A recent article in the New Yorker offers the most comprehensive look at the publishing industry and e-books that I have yet seen, piecing together all the bits of news and speculation and doomsaying that I’ve been trying to wrap my head around for the last little while.
Basically, what we’re seeing is a massive upheaval in the industry as different people and companies try to deal with the rise of the digital age in what has, of course, always been an analog industry.
Amazon and Apple and Google vie for the rights of e-books and fight with publishers over pricing.
Publishers want to keep control of their product and its pricing.
Bookstores fight to stay relevant when more people are turning to cheaper digital books.
Ultimately, the competition of Apple and Google against Amazon should be a good thing (if Economics 101 taught me anything), because it should eventually create some kind of steady equilibrium. Amazon comes across, if you listen at all to the publishers, as rather evil. But then, some things I’ve read about Steve Jobs paints him as a little evil as well. And as much as Google claims to not be evil, do we still believe that?
So maybe there’s a lot of evil out there. What about the publishers? I mean, they only give authors around 15% royalties, while Amazon’s willing to give up to 50% for e-books, if the author skips the publisher step entirely. Lots of self-publishing options have opened up for authors that give a much larger portion of profits to them.
But major publishers do more than give small royalties. For one thing, they give huge advances to authors that, for the vast majority of authors whose books are never international best-sellers, may be more than royalties would ever give them. Publishers also offer editing — and almost every published writer I know of swears by the power of good editing for making a good book. Publishers also offer marketing, and bring the book to a far greater audience than self-publishing ever could.
But are they, ultimately, looking ahead into the new age of the industry? They may have one this round with the e-book sellers, but when the contract with Apple runs out — in only a year, no less — will they be forced to rethink their strategy? Are they ultimately holding back the possibilities of the future?
And what does this all mean for an author, for me? Frankly, I’m not sure. Certainly I’m more interested in finding the larger audience that a mainstream publisher will let me have, in partnership with iBooks or other such services, so for now I guess I’m rooting for the publishers. But things are changing in this industry every day, so we’ll have to keep our eyes out for the future.