The inevitable battle between e-book reader devices has begun. Unfortunately the author, the creator of the raw material that will be the principal fuel for the e-book is the least powerful voice in the battle. He or she is the stretcher bearer while the big guns around him or her boom, threaten and destroy.
As an author, I have been a pioneer in the e-book revolution. The earliest meeting I attended with people gathered to promote the vision of the future for the e-book was ten years ago. Most were techies and start up hopefuls. I was the only author in the room. Since then, many were bloodied and bruised and opted out of the battle.
Last week I attended an e-book meeting sponsored by the Authors Guild. The audience was packed with authors. There was standing room only. Four panelists: a hopeful e-book publisher who was a former top gun of a print publisher, an executive of a major traditional publishing company, an author and an agent led the discussion.
They grappled with the new realities of the economic paradigm, talking about royalty splits, strategies to bridge the gap between print and electronics and how they planned to confront the future. They talked about the coming battle between traditional publishers, copyright holders and backlist disputes of ownership. The weakest link in this process was the author, a wonderful writer, but quite confused about her future. In fact, they were all sincere, baffled and understandably clueless.
The e-book publisher, a former power in the traditional industry hit the nail on the head. She told us that we are in the midst of a revolution.
With Apple about to plant its e-book flag and Amazon changing their pricing structure and going APP-wild and SONY refining its approach and numerous tech companies invading the e-book reader field, it should be apparent to everyone that the day of the printed book is kaput. Take a deep breath, gulp if you wish, that’s the future. I have been arguing the point as an author for a decade. I have been pummeled and assailed by every counter argument conceived. So far, history has borne out my vision. Big deal. It was a no-brainer.
The window for the printed book is closing, but there is still a window and it might offer some sunlight and ventilation for a few years going forward, but the end is in sight.
The print publishers are losing their monopoly on content, distribution and marketing. The big box bookstores will slowly implode. The method of branding an author via the traditional media will disappear as the paper media collapses.
The big author brands so carefully constructed will fade away like old movie stars. Imagine what will happen in the textbook field. How would you like to be a backpack manufacturer?
What we will be left with will be millions of digitized books able to be downloaded on numerous devices, mostly portable, flacked and promoted on millions of websites, a cacophony of voices in numerous languages that will make the Tower of Babel seem like a quaint outpost on Mars.
As every publisher knows, the way an author gets real traction is by word of mouth, but that requires a starting point, a seed. It has to be planted. Someone has to tell someone. How will anyone be heard above the chatter?
How then will the author, the creator of content, fare in the coming e-book stew. Note that I am talking here about all types of books, from works of the imagination to instruction, opinion and analysis in every genre that imparts information and knowledge. Essentially book to reader is a one-on-one communication system. Author to reader. Mind to mind.
When I first advised the people at SONY who were developing the first e-book reader, I urged them to create a dedicated reader with no distractions, no bells and whistles, no e-mail, no video, no phone, no texting, no music. I was basing my advice on a very personal view of reading. When I read a book I want to trance out and concentrate only on the author’s work, his or her story, knowledge or instruction.
I think I lost that battle. The trend will be to create a kind of portable living room with all the devices of entertainment, communication and instruction contained in a single device. This will, of course, make it harder for the author to reach his or her reader who must navigate through a galaxy of temptations and lures competing for his or her attention.
From the device maker’s point of view, why not give the purchaser the widest range of options? After all, one might argue, the author is still competing for attention in the real world. Unfortunately for the author it is just one more challenge to be faced. How can his or her work be compelling enough to capture the reader’s attention and, like a fly fisherman, find the right fly to hook the trout? This will be the primary fact of life for authorial survival.
At the Authors Guild Meeting, I asked the panelists: “With the monopolies of content, distribution and marketing disappearing, what can a publisher do for the author when the e-book revolution has transformed the traditional landscape?”
The answers were, to be kind, less than satisfactory. With the implements of branding fading and all the other publishing monopolies disappearing, what is going to happen to that business? One might take refuge in the fact that the branded author still has a long way to go and might find his perch in cyberspace, but what is to become of the millions of other authors who have not found a way to the branding trough?
The brutal fact is that the traditional publisher will have to morph into the e-book world if his business is to survive. Because the publishers and authors have been late to the e-book table they have not yet learned how to react. For many it will be too late.
As for the e-book publisher their stated desire to remarket old books is a noble effort but, in the long run, considering the notorious short historical memory of most people, a fickle public and a youth market whose historical memory is next to nil, they will have a hard time to be profitable as a third party marketer.
Besides, Google will one day have digitized most books ever printed and eventually take their piece of the distribution dollar. Unless they are stuffed with enough cash to promote their books, the chances are that the hardy band of new e-book publishers will become appendages of the big e-book distributors like Amazon, SONY and perhaps a reconstituted Barnes and Noble and an aggressive Google. Nevertheless I wish them all the best of luck for their hopes and dreams and their courage. Perhaps they have a business plan to shorten the odds, although the legal ramifications could be costly and inhibiting.
Still, it is quite true that the traditional publisher holds the present advantage of knowing the reading marketplace, the trends and current reading tastes, the contemporary genres that people want. They have been tracking the literary consumer for ages and cannot to be counted out completely…not yet. Unfortunately,they haven’t been quick enough to arm themselves for the revolution and their bottom line performance report card to their mostly umbrella corporate bosses will not encourage their future. The far away bean counters will be less than sympathetic to the plight of their business wards and will likely throw them under the bus at the first signs of sinking profits, if any.
The result of all this chaos will be the empowerment of the author. As he sees the publishers lose their ability to find an audience for his work, he will have to find a way to empower himself in the wild and wooly cyber battlefield. If he expects to make a living in the hazardous one-on-one communication system of the written word, he will either have to find a way or be forced to keep his day job.
Of course, it is easier said than done. No one has yet come up with a workable solution for the individual author to cut through the cacophony. Numerous entrepreneurs offer ways into the magic Internet kingdom, but they are vastly overrated and unproven. Some are outright scams. The number of authors traditionally published and wannabes is staggering as they compete for the reader’s attention and pocketbook.
The funnel is clogged and the strainer useless. How will an author find anyone to read his work? The answer, if there is an answer, will be found in cyber-niches, conglomerations of niches, families of related websites of like interests through which authors will gain an audience. For the author replicating mega bucks of the recent past will probably be an illusion.
Indeed, authors of the future will probably have to create their own publishing vehicles, yet to be defined, and reach out into the vast morass to establish their readership. Perhaps they will ally themselves with other authors seeking like-minded readers. One can only speculate. That sound you hear is authors, traditional publishers, new e-book publishers, agents, proofreaders, artists and anyone who has been involved or who aspires to be involved in publishing trying to figure out what comes next.
For my part, I call for authors to mount the barricades. They are the royal shock troops of content. It is time they found ways to discover their true economic power in this new world and come up with ideas and instruments to dominate the battle. They will have to do for themselves what others have done for them before the revolution. All future monetary splits should favor the author first. Sorry, I offer no panacea, only attitude. For authors, I suspect it is time to take control of their own destiny.
Yes, the device boys and girls will do battle for market share where price and ease of access will dominate the fray. The dedicated reader will, despite gaggles of naysayers, survive and proliferate as a vast new worldwide literacy expands beyond one’s wildest imagination. And there is cause to hope that our youngest generation will discover that their search for distractions will become boring and repetitive, and they just might return to reading as a way to truly understand what they face as human beings in an ever expanding complex real world filled with confusion and chaos.