Monday, January 11, 2010

Ride the avalanche or be buried

There's a quiet hush over the house. Work is finished for the day, although I'll be back at it soon. In the meantime, I'm going to take a shower, get dressed and run some errands. I need the exercise and there are things I need to do.

I've been enjoying the 1150 and finished Hogfather and began Dead Until Dark. was right about Terry Pratchett. The "punes" are funny and thoughtful and Pratchett's use of mythology and science in such close proximity is nothing short of genius. He definitely deserves to sell more than 30 million books. I'm glad some of his books are available as e-books, which brings me to an op-ed piece I read this morning.

Jonathan Galassi, president of of Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, wrote about what a publisher puts into a book and used William Styron and his experience with Random House as an example. There is no doubt that Random House put their best editor and resources forward to make those of Styron's books they published best sellers. Random House marketed Styron's books, like Sophie's Choice, to film and other markets and eventually, after the hard cover versions had been out a while, printed a paperback version at a lower cover price. Galassi makes the case that Random House should also be able to set the price for digital versions and that Styron's heirs shouldn't be allowed to sell those rights to a digital publisher using the Random House created version. He does have a point; however, he didn't pay attention to what he wrote.

He said a paperback version costing less than the hard cover version was put out after a period of time. Some changes had to be made in fonts and formatting in order to create the paperback version and they made money. Styron's heirs shouldn't be allowed to use the Random House version to make the e-book, which says he doesn't know anything about digital publishing. A publisher doesn't take the hard cover or paperback version of a book and scan it to create an e-book, not if it's a good quality e-book and not just a scan for the Google book project. In that sense, the e-book is not the original version and thus does not belong to the publisher in any way, shape or form. Yes, a Random House editor helped make Styron's book better, as Styron stated many times, but the editor was paid, and not in royalties. He drew a salary and did a job for hire. His part was over and his input, although valuable, was part of the copyright Styron owned and his heirs now own. And that is the point. The author owns the copyright and it is up to the author who is allowed to publish his work.

Instead of whining about losing digital rights, the publishers should be learning to make and market digital copies of their books and market them in the same way they market paperback versions. Right now, the cost of e-books is far out of line with what the market will and can bear. There is no paper, no binding, no cover and no physical book and yet big publishers insist on pricing e-books at the cost of hard cover copies and far about paperback copies. Paperback books have a shelf life of 5-10 years, depending in how much they are handled and read. They are a product of planned obsolescence. In other words, they are not meant to last so there is a market for replacements. There is no need for a replacement with an e-book as long as there is power and memory and the software necessary to bring up the e-book again and again, and that is what publishers are so upset about. They cannot continue to drink from the same well with the same dipper over and over. The answer is publishing back lists and making e-books affordable and not gouging the consumer.

Authors take their back lists to other publishers when the original publisher fails to promote and market the work sufficiently so they can concentrate on other authors making more money. Billions of books end up in landfills and are pulped and turned into who knows what if they don't sell during the first few weeks. With digital publishing, there is no waste and an unlimited market for books -- if they are priced affordably. With the current technology, e-books can be made available internationally and sell far more than paperbacks or hard cover with a wider distribution. That's where profit can be made. It's time for the big publishers to take a look at their business model and either move with the times or be run over by the digital avalanche.

In the Middle Ages, books were produced by hand and available only to the rich and the clergy. The average person couldn't read and didn't have access to books unless they took religious orders. Gutenberg changed all that with movable type. More books available made it possible for the average person to get hold of books and to learn to read. And the world was changed. Books were still the province of the haves and the have-nots scrounged for what books they could until Benjamin Franklin created the lending library. More people had access to even more books. In the booming economy, more people had access to more books, books they owned and read over and over. That was when books were made to last. As the middle class began to make more disposable income, they bought more books and publishers created paperbacks out of materials that were guaranteed to disintegrate with time so that beloved books must be replaced even with careful use and care.

We have gone from a world where books were the sole possession of churches and the wealthy to a world where anyone can buy a book and publishers are determined to make as much money as they can from the hunger for words and stories and fantasies that can transport the reader to magical worlds and into the realm of possibility and knowledge. It's time to move with the times where publishers realize that selling a book for $1000 is not nearly as important as selling a thousand books for $1. The technology has removed the barrier of planned obsolescence and in its place is a world wide open and ready for more books to read and savor. The answer for publishers is to buy, edit, market and publish good books that may not be available in hard cover until readers clamor for a print copy.

Publishers, either move with the times or stand aside for people of vision who are ready and able to do so or you will end up being swept away by the avalanche.

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