The Promise of e-Books

20100406_ibooks_270x371 The New York Times will soon start to rank the sales of e-books in their Sunday Book Review section.

I've been keeping an eye on e-books, because of the potential for self-publishing. Self-published e-books could do to the publishing world what blogs did to the newspaper world.

Imagine putting your book on the Internet and not having to deal with agents and stuffy editors who let manuscripts pile up on the radiator in their office. Publishing houses haven't been properly marketing or editing books for years anyway. Authors are hiring their own publicity people, rather than relying on the overworked and underpaid publicity departments. Royalities are non-existent. Why bother with a publishing house at all?


13 thoughts on “The Promise of e-Books

  1. I’m all for providing direct conduits between content producers and purchasers.
    Unfortunately, I’m not sure the theoretical model has been working.
    Folks have been talking about this possibility in academic publishing for years, and I hear that the physicists have actually done it. Self-publishing by placing manuscripts in archives, having vigorous discussions, topics corrected, etc (though I only know about that in theory). It’s been very slow for anything like this to gain traction in other fields, because people seem to want someone else to review the information for them and imprint it with approval.
    That’s what the publishing houses do, too — that the book has been published is supposed to mean (to the consumer) that the work has been reviewed to be good, by someone. People are less willing to take the risk with an e-book where they don’t have that stamp of approval. They should be able to judge for themselves, but so many self-published books are so bad, it seems like the noise is too high to make it worthwhile pick out good ones.
    I do agree that the old model is dying though (as with newspapers) so I hope we come up with something that works (and since I’m a consumer and not a provider, works, for me, means that I still get the opportunity to read good books).

  2. Yes, with arXiv and PLoS hugely significant across many fields. I think that the paper journals are still around for confirmation of what’s in the online preprints. What I don’t know is how institutions measure electronic contributions, and how that feeds in to reputations and careers. My sense, at a remove or two, is that online preprints have opened things up quite a bit.
    As for self-publishing of fiction and commercial non-fiction, it’s been around for a good long while, but it’s awfully hard to break through. It’s hard enough to go from a regional press to a major national press. My old bookstore picked up E. Lynn Harris’ first book, in 1991. I can’t think of anyone else who’s gone from self-published to NYT bestseller. Terry Kay was a relative bestseller for Longstreet Press, but I don’t think he ever broke through once he got a New York publisher. But you’ll know all of this from Suze already.
    The converse of not having to deal with editors and agents is putting your book on the net and having to find a way to make it stand out from 300,000 other apps in the Apple app store of apps. Promise I’ll be more upbeat in the next comment, as this one breaks the rule of the three things every writer needs: encouragement, encouragement, encouragement.

  3. My husband has a manuscript out with an academic press that has been sitting with them for two years now. They’ve been almost impossible to contact (they don’t answer emails, etc.), but now the word is that they will be sending the manuscript out for review…soon. They claim that the book will hit print in a year. My husband is tenured and it’s not super time sensitive, so it’s not a life-or-death deal, but apparently, there’s at least one tenure-track person who is unexpectedly having to throw herself into banging out a bunch of articles to fix the hole in her CV that this press’s dawdling has caused. My feeling is that as with article refereeing, the publishing process is very opaque and there’s room for a lot of irresponsibility, especially given the referee’s cloak of anonymity (for a variety of reasons, it’s not a symmetrical relationship–the article author often has no anonymity). I see the temptation to try to go it alone and go digital, perhaps with proofreading help from colleagues. In a best-case scenario, referees can be very helpful. In a worst case scenario, they aren’t helpful, and your work goes stale in their hands.

  4. I’m trying to sell a manuscript with an agent right now. The entire process in inefficient and antiquated. If anything, the easier it becomes to self-publish, and the more legitimacy self-publishing receives, the more pressure there will be on publishing houses to change their current model.
    And I’d be thrilled.

  5. Another cool thing about e-publishing is that you can break out of the current publishing formats. You can write shorter works. Especially in non-fiction, a lot of books would be better if they were cut in half. You can have more art. You can do hyperlinks.
    While I don’t have a kindle and am not really interested in making the switch from paper to screen, I am excited about the possibilities of e-books.

  6. Yes indeed to both Anjali’s and Laura’ comments. I’ve made a nuisance of myself on at least one blog of people in fiction publishing, where they defend the usual practice of taking up to a year to reply to an unsolicited manuscript and insisting on exclusivity of submissions in that time. I have basically said WTF. That’s the kind of business practice that needs to go the way of hot-lead type.
    Amen also to more formats in non-fiction. Let’s hope a tight 50,000-word ms can bring in as much money for the author as a bloated 100,000-word ms. And more in-line graphics; they are so much easier to produce at a high level of quality than they were 20 years ago.

  7. Shorter fiction wouldn’t hurt either. “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times,” could be replaced with a simple “Meh.”

  8. A friend commented that distilling the document she was working on felt like making W&P into haiku. The gauntlet was obviously thrown.
    Russia good France bad
    Moscow burns but nevermind
    Napoleon lost
    (To which a different friend replied:
    War, Peace, whatever!
    Because Margaret Mitchell wrote
    The better version.)
    Don’t like my husband.
    Count Vronsky you seem so nice.
    Oh look! There’s a train!
    I await the royalties rolling in on these potential e-books.

  9. I’m finding a pretty solid editorial support with my latest projects in press and on the way. Of course, I’m working with a more commercial operation at the moment and I have a colleague who’s given editorial help along the way.
    That said, my biggest fear in the drive to self-publish is how rough the end products can be. Sure, some people go through extensive editing but I see a lot that, from the previews, are positively unreadable when they need not be. If you can find a way to crowd-source editorial correction the way that some of the scientists and some of the fan writers do, self-published ebooks would be less of a hit and miss venture.

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