“My name’s Andrew and my first book’s coming out digitally” and other musings about e books

It’s official. The merits of digital versus print books now shares top billing with ‘why don’t mainstream Australian publishers do more genre fiction’ (they just don’t and probably won’t in the near future, so just get over it and write), as literary conversations I now try to avoid.

This was confirmed for me at an event I attended as part of the wonderful Emerging Writers’ Festival, which ended in Melbourne last week. I’d muscled in on a conversation between a book industry person (they wouldn’t tell me exactly what they did) and another emerging writer whose first novel is due out soon through one of Melbourne’s independent publishing houses.

When I told the industry person my first book was coming out through a digital only publisher in the States, they looked at me and said. “Is it going to be another of those 99 cent jobs? They just devalue you and your writing.”

When the person started to criticise digital books, I suggested they were dealing with an outmoded business model. The person then accused me of being anti-publisher.

As I’ve said on this site before, I love dead tree books. I love their smell, their feel, the companies that produce them, the shops that sell them, the whole box and dice.

But I’ve also become pretty enamoured with digital books of late, too. The e reading experience of devices like Kindle is getting progressively better and cheaper. I like the ease with which you can purchase e books and the fact that they are cheaper than their hard copy cousins. But most of all I like the incredible variety on offer.

I edit the reviews section of an on-line magazine called Crime Factory and get sent a lot of books, print and digital. While a lot of the digital books come from the growing group of digital publishers specialising in crime fiction (one of which, Snubnose press in the United States, is my publisher), some are self-published by people who can’t get a book deal. Of the latter, a lot are complete shit, to put none too finer a point on it. But many are terrific and it’s great the authors concerned took the gutsy move of hanging their shingle on Amazon and self publishing. More power to them.

Print books will never die out but let’s get real, e books are not a phase and the disruption they are causing to the traditional way publishers do business is profound.

Take price, for example.

For the record, my publisher, Snubnose Press, usually sells anthologies and novellas for about $2.99 and a novel for around $5. Blasted Heath, a pretty savvy digital crime publisher based in the UK, sells their work for $3. Momentum, the recently established digital wing of Pan Macmillan Australia sells nearly everything for under $10, most for around $5.

Blasted Heath also makes its material free for a limited period after it’s been available for a while in an attempt to lure readers. The jury is out on the degree to which this works, but a lot of other e publishers have also started doing it.

Other Australian publishers sell their digital books for anything up to $20.

You don’t have to be a brain surgeon to realise that given the price differentials between digital books in the rest of the world and in Australia, something’s got to give. The disruption caused by digital publishing and Internet selling to traditional publishing hierarchies and pricing models means we have to fundamentally re-think how the game is played.

Momentum recently announced it was dropping DRM (digital rights management) from all its books. DRM is a type of software that limits what you can and cannot do with a legitimately purchased piece of digital content, like an e book. It exists to create an authors copyright and stop readers tampering with the file, copying or converting it into other formats.

That said, reading between the lines, Momentum’s decision has less to do with combating piracy than it does with getting Momentum’s products onto the various reading platforms of as many people as possible

As Momentum said of the move: “Authors deserve to be paid for their work. But we believe that the best way to fight piracy is to remove the barriers to purchase – make books cheaper, make them available everywhere and to any reader from any platform.”

The well-established Australian author, John Birmingham, put it even more bluntly in a recent column: “We simply can’t charge twenty bucks for a book that’s available in the US or the UK for a fiver. It doesn’t matter to the readers that there might be perfectly reasonable explanations for that price difference. …They just won’t care”

Which means they won’t buy them.

To be honest, none of this really entered my mind when I decided to go with Snubnose Press. I might have ummed and ahhed a bit about going digital, but to be honest after months of unsuccessfully trying to interest Australian publishers, I just wanted to get my book out there. I was just pleased to have a deal.

More than that, I was pleased to have a deal with an outfit ‘gets’ the crime genre, was into the kind of crime fiction book I’d written, and who are publishing a stable of other up and coming writers whose work I admire and in whose company I’m proud to be in. And, I might add, whose contract terms are pretty bloody generous.

I don’t know what the answers are to the questions raised by Momentum’s DRM decision and the debate around e book pricing. All I know is it can only be a good thing for me and anyone else who is being published digitally because it will increase awareness of e books as a legitimate publishing option.

Hang onto your hats people, it’s going to be a wild ride.

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5 Responses

  1. Thanks, A. Appreciate the feedback.

  2. Pingback: Bookish News and Publishing Tidbits 7 June 2012 | Read in a Single Sitting - Book reviews and new books

  3. Hello, my name is Samantha and I’m very attached to print on paper. A kind soul gave me an e-reader, but I admit I haven’t got the hang of it yet. I tore through the first two novels like they were the Twilight stories and I just had to see what the fuss was about before someone actually caught me reading them. It was partly a reaction to the new media, I think. It just felt more ephemeral on the screen. But, you know, Henry James is hanging around on that e-reader too and I’m sure the quality of his prose will be the same on the screen as it is on paper, even if its value as a commercial commodity varies. If I decide to eventually read “What Maisie Knew” in traditional book form, it will be because I’ve chosen to spend $20 on a different reading experience, primarily based on the weight of the paper and the readability of the font. Of course, I want traditional bookshops to survive, not least so that people like me can line up the 10 or so copies of “Jane Eyre” available now, photograph them on their Blackberries and post the pictures to Twitter. But, I do keep thinking of that famous remark about the motor cars scaring horses …

  4. Way to go.

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