The first eight-track tape I saw was bright orange and had my grandfather’s careful all-caps lettering of song titles on the label. I was a kid at the time and didn’t quite understand his delight at being able to transfer his vinyl records to the tape, which he could play in his car. My grandfather was a techie when it came to music. He wanted to know how things worked and he kept up with the latest trends, but I don’t think he had any idea how fast the music industry’s delivery system would change. Records to eight-tract to cassette to compact disk to digital, all in the space of about fifty years.
Books, on the other hand, haven’t changed much. Before ebooks, we hadn’t had a new delivery system for books in, oh, about 2,000 years. Sure, there had been blips in the book industry—audio books come to mind—but nothing had changed radically since the first century when a new technology made it possible to go from storing the written word on scrolls to books, or to use the technical term, manuscripts.
As an aside, I have to wonder if the change caused some of the same near-apocalyptic hysteria we’ve seen recently with e-books. Did some people refuse to ever buy a book? Were books declared “not real reading material?” Were scrolls declared the only true format for the written word?
I suppose we’ll never know if there were “scroll holdouts” because now we look back on the book format—thin sheets of paper bound between a thick, sturdy cover—as a positive advance that spread knowledge and allowed more “common people,” particularly merchants and the well-to-do, to own their personal copies of important works.
Fast forward a few thousand years and we’re at another turning point, digital books and electronic readers.
As an author, I’m thrilled about ebooks. I have had six books traditionally published. I write cozy mysteries and each book came out first in hardcover (at a whopping $22), then eleven months later in paperback (at six to seven bucks). The hardcover editions were wonderful for garnering reviews and library sales but it was difficult to compete in a niche dominated by mass market paperback originals. It’s not an easy sale to convince new readers to shell out almost twenty-five dollars for my book when they could buy around three different paperback books for the price of my hardcover. The paperback versions seemed to get lost in the wake of the hardcovers, never generating the attention of the hardcover.
My publisher was on the leading edge of ebooks and began bringing out ebook versions of my books with a competitive price point. My early series ebooks are priced around four dollars. The more recent books are more expensive, but I feel that I’m finally on a level playing field with other books in my niche. With my latest new release in 2011, my publisher dropped the price on one of the other books in the series to ninety-nine cents, then to zero for a few days, and I had the heady sensation of seeing it climb up Amazon’s Top 100 free, which lead to a surges in other books, one of which appeared on the Top 100 Paid list.
So I’m a solid a fan of ebooks, but it’s not all sweetness and light. There are a few drawbacks. Here’s my take on the benefits and drawbacks of ebooks:
Choice: Readers and authors have more freedom than ever before, which is one of the best things about the ebook revolution. Readers are discovering authors who they never would have found in the traditional publishing model. Turns out, readers will give new authors a chance, particularly if the price is right.
Authors are reveling in their new freedom, too. No longer are authors constricted to working through publishers. Digital delivery systems allow authors to reach a wide audience, breaking the monopoly the big publishers held on distribution. Authors are free to create their own covers (often a sticky point with authors who disagreed with what “New York” thought would sell). Authors are also exploring new genres and/or genre mash-ups. Writing once labeled “unsellable,” including short stories and cross genre novels, can be viable markets for some authors. And probably the biggest change of all: authors are making money. Paying your mortgage out of your royalties is a possibility, not a pipe-dream.
Speed: The ability to instantly have a copy of a book is pure joy for bookworms. As a reader, one of my favorite things about ebooks is the sample feature. I think it’s wonderful to be able to read a few pages or chapters before I make my buying decisions.
Portability: Readers love the ability to have so many books at their fingertips. For serious book lovers, an ereader is a must for long trips, doctors’ waiting rooms, and carpool lines.
Limits on Ownership: Unlike a physical copy of a book that can be passed on to a friend or donated to the Friends of the Library, when you buy an ebook you’re purchasing a digital copy of a book, which is linked to the seller. If the seller decides there is an issue or problem with that book, the digital copy can be removed from ereaders. If a seller goes out of business, what happens to all those digital copies sold by that retailer? It’s hard to say because we haven’t had a huge retailer/epublisher go under.
Privacy: In this age where personal information is the holy grail of business, you know that each digital book purchase is carefully tracked. I’d also venture to say that digital retailers are linking your purchasing habits to your browsing habits, at least on their websites, if not elsewhere around the web (i.e. recent tracking Facebook embarrassment).
The Potentially Worrisome
When I first purchased books on my Kindle there was a little line that read, “Free delivery via Amazon Whispernet.” It makes me wonder if someday there will be a delivery charge, which could be passed along to either the author, the buyer, or both.
Price Trending Towards Zero: I know Amazon is many author’s new BFF, but I have some reservations about Kindle KDP Select program. It allows Prime members who pay an annual fee to read certain books for free. Amazon has created a pool of money that will be distributed to participating authors to draw authors to the program. I can’t help but wonder if this is a good trend for authors. I completely understand authors participating in the program to broaden their readership, but I wonder if eventually readers will expect to read ebooks for free and be reluctant to buy ebooks. I think authors should be compensated for their work, even if it is a bargain-basement price. I realize the KDP Select program is the same principal as an author lowing the price on his or her book to zero. What worries me is that Amazon may eliminate the option for authors to lower their prices to zero in the future and allow only “free” books through their Prime program. And who knows if the pool for author payment to those participating in the KDP Select Program will continue. It could be phased out, but authors anxious for wider readership will still be eager to participate. Gloomy sounding, I know, and I hope it doesn’t happen.
Books as Product: I think of Amazon first as a bookstore, but, in reality, books are only one product they sell. They’re more like a huge department store with every conceivable item. Their approach is to have all products ranked, reviewed, and linked to similar products. That’s fine, but people feel differently about books than, say, a stockpot or an edger. That’s the specialness of books. We connect with the characters, the setting, and, sometimes, the author. I’m not sure how well that connection fits into the Amazon model. Time will tell.
I don’t want to end on a downer note. I’m thrilled to be part of a revolution in the way we buy and read books. I’d love to hear your thoughts on ebooks—positive and negative. Have you found a new author you love through ebooks? Maybe a relative unknown? A new genre? How many books do you have on your ereader? Are you buying more or less books on your ereader? Do you have an ebook TBR (to-be-read) pile?
P.S. In case you’re wondering, my eighty-five year old grandfather is still on the cutting edge. He now has a MP3 player and an ereader. :)
Sara Rosett is the author of the Ellie Avery mystery series, an adult “whodunit” mystery series in the tradition of Agatha Christie. Publishers Weekly has called Sara’s books, “satisfying,” “well-executed,” and “sparkling.”Library Journal says, “...Rosett’s Ellie Avery titles are among the best, using timely topics to move her plots and good old-fashioned motives to make everything believable.”