Does legacy publishing have anything to fear from ebooks?

By David Thompson    01-Mar-2013 03:35 UTC+02:00

You may have noticed that ebooks are a sensitive topic to bring up if you happen to be in the company of someone who works in, or at least swears by, legacy publishing methods. The feel of a crisp, new page, the comfort of an old worn spine provoke emotional reactions for many of us. Books have been part of culture for so long that their digitisation has inevitably raised some objections. But it’s also allowed the indie novel onto the same platform as traditionally-published works and now it can, for once, stand shoulder-to-shoulder with its more established brethren.

The common criticism of ebooks is unsurprising – that the lack of gatekeeping when hitting the “publish” button on sites like Amazon allows any writer to see their words take place in the book giant’s product database alongside everything from Dan Brown to Jane Austen. Oh, the feathers this has ruffled, as many decry the process due to the amount of slush that will inevitably invade and swamp the novels of true quality. That is, if you define “true quality” as the few who have made it through the lottery of the publishing business.

However, what critics of the new system fail to realise is that ebook databases are self-regulating. Their search and ranking algorithms mean that your novel, reviewed a hundred times with a four-and-a-half-star average, will always appear higher ranked than someone with one two-star review. There’s no danger here, and if anything, it means that indies have to work just as hard to market their work, lest they be lost in the morass of books who haven’t motivated enough reviewers to comment and are invisible to book shoppers as a result.

The lack of gatekeeping also has the advantage of offering writers total freedom of speech. While a lot of the time this also means freedom to write as badly as one likes, it allows for all sorts of storytelling that publishers wouldn’t always want to take to print or even to digital, due to a lack of mass-market appeal. Being granted the ability to side-step this process, forever ridiculous in its ratio of good writers to book deals, means that writing a fantastic, original, even controversial novel doesn’t now mean keeping it on your hard drive for the rest of time – it means a cover, a release, readers, sales.

The freedom to read far more of what we want is something the internet has given us, and something that will challenge legacy publishing. If you don’t want to haul around a 700-page hardback you can simply download the book to your mobile device and get on with your day. There are no obstacles any more. Publishing houses have indeed tried to get in on the ebook act, but charging similar prices for digital versions of the paper version is already a sign that a lot of these legacy publishers assume the same tricks will work – they won’t. The public has moved on.

The main risk to ebook authors is that ebooks have devalued writing considerably. Some of the top-selling books you’ll find are top-selling partially because they cost less than a dollar. This doesn’t bode well for people who want to be paid a reasonable amount for their work – especially as Amazon only dishes out 30% of the takings to authors if their books are priced at below £1.99, although authors of books above that price receive a healthier 70% at the cost of selling fewer copies.

Finally, the Orwellian parts of the e-reader world are a little disconcerting to some, with Amazon deleting books off people’s Kindles, and reports of your reading habits being scanned for use by software developers. It feels a lot less private and personal than the physical library you’re used to, but it does have its benefits. Publishing houses will last for many years to come – that system is not going to completely disappear just yet. But those who ignore the importance of digital literature are in for a long, painful, lost-profits journey through the land of the Late Adopter. Who wins? The consumer, and to some degree, independent authors. Five-star reviews are the new agents.

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