The night is coming. The night that will never end.
Board the windows. Lock the doors and push our beautiful, heavy bookshelves against them. Hopefully we prepared enough, we stocked up on canned peas and sacks of potatoes and stacks of mass market paperbacks and hardbacks, some of them used and old and bound in cloth rather than shitty cheap crappy cardboard.
Outside, the wind howls like a cliched banshee scream.
They are coming, and we fear it will not matter how well we prepared, for they come on silent wings, their numbers are legion, and they don’t use doors, or windows. Like dire fairies of data they come through the walls, through the very air itself, at the speed of light.
And they want to eat. “BOOOOOOKS….” they moan. Because they want to eat our books, all our beautiful books.
The ebooks have escaped the labs. OH. MY. GOD.
There’s a lot of opinion out there about ebooks and digital distribution of books. Lots of arguing and fretting and arguing. Also, fretting. Every day I see folks on Facebook and Twitter (and Google+ for that matter, but not every day, because who goes there much anymore?) bemoaning the very existence of ebooks. “YOU’LL TAKE MY ACTUAL REAL SOLID MADE OF PAPER BOOKS THAT ARE REAL BOOKS FROM MY HANDS WHEN YOU PRY THEM FROM MY COLD DEAD FINGERS!!!”
I get it. I love books. When I was a younger gadabout about town, my friends and I had a slogan: “Babes, books, and beer. If one is missing, it ain’t Heaven.” I love the feel of a book, its weight in my hands, the brisk flip of pages, the smell of knowledge itself.
I really love nice books, leather-bound tomes with gilt-edged pages, die-cut masterworks of cover design, or simple solid slabs of literature bracketed in rough cloth boards. But I love your basic friendly mass market paperback too. When I was younger, I was positively anal about my books I loved them so much; in junior high my English teacher borrowed my pristine Fellowship of the Ring paperback and when she returned it it looked like she’d used it as her primary weapon in a battle against the forces of Mordor. I still haven’t forgiven her. And though I’ve lightened up over the years, it’s still often nearly impossible to tell if I’ve read a book or not. When I’m done, they usually look brand new.
So yeah, I get it. I don’t want books to go away either. You know what I really love about books, though?
I love story. I’m a narrative addict. I love knowledge. I love learning. I love going places I’ll never be able to go, meeting people I’ll never meet, saving the world sometimes. I love chains of words that leave the page to weave through my mind, entertaining me, teaching me, changing me.
That’s the most important stuff. And all that is in ebooks, too.
Ebooks are good. They’re good for readers, and they’re really good for writers. They may even be good for bookstores, if booksellers adapt and take advantage of the opportunity that has come their way.
For readers, there are physical advantages. A few months ago, I re-read George R.R. Martin’s A Game of Thrones to refresh my memory before watching the (truly exceptional) TV series. This is, literally, one of my favorite books, and I have a first edition hardback inscribed personally to me. One of the treasures of my shelf. In spite of its hallowed, and valuable, status, I don’t have any reservations about reading it. I’m no longer neurotic about books. If it gets a ding here and a fingerprint there, I’m fine with it, because it’s a book, and I believe in reading books (just as I believe in kids playing with toys rather than leaving them in the packaging to be “mint”). In fact, it was this very volume I originally read, and fell in love with, quite a few years ago.
So I could have read it again. But instead I read an ebook version on my iPhone. And it was a great experience. Whereas the hardback is a big beast of a book weighing several pounds, my iPhone is thin and light. I can hold it in one hand and tap the screen with my thumb to turn pages. I can lay comfortably on my side in bed, palming it, and not get tired.
I can read comfortably in the dark, using the setting which makes the text gray on a black screen. I can adjust the size of the text and the brightness till they’re just right for my eyes.
I always have my iPhone with me, and with it I have, literally, a library in my pocket. If I get stuck in a line at the post office, I have something to read. Flat tire on the side of the road, something to read. Waiting for someone at a cafe, something to read.
And when I want something new to read, or something specific, I’m not at the mercy of a bookshop’s inventory, nor do I have to go anywhere to buy it. If I’m in line somewhere and finish reading book 1 in a great series, I can instantly download book 2 and start reading it on the spot.
A few weeks back, a friend got a very animated discussion going on his Facebook wall about the horrors of ebooks and the blessed sacredness of physical books. One commenter said: “We had a blackout 3 days ago. After lighting candles we decided to read books. It took me 3 seconds to open a paperback & read. My girlfriend forgot to charge her iPad. Checkmate.”
I pointed out that this scenario very well could have gone like this:
“We had a blackout three days ago. Without TV or computer, we decided to read books. It took my girlfriend three seconds to turn on her iPad and read. I’d forgotten to buy candles and couldn’t see my paperback. She read for nine hours straight in spite of the darkness, finishing three books in the series she’s reading (one of which she didn’t have until she downloaded it on the spot). I sat in the darkness and cried. Checkmate.”
I’ve also seen people say things like “I can read my paperback in the tub. You can’t do that with a Kindle/Nook/iPad.” But the fact is, on several occasions I have read on my iPhone in the tub. I just took the precaution of zipping it securely into a ziplock sandwich bag first. I’ve read sitting outside in a roaring thunderstorm the same way.
But there’s one benefit for readers that few people think of, and that’s the fact that digital distribution is vastly expanding the actual numbers of books readily available to us. The way that traditional publishing has worked is that books are published, then after a while (usually within a couple of years) they go out of print, unless the book sells well enough to stay in print (and publishers aren’t great at helping that happen). So most midlist authors write for years, publishing book after book, watching older books fall out of print even as, hopefully, their newer works are published.
Then you, as a reader, discover a writer whose work you love. To put a name on it (a name you should seek out if it’s unfamiliar), let’s say the writer is Joe Lansdale. Joe’s been pretty prolific over the years, and his books are terrific. You read one and are instantly addicted. Gotta have more Lansdale. Gotta have all the Lansdale.
Good luck with that. Because as great as Joe’s stuff is, it hasn’t caught fire like, say, Stephen King’s has. A lot of it is out of print. If you want those books, you need to find copies out in the mercantile wilderness, online or in used book shops or in libraries. And some of them, being rare and collectable, are gonna cost quite a bit. And when you buy those used books, Joe gets nothing. That may or may not matter to you, but it does to Joe, and it does to readers like me, who really like for the artists who create the stuff we love to benefit from their work as much as they can.
That’s the way things have been because it hasn’t been economically possible for publishers to keep all their books in print over time. Until now. From now on, books don’t have to go out of print, ever. New books will be published and stay published. Old books, like Joe’s out-of-print classics, will hopefully gradually return in ebook form, and never be lost again.
Readers also have more new books to choose from thanks to all the self publishing going on. Yes, a lot of shit is being published, so you have to be careful what you buy. But you know what? A lot of shit was already being published by traditional publishers, and you already had to be careful what you buy. But now, in addition to the worthy books published by the big publishers, there are lots of worthy books being self published by writers who haven’t been able to sell a book to those publishers. Yes, the fact that a book has passed muster with a major publisher is a positive sign, but it’s no guarantee; we’ve all bought books that have gone through the gantlet of the publishing process but turn out to be utter shit. And we’ve all seen the stories about writers who couldn’t get the time of day from most publishers but then went on to enormous success with the very books that editors wouldn’t buy. Self publishers like Amanda Hocking and Joe Konrath are making huge money on books that were turned down flat by the official gatekeepers of literature.
How do you find the good books in the sea of crap? Simple. Read reviews, both professional and reader reviews like those on Amazon. Then, if you find a book that sounds like you might like it, grab the sample chapters you can get for free and read them. I mean, come on, how do you choose books in a bookstore? You see a nice cover. You read the cover copy and the blurbs. Then, maybe, you open the book and read some of it, to see if the writer actually knows what the hell he’s doing and if you care what he’s doing. All the information you have available to you in a bookstore, except perhaps a personal recommendation from an employee, is available to you online. Cover art, cover copy, blurbs, sample to read. Plus you have immediate access to reviews.
(By the way, those reader reviews are not only helpful to readers, they are crucial to writers. So if you read something you like, please review it at Amazon and/or Barnes & Noble and at sites like Goodreads and LibraryThing. Doesn’t have to be a lengthy thing, a few nice lines will do the trick. Your review may help that writer make his rent next month, making it more likely he’ll be able to write more cool stuff for you to enjoy.)
For writers, the ability to bypass traditional publishing via digital self publishing is huge. It means they no longer have to rely on the whims and tastes of a few cloistered editors to make their books available to readers (and more importantly, they don’t have to worry about the marketing people who the editors now have to kowtow to to even get a book off the ground). It means they have a far better chance of actually making a living with their writing, because a traditional royalty of 10% really sucks compared to the 70-80% you get publishing your own stuff. It means they have control of their own packaging, and no longer get stuck (sometimes with horrible results) with cover art they have no say in. And it means, as noted previously, their books never go out of print. Not only does that mean readers will always have access to them, it means the authors will keep making money off them for the rest of their lives. An author’s body of work will snowball over time, producing more and more income as more material is available for new readers to discover, allowing them to further discover already existing books.
What does a writer lose by not publishing through one of the big publishers?
In-house editing. And that’s undeniably a fatal flaw in many self-published books. A lot of people need to be edited and aren’t making sure that they are before slapping their books online. But that’s not a failure of ebooks or digital distribution or self-publishing, that’s a failure by those writers to make certain their books are worth our attention. Honestly, there are writers who sell millions of copies I could say the same thing about, and they go through the big publishers. But you don’t have to go through the “Big Six” (Random House, Simon & Schuster, HarperCollins, Macmillan, Penguin and Hachette) to be edited, you can hire a freelance editor to help you.
Design. It’s important for a book to look as nice as it can, and the Big Six have teams of professionals who do that work all day long. But it’s really not that tough to come up with a decent cover. A lot of writers do it themselves, either with public domain imagery or artwork licensed or donated by professional artists, and, as with editing services, you can hire a designer if you’re not up to the work. And, again, you have creative control. As a general rule, big publishers really don’t give a flying fuck if the author likes the cover of their book or not. You’re just the writer. What do you know?
Promotion. Bwahahahaha…I’m sorry. Heh. Couldn’t keep that in. Promotion. Yeah. Like posters and ads and paid placement on new release tables in bookstores and (heh) author tours. Right. Promotion. Are you Stephen King? Jo Rowling? No? Good luck with that whole promotion thing. You know who big publishers actually promote? Writers who have proven they don’t need to be promoted. King and Rowling get millions of dollars in promo money to sell their books, which will sell millions of copies anyway. Most writers are lucky to get a few hundred bucks reimbursed for printing costs they incur while promoting their own book. If you’re a writer published by the Big Six, unless you are extraordinarily lucky, you will be doing all your own promotion. Just like you have to if you’re self-published.
Then, there’s the biggie, the absolute advantage that big publishing has always enjoyed…
Distribution. Before the ebook apocalypse, to get your books into bookstores where readers could find them, you pretty much had to be published by a “reputable” publisher. Sure, some people self-published, but most of them paid thousands of dollars to print the stacks of their books that mildewed in their garage, unsold, unread. To successfully self-publish you had to bust your mother fucking ass and sell sell sell yourself, trying to get placement in bookstores. Self-publishing was ineffective and expensive and widely considered the path of those “not good enough” to be discovered by “real” publishers.
And yes, even now the Big Six have the advantage when it comes to getting your books physically into stores. But that advantage isn’t as pronounced as it used to be, because, honestly, there aren’t as many stores. Borders died, taking with it hundreds of stores that could have been carrying a writer’s books. Barnes & Noble is still around, but paying a lot of attention to the Nook and their own ebook sales, while severely cutting back on how many books they’re actually stocking in their stores. If your new book is published by one of the big publishers now, there’s a damned good chance it won’t even make it into B&N stores. Then there are the independent bookstores, wonderful wonderful indies, all over this land, who may or may not pick your book to sell out of all the catalogs they get from all the big publishers.
Meanwhile, ebook sales are exploding. And you know what you need to distribute an ebook? A computer and an internet connection. With that, you can distribute your book all over the planet. You don’t need a publisher to upload it (so please, don’t pay Penguin to do that, no matter how many hundreds of dollars they’re willing to charge you for the favor). You can do it yourself and make most of the profits and have it selling not only through Barnes & Noble and other vendors, but through Amazon, the largest book-selling entity in the known universe.
“But I still love actual books,” you might say. “It’s just not the same, reading off a screen.” Fret not. The ebook apocalypse has you covered.
To physically self-publish a book, you used to have to print in bulk, pay for hundreds or thousands of copies to be printed and bound, which you then had to store somewhere. Digital distribution and modern printing services allow single copy printing called “Print on Demand” (POD). As a self-publisher, you can go through services like Amazon’s Createspace, which allows readers to order an actual “real” book of your book. Paper and everything. And those physical books are not only available on Amazon, but they’re available through the main distribution networks and can be ordered into bookstores and libraries and schools.
And this is where we can start talking about how bookstores can thrive after all this sweeping change.
Years ago, many small bookshops were driven out of business by the big chains like B. Dalton’s and Walden and Borders and Barnes & Noble, and Amazon’s arrival didn’t help. But now, through mismanagement and lack of adaptation, the big chains have faltered. Though Amazon still thrives as an online behemoth, the chain stores that locally stole business from indies are either gone or they kind of suck, unless you want to fondle that Nook before you buy it, or you want stuffed toys or board games or DVDs.
The field is now open for more quality bookstores to thrive in local markets, like they used to. That great personal touch, gone so long from the chain bookstores, is returning. Amazon thunders along, but stores that offer a personal experience in a community can do very well. Near me, both the Eagle Eye Bookshop and Little Shop of Stories are quite successful, the former a general interest bookstore with both new and used books, the latter serving a niche as a wonderful children’s bookstore, both offering great events like author visits and workshops that you just can’t get online.
And through digital distribution and POD, in time I think we’ll be able to buy our books not just in whatever format a publisher chooses for it, but in the format we want. Want to read the new Stephen King while waiting to renew your license at the DMV? Read it on the pocket gadget of your choice. Want a paperback copy of an old Joe Lansdale novel to have Joe sign at your local bookshop? Have the shop order a POD copy for you. But also, in time you’ll be able to order your very own custom books, made to order, with à la carte options, especially for you. Want an heirloom to pass down from generation to generation? You’ll be able to buy a leather-bound copy of Doc Wilde and The Frogs of Doom, with gold leaf embossing and acid-free paper.
That’s my kind of apocalypse.
(UPDATE: For even more juicy details about the marked advantages a writer has self-publishing instead of going through the Big Six, check out the excellent piece by Jon Mertz I link here.)