussion on DorothyL.

I started my blog, Murder By Type, after I read Leighton Gage and Timothy Hallinan on the plight of mid-list authors. My goal in starting the blog was to review books by authors who get little, if any, support from their publishers. Both authors believe that blogs and reviews posted on Amazon, etc, are the best way to shine some light on authors who aren't Stephen King or James Patterson.

I deplore the Kindle and its kind because those who rave about the wonders of carrying an entire library around don't address the cost of the device. A library card is free. What families have $200.00 or more to spend on an e-reader for each member of the family?

I have three children. Books traveled from oldest to youngest and back again. When each moved out, they took the books that meant the most, each according to taste or emotional connection. They give each other out of print books or books they have found in second-hand stores, always books that never made it on anyone's bestseller list. A lot of time and effort goes into their individual searches for the perfect book for a sibling. Then they swap them around.

As Mr.Gorman mentions none of that is possible with e-readers. And what about the very important rite of passage - the first library card?

Like everything else, there is planned obsolescence built into e-readers? How else would companies make their money?


Matt said...

Richard, I think e-books are more than just another medium. Why? Because they change the way the book is consumed. (er..."read." :)

The reading experience will change not just in terms of shorter novels and a return to the novella - both due to our shrinking attention span - but also to emphasize more TV-style serial stories. Shorter bites that are part of long-term plot lines about characters we get to know over episodes. An approach that's like comics, too.

We'll likely be grooving e-book readers in the same way we watch TV and internet now. But, um, everything will be found on the same device. Something like the iPad. (Sorry, Kindle. You really do suck.)

And e-books won't be $27.99 or even $9.99. They'll be $0.99, like an app, for each stand-alone episode.

Naturally, this direction will change the entire style of writing as well.

Further, e-books will be forced to incorporate a more visual multimedia approach to keep folks looking at their pages. Otherwise we'll get bored, drift off to Facebook, etc, etc...

Now all that said, it's not quite so simple that easier delivery equates to benefits for publishers and authors. Just look at music and the decline of that industry.

So, as with music, we'll see more authors and publishers. The predicted Tower of Babel. Same as with the overabundance of blogs now. But we'll have less mid-listers.

Speaking of, which e-books will reach Middle America? Hmm... What e-books will they read? Probably the ones with recognizable, corporate-approved names and authors. Corporate tie-ins to existing characters. (But not fan fiction - sorry, Slash Fictioners. Keep that man-on-man Kirk/Spoke love burning...)

It'll be just like we've already seen with music in the age of myspace and popular bands with few original ideas.

So how does a creative author get through the muck?

Well, this ties in to Dave Zeltserman's point on local retailers. Without a strong local retailer (physical or, I'm sorry to say, online) to champion a new author's work and help promote his/her name , it'll be much, much harder for the average writer to reach any sort of national audience. They need that sort of local/regional support to build momentum to get national recognition. Unless they have connections, nepotism, or win the author lottery.

So. Will there still be bookstores? Yea, verily. But Decentralization is the key. They'll be small. I have two vinyl-only music shops I can walk to. Both are totally small. And both rule. Low overhead. Owner-operated. Know their clientele. Supported by folks who are really into music and bands. Not supported by the loathsome dabblers who buy Top 40 on iTunes.

But this movement is going to leave Borders Music in the cold, baby. Siberia.

Big box bookstores are going away to be replaced by e-stores. And the local shops should be okay.

All of which, I know, is pretty much what Dave said better. And more succinct.

RJR said...

Sounds to me like Beth is the one I want to say is making sense. As a reader and one time collector (before my divorce), I hate the whole idea of e-books. And as we are in the midst of a recession, it'll be a while before people start buying their kids Kindles and iPads for birthdays and Christmas. Abd gby the time those kids are old enough to switch from hard copies to e-book with some kind of reader or "app"--another "word" I hate--iPad and Kindle will be goner, long since replaced.

Hard copy or e-books, there must be writers to write them. So I see my life as a reader being more affected by e-books than my life as a writer.

But I don't like it, either way.


kinoshi said...
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