Toward the end of the 1990's, a great deal of silliness was uttered about the "future of publishing." Many pundits were convinced that by the beginning of the 21st century, print books would be a thing of the past. The future was e-books, they assured us, blithely ignoring every argument or evidence to the contrary.
Another controversy raging at the same time was the question of how, precisely, to define a "book." Was a book a physical object, or was it merely the words contained within that object? This was of great concern to publishers who suddenly realized that they wanted the right to publish your book electronically even though no such rights had been contracted for, back in the days when publishers imagined that e-books would be found only in the Star Trek universe.
Today, of course, things have changed. We've concluded that a book is more a matter of words than of paper. E-readers like Kindle and Nook and Kobo have made it not only possible but actually enjoyable to read an e-book. Since e-publishing costs little or nothing, writers have flocked to these platforms -- and they would be foolish not to. I'm sure I'm not the only writer who discovered that my e-books were bringing more revenue than the print editions.
Hence, e-books have become a huge part of the "future of publishing" -- without, oddly enough, having driven print books into extinction. I'm not the least bit worried about the "death" of print publishing. What concerns me, instead, is the trend amongst writers to ignore print publishing entirely.
Now, I could cite a great many reasons why going electronic-only could be a bad idea. One of the foremost, of course, is the simple fact that there is still a very large market for print books. Rather than bringing about the death of print publishing, e-publishing augments the print market. Or, if you'd rather look at things the other way around, a print edition has the capability of augmenting your e-book market. It's unwise to "write off" that sector of the market that still prefers print, or can't afford a Kindle, or (like my 92-year-old mother-in-law) hasn't even mastered e-mail, let alone e-books.
However, the primary reason I believe it's a mistake to bypass print is the issue of "sharing." Since the beginning of bookdom, books have been loaned, given away, passed on, inherited, and generally handed on from one reader to another. Through sharing, books travel the world and down through time. For example, I have on my shelf a French costume book from the 1890's that was actually owned, in the early 1900's, by an author whose own costume book inspired some of my grandfather's artwork in the 1930's!
E-books are not designed to be shared. In fact, they were designed for just the opposite: E-publishers are doing everything in their power to ensure a "one book, one reader" approach. If I buy an e-book, I cannot read it and then give it to you, or to a friend, or to my mother-in-law. I cannot recoup any of my investment by reselling it on the Amazon Marketplace or by swapping it for another book on PaperbackSwap.com. I can't even donate it to Goodwill and get a tax deduction! About the limit of my "sharing" ability is that I can, apparently, "loan" an e-book to someone else for two weeks. When I've finished it, if I don't care to keep it, I simply delete it from my "Cloud" and it is gone, forever. No one will ever read that copy but me.
Many publishers (and, presumably, authors) think that's great! One book, one reader -- that means anyone who wants to read your book has to buy it! More money! Whoopee! All this nasty sharing-books-for-nothing business is a thing of the past. Now, anyone who wants to read my book has to pay for the privilege! Yay!
But is it so great? Sure, sharing makes it possible for people (perhaps dozens or even hundreds of people) to acquire your book without paying a penny for it -- or if they do pay, those pennies never reach your pocket. Doesn't it make sense to remove that option? The immediate, "more money in my pocket NOW" view might say "why not?" But I believe that if one takes a longer view, the answer is "no."
First, by eliminating the option of sharing and passing on a book, you've immediately limited your readership to those people who are willing to buy that book at full price. Now, again, initially this might seem like a "Duh, what's wrong with that?" question. But one thing e-books haven't done is actually reduce the cost of reading. For example, a book by one of my favorite romance authors costs $7.99 in paperback -- and $7.59 on Kindle. Wow. Big savings... not!
Books are expensive. Ironically, the more avid the reader, the fewer new books that reader can afford. If someone reads only one book a month, paying $7.99 for each book adds up to only $95 per year. If someone reads, say, two or three (or more) books per week, buying all those books new would cost upwards of $1200 per year! Yet you stand a much higher chance of being picked up by the avid reader (who buys upwards of 150 books per year) than by the one who reads only 12 books a year.
The avid reader certainly buys new books -- but only by known, well-loved authors. The rest are likely to come from sources like Amazon's Marketplace, Paperbackswap, and thrift shops. But here's the thing: When a book costs, say, 50 cents at Goodwill, Avid Reader is willing to take a chance. Out of every 20 books I buy at Goodwill, chances are good that I'm going to find at least one new author I really love -- an author I'd never have taken a chance on at full price. And if I really love this author, I'm going to buy her next book -- and quite possibly any other books she's ever written.
In other words, sharing offers a value that far exceeds the immediate monetary benefit of selling one book. One 50-cent paperback from a thrift shop can convert a reader into your paying customer for life. But it doesn't end there. After I read a book, I'll pass it on. Perhaps I'll sell it on Amazon, or swap it on Paperbackswap, or give it back to Goodwill. Perhaps I'll pass it on to my mother-in-law -- who might otherwise never encounter your work. Now, you might be thinking "Big deal, so by going electronic I won't get read by one little old lady in a retirement community in Washington state." Except... that particular little old lady happens to be on the committee that decides what books to purchase for the (very large) retirement community's library. You never know where a shared book will end up!
Surveys have shown that one of the most important factors in the decision to buy a book is liking the author's previous books. Sure, every time someone buys your book used, that means you aren't gaining a penny. What you may be gaining, however, is a reader for life. Print books are your ambassadors in the marketplace. The more they are shared, passed along, and praised, the more readers they win for you. Don't overlook the long-term value of those print ambassadors for the short-term gains of the "one book, one reader" electronic marketplace.
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