Why digital publishing didn’t catch on 10 years ago–and why it might now.

[August 2010] John Rosenman tackled this subject a few days ago, and I suspect others may in the days to come. Here are my rambling thoughts on some recent shifts in the publishing landscape.

Ten years ago, when I was first starting to write for publication, I attended a local writers’ conference. This was a few weeks after Stephen King published “Riding the Bullet” as an e-Book exclusive and sold half a million copies of the $2.50 downloadable novella in the first few days. The editors and agents from New York who were guests at the conference could talk about little else. This was the beginning of the end for printed books, they predicted, and the writing on the wall for the traditional publishing model. Authors could circumvent the big publishers and sell directly to their readers.

I felt my heart sink. I was looking forward to the day when I would hold in my hands a copy of a book that I’d written. To listen to these experts, that day might never come. By the time I finished the novel I was working on and found a publisher, everything would be digital and the only copy I’d ever have would be ephemeral. Pixels on a screen.

King’s second experiment in digital publishing, a serial novel called The Plant that he was writing on the fly and aborted after six installments, was hailed as proof that the public wasn’t ready for exclusively digital books. “Riding the Bullet” had been a fluke.

However, most people missed the point of The Plant experiment. King was testing the honor system to see whether people would voluntarily pay for a book when they had the option of downloading it for free. His experiment proved what we already know based on the music industry’s experiences: some people will pony up the cash for works of art and some won’t. (Back then, Napster was the tool favored by Internet pirates. After being forced into bankruptcy, it’s now an iTunes-like service where you can buy digital music. Ironic, no?)

In the case of The Plant, at least 75% of those who downloaded installments paid the requisite $1 until late in the game. The experiment was a huge financial success for King—like printing money, he said when he published his ledgers for the six installments. He netted nearly half a million dollars after paying for web hosting services and a few print ads. None of this money went to a publisher.

The take-away message from this experiment might have been different if King had simply forced people to pay up front. You know, the traditional purchasing model? In my opinion, the press blew this story. The Plant didn’t fail because people were unwilling to pay for downloadable reading material; it failed because the novel petered out for King, just as it had the first time he worked on it back in the 1980s. Again, the take-away message might have been different if King had tried this with a completed work instead of one he was publishing in installments as he wrote it.

Why does electronic publishing stand a better chance of catching on now, a decade later? In my opinion, it’s because of inexpensive and readily available eBook reading devices. In 2000, if you wanted to read an eBook you either had to print it out (which you couldn’t do with “Riding the Bullet”—the pdf was locked to prevent that) or sit at your PC or laptop. A lot of people, myself included, didn’t like reading for any length of time while sitting in front of a computer.

However, the Kindle and the Nook and other such devices, including the iPhone and its kid brother, the iPod Touch, have changed the game. You can now read an electronic book anywhere you can read a book, with a couple of exceptions. You have to put your eBook reader away when a plane begins to land. Some coffee houses that have rules against computer use (to increase patron turnover) treat Kindles the same as any other computer (these places have no similar rules to prevent people from reading books all day long). And, finally, it’s probably not advisable to read from a Kindle in the bathtub. I have a few soggy paperbacks to show you if you wonder why, as well as a limited edition Dan Simmons chapbook that I forgot was in my copy of Summer of Night. It slipped out from between the pages while I was reading in the tub and took a bath of its own.

There was a panel on electronic publishing at ApolloCon in Houston earlier this year. The average age of the panelists was probably somewhere around my own age. Pushing fifty. Most panelists admitted to owning an eBook reader of one type or another, and most were okay with reading from the device. What surprised me, though, was that few of them could imagine spending more than $1 or $2 for an electronic book, and most of them used the readers for primarily public domain or otherwise free books.

My philosophy is different. At a certain point in my life, I realized that there were few books I would ever re-read. There are simply too many new books to justify re-reading old ones, with a few notable exceptions. I’ll probably reread The Lord of the Rings every decade or so, for example.

Amazon’s marketplace and eBay have essentially destroyed the resale value of hardcover books. Within a week of publication, a $25 hardcover generally goes for $15 used. After a month, that falls to less than $10—much less in most cases. For a while, I would buy a book, read it quickly, and then resell it. My net cost: usually $10-$12. This wasn’t driven by financial incentives, but rather to cut down on the number of books in our house. We never have to worry that the house will be blown away by a hurricane. Why clutter the shelves with books that I’ll never read again? However, if I was only going to get $3 or $4 for a book, it was hardly worth the effort of listing and shipping it.

Therefore, I have no objection to spending $9.99 for an electronic book for my Kindle. That’s approximately my net cost for a quick turnaround hardcover and I’m not forced to read the book quickly. Plus the book is mine to keep forever, without it taking up any real estate. I tell you, if there was an easy way to scan all the books on my shelves into my Kindle the way I have almost every CD I own on my iPod, I’d be a happy man.

I’ve fully embraced digital reading. Every time I request an ARC to review for Onyx Reviews or elsewhere, I tell the publicist I’d happily accept an electronic galley. I have no idea what to do with ARCs when I’m done with them. I’m loath to throw them in the recycle bin, so they just take up more shelf space. A few publishers—very few at the moment—have sent me pdf galleys.

I’m reading classics that I always felt I should read, but never got around to. I take advantage when publishers offer free copies of a contemporary author’s backlist as a way of expanding the author’s audience—I discovered Charlie Huston that way, and now buy his new books as they come out. I even read on my iPod Touch using the free Kindle app. I like the way I can turn pages with the flip of a thumb. Since I always have the device with me, if I find myself with time to kill I have a novel in my pocket. I’m currently reading Jules Verne’s The Mysterious Island. It’s taking me a long time, because that’s not my primary reading, but I’m working through it. I might never have read the book otherwise.

If an old fogey like me can become a Kindle Konvert, then just about anyone can. While I still value books as tangible objects, and I believe that there are certain books I’ll want to buy in hardcover, nine times out of ten I’m more interested in the words than the package.

That’s not to say that I hope I won’t someday hold a copy of my first novel in my hands. But my ego-driven need to hold a physical book with my name on the cover has been satisfied a couple of times already, so I guess I could live with an eBook novel. I may have to.


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