Exposing The Grand Illusion: Part 1 – eBooks
It is a dynamic in the publishing world where literally hundreds of thousands of self-publishers have a distorted view of the state of the game, and in the process, stymie their own growth (or fail to realize they don’t have what it takes), and seriously inundate a reader public unprepared for poor products, diluting the good writers’ chance to make a decent living.
I call it The Grand Illusion because the intersection of ease of publishing, technologies that enable publishing, commercial opportunity, and human nature conspire to suck unwitting writers into this abyss.
After writing this and having some healthy discussion afterward, I realized that there is more to say, more on the detail of what I outlined in that article. Consequently, I will, over irregular time frames, provide you with more thoughts. I am not a publishing analyst, just an evolving author, editor of some experience, and a small traditional publisher. It is, ultimately, just my view.
However, I intend to try to help authors who read this to consider more thoughtfully where they really sit in the publishing scheme of things, as opposed to where they currently think they are.
eBooks are a platform
eBooks are not at the core of The Grand Illusion. They are simply a platform that enables publishers to reach the public. The ease in which distributors allow eBooks to be published makes self-publishing easier, but it isn’t at the heart of why people self-publish. Before eBooks, self-publishers were quite happy to take advantage of Print On Demand systems, and prior to that, a much lesser number of self-publishers made use of Vanity Presses. I suppose if eBooks have done anything, they have contributed to increasing the number of self-publishers out there.
There are two reasons why I am picking on eBooks as my first topic. Firstly, many self-publishers and so-called experts in the field incorrectly tie eBooks and self-publishing together, mixing them up incorrectly. Secondly, there is a lot of misunderstanding about eBook publishing that contributes to the Grand Illusion, including believing it is a tool that is only used, or mainly used, by the self-publishing fraternity, and therefore exposes some of the Grand Illusion’s dynamics relating to group behavior.
Let’s talk about dynamics first. I am specifically referring to the ‘us’ and ‘them’ syndrome (some sociologists call it the ‘in-group’ behavior). I remember a long time ago being very impressed with a couple of essays written by George Orwell. Specifically, Notes On Nationalism (1945), and to a lesser extent, The Sporting Spirit (1945, from A Collection of Essays). I distilled from both the idea that ‘nationalism’ is the nearest term to a mode of thinking and behavior that can encompass almost any group, from nationalism as we understand it, to class structures, politics, and even football hooliganism—them and us.
I learned so many years ago from reading these essays that people can easily associate themselves with a group, a category, and what can follow is an erosion of rationality. For some, it can be very base – violence, anger; for others, it can be subtle, such as ignoring the principles of detached assessment, ignoring facts, or an unwillingness to research – just believe what others say. So it is the case with many facets of the publishing industry, including eBooks. People who espouse eBooks, who fall in love with ebook technologies, suddenly see themselves as an innovative, ‘special’ group of people. Then, before you can bat an eyelid, we have billions of rhetoric words about the subject. And a lot of it is irrational. I mention this dimension, this ‘nationalistic’ tendency, to illustrate one of the dynamics that helped build, and sustain, The Grand Illusion.
Let’s examine four common myths and bust them.
eBooks are now outselling print books
Busted on two grounds.
Firstly, there is a great deal of PR and journalistic frenzy on ‘statistics’ on eBook sales, willingly fed by the Amazons, B&Ns, and Sonys of the world. An interesting insight into this can be found in Jon Page’s article, Show Me The Data! Where are the ebook stats? We get a lot of newspapers, and blog headlines, such as “Amazon eBooks outsell print,” etc., but when statistics, figures, and source data are presented…well, generally they aren’t. What we usually get are single percentage figures, and the rest are words. “For every 114 eBooks sold, 100 print is sold” or the like – in other words, someone fed someone a single percentage figure and provided no raw data, no complete statistical analysis.
If we dig deep enough, however, particularly focused on sales in dollar terms throughout the world, by the majority of publishers, we get a different perspective. The Publisher’s Association’s Statistics Yearbook, as reported in the Guardian, talks about a massive growth in eBook sales, where consumers spent in 2011 £92M, while print lost 7% to the previous year, totaling sales to £1.579B. Notice the M versus the B. The trends are the same in 2012, according to the report. According to a recent article by The Association of American Publishers, a similar trend is happening in the US’ overseas market, and unsurprisingly, at this stage, print is holding up.
What do we make of all of this? Well, to start with, we should be slightly skeptical about frenzied reports. Secondly, we can be sure that eBook sales are rising at an amazing rate – according to The Guardian, citing The Publisher’s Association, over 300 percent per year since 2010, and print is declining, except in parts of the world where eBooks have yet to make inroads. Interestingly, the 300+ growth in ebook sales is considered to be roughly equivalent to the print sales drop of 7% in strict dollar terms. I believe that eBooks will outstrip print eventually, somewhere over the next decade, but we can’t be sure of the exact timing.
The most important point to make about this myth: Publishers are deeply interested in ebook sales versus print, but they are not afraid of it. They embrace it. As they lose print sales, they gain on ebook sales. [20120822: William Ockham made a good comment regarding my use of the term ’embrace’ – I agree. I mean that publishers may be agitated over ebook distribution – mainly about price control – but they don’t have an issue with the platform. Traditional publishing, like other forms of publishing, is a story of adaptation. I repeat: they are not afraid of eBooks, but the distributors].
Take a look at the top 25, 50, 100 ebook sales in any site (sales, mind you, not giveaways), and you will find the overwhelming majority are books published by traditional publishers. For instance, looking at the New York Times Bestsellers eBook Fiction list for 12 August 2012, we have the top 35 listed. 23 are large publishing houses, and another 9 are small, and it appears that 3 are self-published (I should add that this is a real achievement by the self-publishers). While I am here, another observation is that there were a very high number of romance books in the list, which contrasts somewhat with the print list – suggesting that eBooks are permeating society along certain genre lines, not wholesale stage. The point is made – traditional, and self-publishers have embraced eBooks. The only groups afraid of ebook sales growth are companies that make a living solely from print. This is the reason why self-publishers need to separate eBooks from self-publishing in discussions and refrain from stating that traditional publishers don’t get it – which is complete hogwash.
eBooks make it easy to publish
eBooks are essentially electronic flat files; at their core is x/Html, the universal web publishing scripting languages. They get modified for some file formats, most notably Kindle, which is based on an earlier format (Mobi) used for handheld devices. Other popular vendors, such as NOOK Books and Kobo, align with the EPUB format, an international standard, and again, a derivative of XHTML. There is software available online, both free and commercial, that can convert files from one format to another, including classic word processing formats, such as Word, straight to the desired format needed for ebook publishing. The technological advance that is most useful for self-publishers, more than traditional publishers, are online systems that enable the self-publishers to directly upload word-processed documents, which are converted into an epublishable form.
With a little research, self-publishers can learn the tricks of the trade, and to varying degrees, make the desired end product look good for readers. Aesthetics is very important because readers do not want to be distracted with poorly formatted eBooks, and they also want to be impressed with the professionalism. Somewhat shallow, but a simple fact. In fact, there is no difference, in principle, between producing eBooks and print books when it comes to publishing quality products. When professionally formatted, print books use tools like InDesign, which makes an astonishing difference to the quality of the internal block. Likewise, with eBooks, knowledge of HTML and using tools to manipulate files produces a significant difference in the quality of the product – and the fully automated systems cover only some of these elements. I repeat, there are self-publishers out there who know all this stuff, which aids them to no end, but most don’t have the skills or knowledge. And it shows in far too many books.
In terms of the ‘physical’ product, the technical end, self-publishers can quickly and easily produce a product, but is it necessarily worthy of publishing?
The critical component of publishing is the content. Has a book been edited properly, proofread, and has the end product been quality controlled? Is the book good at all? All these elements, and more, make up the process of publishing a book, whether it has an ‘e’ tacked at the beginning of the word or not.
While it is easy to upload a Word document, click on a button, and produce an ebook, publishing is not easy. It would be better to use the industry-understood techniques of polishing the presentation, and the usual (and essential) publishing techniques of editing, proofing, QAing, etc., which must be added to the equation. Whether it be eBooks or print, it takes time, and it isn’t, by definition, easy. That is, assuming that you consider the process of publishing to include quality and professionalism.
It isn’t even a comparison worth making, and therefore by definition, it is a busted myth. I included this because of my earlier discussion on ‘nationalism’ – the ‘us and them’ syndrome. Potentially valuable discussion is undermined with eBook jingoism. There is no doubt that eBooks have superior qualities, notably portability, instant purchasing, and price per unit. And yet the technology hasn’t quite got there for illustrated books unless programming is involved (I am thinking iPad), and, put quite simply, those considerable number of people who still would rather read a print book. There is also a dark cloud hanging over ebook publishing with respect to piracy.
Again, from a traditional publisher’s perspective, there is no debate, at least not in terms of business policy. What’s good for the goose is good for the gander.
High eBook sales numbers make a successful author
Both busted and true.
This statement is true if the eBook sales are truly sales (that is, earned income), and when we talk about high, we are talking in terms of multiple thousand (many peak bodies believe success is marked by 5000 genuine sold units, regardless of platform). When you get to that order of magnitude, we can reasonably assert that many people enjoy the read. There is a degree of momentum in interest beyond just marketing and gimmickry. Exceptions exist, but I think this is a reasonable working model for what makes a successful author from an eBook perspective.
What makes this statement, at the same time, a myth is when authors grasp at statistics willy-nilly. First of all, giveaways don’t count. Don’t fool yourselves. There are plenty of consumers who will download freebies and never read them. While marketing opportunities are hard to come by for self-publishers, sometimes fortune can smile on individuals – a good review, a commendation by a high profile personage/celebrity, a cover design, and a title that resonates with many people. All this is good, but the writer needs to back up this serendipity with a quality product.
Inevitably, if the work isn’t good, it will fade away and rarely achieve the 5000 unit benchmark. There are indicators to prove this point – for example, if a celebrity or reviewer has strong bases in a particular country, say the US. Sales are good in the US, but not, say, the UK and Australia. The conclusion can strongly be given that the opportunity was successful for the reasons outlined above, but nothing else, such as intrinsic quality. To demonstrate the Grand Illusion, I have heard of a writer that actually was in this situation and blamed lack of sales in the ‘other country’ on the lack of education/appreciation of that population!
Regardless of ebook and print sales, in my mind, a successful author is one who has published multiple books at 5000+ unit sales, have attracted critical respect from various sectors of the writing industry, and can earn the majority of her or his income from the pen (metaphorically speaking). In other words, it takes time and polishing of the craft – two factors that do not have a place in The Grand Illusion (noting that there are self-publishers who are mindful of this).