Ebooks and ereaders, can authors survive them? Rich Adin’s reaction to my post

Rich Adin mulls over my post on the dangers for authors in a world dominated by ebooks.

Rich Adin who runs an interesting blog (An American Editor) read my post about the problems that the advent of ebooks have brought to authors who want to make a living writing and left a comment there, which finished with these words:

“Hmmm. I think I will stop here and use this comment as a basis for a post at my blog. Writing for you has freely inspired me to write for me; the consequent cost to you is that the balance of my thoughts are not currently available. Sounds like the publishing industry in decline, doesn’t it?”

Well, he has now written that post for his blog, and it seemed to me that I should repost it here as it is a reaction to things I wrote in that post on my blog.  And in passing make those thoughts he referred to available to us all here as well as on his blog!  Ha!

So, here is that post for your interest and enjoyment:

Clashing Perspectives: Coming Home to Roost

Ewan Morrison wrote about the future of publishing from the publisher’s and author’s perspectives. I somewhat share his bleak, perhaps apocalyptic, outlook for the future of the publishing industry (see “Are Books Dead, and Can Authors Survive?“; for “outsider’s” perspective, see Tony Cole’s discussion of Morrison’s article, “Can Authors Survive in the Age of eReaders and eBooks?“).

The mistake being made in publishing is, I think, one of clashing perspectives. People in the industry look at a book, regardless of its form, as simultaneously a commodity and something unique. The mistake is that it has to be one or the other; it cannot be both. It cannot be both because each perspective demands a different approach to the book and the two approaches are incompatible.

As a result of this clash, each step in the production of the book is degraded. The result is that, for too many authors, the only thing that matters is getting “published,” with the consequence of “free” being the optimal way to get noticed. With the growth of free, there has to be a decline in “not free.” Misbalance of free and not free is, in the end, the death knell of “traditional” publishing.

The interests are competing. Most authors and wannabe authors know that they will never be able to give up the full-time day job; they will never earn enough from book sales to consider writing as a full-time career. Consequently, pricing is not high on their priority list; free is acceptable. Yet a publishing company cannot accept free. Publishing companies have bottom lines, have expenses, have staff, have myriad things that require cash flow, which is not a synonym for free.

With free being unacceptable to publishers, they can preserve themselves only by getting as close to free as they can. Ultimately, the questions are (a) how close is close? and (b) is that close enough?

The degradation of the publishing industry has ripples. The Agency 6, with the connivance of Apple, “created” an agency pricing scheme supposedly to preserve the value of ebooks (Apple’s reasons were different: competing with Amazon, rather than preserving ebook value). The market response has not been preservation of value.

With free as the selling price, much of what traditional publishing provided has had to be put to the side. For example, editing and proofreading, services traditionally associated with book publishers as part of the package provided to authors, become nonexistent. With no income, it becomes unjustifiable to spend, and previously required and desired editorial services become options that the author can pay for or not, with not generally being the response. (See, e.g., the discussions in, Is There a Future in Editing?, Competing with Free: eBooks vs. eBooks, and The Changing Face of Editing.)

So the degradation cycle begins: author writes a book that a traditional publisher declines to publish; author now has decisions to make: (1) Should author self-publish? (2) If author self-publishes, what should be the price of the book? (3) Should author pay out of pocket for professional editing and proofreading services? Increasingly the answers to the three questions are (1) yes; (2) free or 99¢; and (3) no.

With the flood of self-published, free/99¢, unedited ebooks, consumer expectations are changing. Consumers increasingly are looking at ebooks as commodities; traditional publishers are fighting to keep consumers thinking that an ebook is something unique. As a commodity, consumers are not overly bothered by lesser quality; they view an ebook as a throwaway item and expect the price to reflect that throwaway “quality.” Publishers, on the other hand, want consumers to view ebooks as unique because uniqueness can command a higher price.

Alas, in this battle of perspectives, publishers are their own worst enemy. For years publishers have been chopping away at the quality concept by focusing on the bottom line at the expense of everything else. If a publisher cannot offer a quality differential, then all the publisher is offering is a commodity and consumers are following the publishers’ lead in rushing to the bottom line — consumers want ebooks priced at a point that is below what publishers need to survive and still offer author advances.

By focusing so fiercely on cost cutting, publishers produce ebooks that are virtually indistinguishable in quality from those offered by self-publishers. Publishers themselves are establishing ebooks as commodities — just what they did not want to happen. To consumers, a commodity is a commodity is a commodity, and consumers recognize the difference between commodity and unique. The high ground that publishers want and need is being eroded by their own machinations.

The worst part for publishers, authors, and editors is that lower expectations on the part of consumers means loss of income for publishers, authors, and editors. No one will spend to create quality when lack of quality isn’t noticed.

We have now come to the crux of the publisher-created problem: No one will create quality when lack of quality isn’t noticed. For too long, publishers have been focused solely on quarterly shareholder returns and what services to reduce to squeeze out more profit. It was this squeezing that led to declining emphasis on editorial quality. (Consider the effects of offshoring; see, e.g., Editors in the Offshore World.) Publishers have spent years conditioning consumers to consider lesser quality as the norm.

It was this conditioning by publishers that led to consumer acceptance of self-published ebooks, especially at very low (and free) price levels. It was this conditioning by publishers that led to the change in perspective by consumers, from seeing books as unique to seeing books as commodities. At the root level, the fall of the necessary supports for traditional publishers is directly related to actions taken by traditional publishers. Unfortunately, the ripple effect that such publisher actions have unleashed, affects the entire publishing chain and does not bode well for the financial future of publishing.

Ewan Morrison may have written apocalyptically, but he did so with foresight.

Thus Rich Adin’s thoughts on this topic.

As always rich brings much to whatever he writes, and gives us much to mull over and contemplate.

Link to my earlier post: Can Authors Survive in the Age of eReaders and eBooks?

Link to his blog: http://americaneditor.wordpress.com/

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If anything Rich has said here sparks any thoughts in you, please do share them with others here.  This is an important matter, and one that deserves, and needs to be thought about.

2 thoughts on “Ebooks and ereaders, can authors survive them? Rich Adin’s reaction to my post

  1. Dave Riley

    As an aside: I’ve been involved in journal and small scale book publishing for years albeit as dogsbody with publishing rather than profiteering being the ruling perspective. And everything we did/do is proof read and is edited. Many of our exers work professionally as editors for the majors. So I cannot accept that it has to be either/or.

    What this discussion is ruled by is the demand by the book publishers that they make a profit in line with their custom.

    I cannot see why editors — and translators — cannot work under the new regime of ebooks in the same way that writers do or will. Nor can I see any problems with distributors making a ruling that all books must be certified edited professionally. We do it for accounts and accounting; for built commodities…we accept both regulatory and consensual standards.

    Even your every day Phd thesis is edited and proof read despite the fact it may be read by only three very wise monkeys.

    What this exchange is missing is the gilding: we can presume that more books will be read by more people . When the Penguin paperback came in in the fifties there was a revolution in the circulation of literature. Here now we are negotiating a similar shift.

    It is a massive blooming for written word in the face of the advances made by digital media.

    You need to take the McLuhanist long view and step out of purely capitalist parameters.The pricing and accounting is gonna change because the productive relationships are changing. Even Project Gutenberg aspires to edit and proof read what they offer free.

    You may as well also lament that what crippled book publishing was the free lending libraries.

    So standards are one thing that can only rise through cultural politics. Don’t let’s get that mixed up with profits.

    In fact profit making can work against cultural advancement — as we know –even technological advancement – as we know.

  2. Richard Adin

    Dave Riley raises a valid point BUT that point is tethered to the idea that ebook consumers are willing to agree that an ebook can be both unique, thus command a high price, and a commodity, thus command a low price, with enough sales at the unique price point to permit professional copyediting and proofreading. The tension between unique and commodity will only increase as more readers convert from pbook to ebook. I think that the commodity-low price combination will ultimately prevail to the detriment of the traditional book production process.

    The Gutenberg example is often cited as proof that even free can be edited and proofread. There are several failings to this perspective, including that (1) people, including professional editors, are willing to donate their skills and time to an organization like Project Gutenberg because the organization is not profiteering off their labors; (2) the implied, although admittedly not asserted, result of the Gutenberg editing and proofreading is that the end product is really a well-edited and well-proofread product. Unfortunately, ofttimes the end product is very mediocre at best and more like at the why-did-they-bother level; and (3) the assumption is made that crowd sourcing leads to quality, an assumption that really is hit or miss as evidenced by the final product.

    One final note. I doubt very much that the crowd sourcing that works for Gutenberg will work for Random House or Penguin or any other mid-tier or upper-tier traditional publisher, regardless of how much they would want or hope it would work. It is against human nature to constantly give free labor to profit-making behemoths. At best crowd sourcing would work for a few months before readers realized that they are paying twice for a mediocre product — once when they buy the end product for money and once when they donate their labor only to have to buy the end product for money; more likely it wouldn’t work at all. I know I wouldn’t be willing to donate my expertise to Random House so its CEO can get a fat bonus.


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