What A Great Little Book...

So I recently started trying to buy Kindle books rather than paper books.

The reason for this is two-fold:

  • I don’t have space to buy and keep books as we’re living overseas in a small apartment.
  • I buy a lot of books I just want to read but not keep. Previously this meant every few months I’d cart piles of books to Powells to sell. This was/is annoying.

Obviously not everything I read is available on the Kindle but a lot of it is and the other stuff I don’t mind buying because it’s low volume and I do still like the feel of paper when I’m reading. Although I’ve been pleasantly surprised to discover I do find reading on the Kindle quite satisfactory as an experience. Indeed I’ll probably even buy one of the new Kindle Touch 3Gs when they are released because I find the keyboard and page change buttons annoying and painful (I see no need for the full color bells and whistles Kindle Fire).

One of the side-effects of buying Kindle books is that I noticed the “People who bought this book also bought/liked…” page at the end of Kindle titles and I started browsing the Kindle store a lot more. There are a lot of books in the store, actually far more than I was expecting for the sometimes backward publishing industry. Then I realized that a hell of a lot of them were self-published titles with quite reasonable price tags: $0.99 - $2.99 on average.

The self-published material greatly varies in quality. Some of them are best described as simply awful. An old adage about behind every good author is a depressed and inebriated editor sprang to mind but in many cases not even good editing could save these books. I’ve mostly been looking at genre fiction and every bad example of pulp horror, thriller, science fiction and fantasy is present. Every space marine, post-apocalyptic nuclear wasteland dwelling, mutant killing, psychic-powered zombie barbarian warrior overlord is present. Often with a buxom blond sidekick, a lost throne and/or a deadly secret. Oh my!

And my word are some of these people terrible writers. Wooden dialog, transparent characters, plot holes you could drive the Death Star through and some truly, hilarious by its badness, prose. I was reminded of the writing contest in Sharyn McCrumb’s iconic Bimbos of the Death Sun (ironically named in rather a similar manner to some of the books available in the Kindle store). I tried to put some of these on a scale against some of the more dire things I’ve read (I collect post-apocalyptic fiction as a hobby and I’ve read some appallingly bad books, for example almost all of William Johnstone’s “Ashes” series which should frighten anyone who knows the genre).

And to be fair in the process of finding out that many of them were crap I did buy many of the books involved hence lessening the sting of the insult by paying for the right to insult them although tragically also potentially validating the author’s belief in their writing being good… :)

Amongst the dross though there is a gem or two. Some talented writers who clearly haven’t found any other avenue to publication. Or perhaps who have not wanted to jump through the many hoops and annoying idiosyncrasies of the publishing industry. I’ve found two or three reasonably solid sci-fi writers and a couple of excellent crime/thriller authors. I don’t know yet of any writers who have started as purely Amazon self-published authors although I know of some who have entered the industry via the self-publishing route (I have some vague memory that Matthew Reilly self-published his first book but think there was more to the story) but I expect if it hasn’t happened already it’ll happen soon.

Of course, that assumes that publishers are looking at any of the material that is published or that some of these more successful writers have any interest in being published in print. For many I suspect the potential deal they will get from a print publisher simply won’t be worth it - Amazon pays 35% to 70% royalties (70% on titles priced from $2.99 to $9.99!). When I read that I nearly fell off my chair. It beats every one of my contracts with publishers previously by a huge margin. Of course a traditional publisher would also be highly reluctant to touch most of these titles because they know they can’t match the sell price and they are unlikely to find an audience at the higher price point.

So what do traditional publishers bring to the table that might entice one of these authors or allow publishers to compete? Publishers traditionally bring three (maybe four?) capabilities:

  • Marketing,
  • Quality control,
  • Distribution, and
  • Credibility?

Marketing in traditional publishing covers a broad spectrum of potential channels both electronic and physical. These include promotional activities in media, book sellers, libraries, advertising, and tours. Of course, the investment publishers make into each of these activities is directly correlated to potential revenue the publisher perceives from the title. And in an increasingly tight market … well the resources are slim and hard to extract from publisher’s marketing departments. BTW In the case of most technical books the investment is close to zero.

The quality control publishers offer is a valuable service. A good editor alone is an awesome advantage that can make a book far more polished. A lot of the Kindle titles I looked at would have greatly benefited from an aggressive edit. Of course it’s also to hire one of the numerous (and often recently unemployed) editors on the market. It’s a relatively cheap commodity service usually priced per page or on word count.

Publishers also get books onto shelves in bookstores, have warehouses, ship titles, etc. All of which is moot with e-books or largely moot with print-on-demand because of Amazon’s immense economies of scale in procurement, warehousing and distribution.

And finally there is the credibility issue. For literary books, certainly anything for example that might win a Booker or similar literary prize, being published on paper seems to be the only way to go. That being said the I don’t know what the volume of book sales is generated by the demographic of literary readership: older, educated, likely to shop in a bookstore, my parents. Interestingly I think the death knell of the paper publishing industry will be when a pure e-book wins a major literary prize.

All in all if you’re publishing a Kindle title and making money the print publishing industry doesn’t seem to hold a lot of attractions. And unless the mainstream publishers somehow make themselves more attractive to those authors or seize the ground by publishing themselves (including offering comparable royalty rates - laughs) they are going to go out of business. Leaving these new self-published Kindle authors and Amazon to steal away the entire genre market if not beyond.

(And yes here I’ve largely ignored the non-Kindle self-publishing market, not because I see any problems with it. Certainly in that model 100% of the price of the book is yours rather than some royalty arrangement. My interest in this article is largely the ease of purchase of these titles via a medium like the Kindle because it clearly drives volume in a way that I am not sure self-published titles available via PDF or the like does yet.)

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