Monday, October 18, 2010

To E or Not to E, Part 2

by Libby Hellmann

I blogged about ebooks (Part I) a while back. Then about a month ago Joe Konrath asked me to “defend” traditional publishing on his blog. What follows is the post I wrote. It generated a lot of discussion– bear in mind many of Joe’s followers are “indie authors” themselves. Still, most of the comments were surprisingly even-handed.

I am a traditionally published author with six crime fiction novels out. I am an indie author with a two novels and a collection of short stories out. In fact, it was Joe, a good friend, who pushed me to do my short story collection for Kindle and Smashwords. I’ve written about e-books on my blog, and I tell every author I meet to put their backlist on Kindle and try to keep the e-rights to their future works. (Which is, of course, getting harder to do).

I participate on the Kindle Boards, the Amazon Kindle and Mystery community threads, and I see the handwriting on the wall, er, screen. I am incensed that publishers are only giving their authors a 25% royalty for e-books. I do not agree that just because a publisher releases an author’s book in print that they are automatically entitled to the e-rights. I think the prices publishers charge are outrageous (None of my e-books, at least the ones I control, are more than $2.99). I agree with Joe that the major publishers are clueless about the future, and that many will be forced to downsize to adapt to this Brave New E-World.

So, when Joe asked me to make a case for traditional publishing in this climate and on his blog, I hesitated. Given everything that Joe’s written and done, was I crazy? Did I WANT to get beat up in his comments section? But… the more I thought about it, I decided I did have some points to make.

In one of his recent blogs, Joe talked about the “tipping point,” the point at which authors and agents will no longer need publishers. And that’s the key. We are not yet at the tipping point, and while that might change in the future, for now I still want to be traditionally published. Here’s why:

If a publisher gets behind a title, you can’t beat their marketing support and promotion. They saturate the media with information and hype in a way most individual authors can’t. Even if you’re not one of the “chosen,” publishers send out ARCs for review – which I believe is still the best ways to start generating “buzz.” As much as I appreciate Amazon reviews, a review from the New York Times or NPR can make a huge difference in sales, in both DTB and e-books. Publishers still underwrite author tours, which while they aren’t as effective as they used to be, are still worth doing. Publishers are beginning to understand the world of book blogging and are trying to catch up. And when I see an ad of someone’s book on a bus or subway or billboard, I might gnash my teeth that it’s not mine, but it makes a difference in my awareness.

Traditional publishers’ distribution networks are broad, deep, and in some cases, even creative. As much as we focus online for our book info, when you see a book in the bookstore, at the airport, in Costco, or the grocery store, it makes an impression. The more impressions, the more apt a consumer is to buy. Publishers make those impressions possible in ways that a computer screen can’t. Sure, you can see a book being talked about by several bloggers on Twitter, you can read an interview with the author on line, you can see their blogs on other blogs, but seeing the product in the “real” world is different. You can touch it, thumb through the pages, read the 69th page, even the last line, and make up your mind whether you want it. And if the publishers’ sales reps are enthusiastic about a title, they can make a difference in the numbers that are available. I’m not saying that can’t happen with e-books; we’ve seen how a cascade of recommendations can catapult a book into Amazon’s best-seller lists; just that we’re not at the “tipping point” yet. Most readers still do not have Kindles or Nooks or iPads.

Publishers offer a built-in editing service. Yes, there are books out from major publishers where the editing sucks. Yes, there are authors who refuse to be edited, or editors who are afraid of touching other authors’ work. But, for the most part, an editor at a publishing house makes a book better. They have for me. The way I see it is that you have one chance to impress readers, whether you’re traditionally or e-published. Your book HAS to be the best you can possibly make it. If not, no one will buy Book Two. Unless a third party (not a relative or friend) who knows what they’re doing takes a look at it, you’re doing yourself a disservice. Traditional publishers have that third party. And you don’t have to pay for it.

Over the years, I’ve been to hundreds of bookstores. In some cases, they have hand sold my books and helped my numbers. They have hosted me when there were thirty people, and when there were less than three. Booksellers are some of the most knowledgeable, thoughtful people I know. They steer me to wonderful stories, introduce me to authors I might not have considered. I would hate to lose their expertise. Traditional publishing helps booksellers – not as much as readers buying books, of course – but for now, until the “tipping point” arrives, they are an indispensible part of the book landscape. Happily, some have already created e-stores; I hope more do. We need to keep hearing their voices.

If you’re an author who wants to be recognized with an award or nomination, traditional publishing still has the big ones. The Pulitzer, the Booker, Penn/Faulkner, the Edgar, etc. stipulate a DTB, not an e-book alone. That may change; other awards might take their place, but for now, that seems to be the case.

PS Recently I’m seeing a bit of pushback (here and here) from those who aren’t convinced ebooks will take over the world. There’s also a poster from Newsweek that summarizes – sort of -- the differences between the two formats. It’s clear we’re in the Wild West of publishing these days – but what do you think the future holds?