Thursday, September 9, 2010

Lookout, there’s a comet coming!

Here’s a look at the future.

“Jimmy, why didn’t you complete your English homework?” the fifth grade teacher asks.

A small boy, intentionally sitting at the back of the class, looks up from the iPod game hidden by his desktop. “I’m sorry, Mrs. Fermi. My dog, Sparky, ate my Kindle. I can’t complete the reading.”

Refusing to be bested by a crafty eleven-year-old, the teacher opens a rarely used cupboard. Dust puffs in her face and she waves a hand to fend off the musty cloud. She lifts a heavy book, the Complete Works of William Shakespeare, from its dark repository. Curious students strain to get a glimpse of something their grandparents talked about, but most kids had never seen. She removes a protective plastic bag.

“Jimmy, come here. I am loaning you my hard copy until you have your Kindle repaired. Carry this book home from school and back, every day, until our Shakespeare studies are done.”

The boy lifts the heavy book with a pronounced grunt. “Umm, Mrs. Fermi, I’m pretty sure Sparky only hurt the batteries. I’ll get new ones after school.” He gingerly pushes the four-inch thick hardback across the desk toward his teacher, having lost his gambit to get out of homework.

Will there come a time when virtual books replace physical books?

Capitalism teaches that people make buying decisions based on value, whether perceived or real. Why purchase Harry Potter and His Grandkids Meet Godzilla for $10.99 when you can buy the same story for $4.99 as an eBook? How many college students would rather pay for inexpensive e-texts than shell out $500 to $800 per semester for dead-tree books? Let’s face it, digital books are the future. Physical books are dinosaurs looking up at the approaching comet and wondering what that bright light means. Unlike dinosaurs of the Late Cretaceous Period, publishers have a choice. They can choose to passively endure the cataclysm...and become fossils...or they can embrace evolution and survive inevitable changes.

Who wins, who loses in the battle between compressed-pulp books and their digital equivalent?

In the traditional book market, 55% of the cost of a book goes to the distribution system. Brick’n mortar bookstores take 45% and wholesale book distributors get 10%. That leaves 45% for publishers. Out of their paltry cut, they pay for everything...printing, layout, graphics, shipping, storage, editing, marketing and royalties. The traditional book model also forces publishers to hold back a certain amount of money from initial book sales to cover potential unsold returns from bookstores. After all this, publishers hope to make a profit around 8% to 10% of the cover price. The important point for writers is that, on an $11 book, we should make a profit of around $.80 to a dollar.

In the eBook market, there is almost no cost for the distribution system. Printing, shipping and storage costs vanish. There is no “return” policy, so reserves against non-sale returns don’t exist. Editing, the one expense that remains constant, can mean the difference between successful or mediocre sales. In the end, an eBook selling for $4.99 can generate a profit for the author and publisher of . . . are you ready? Authors and publishers can earn the SAME amount of hard cash per e-book as they can for the physical book. That’s right! For a five-dollar downloaded story, the publisher and author can both make around $.80 to a dollar per “book”.

Who wins in the evolution of e-book publishing?

First, the reader wins--big time. Electronic books tell the same story for half the cost.

Second, authors win. No more reserves against returns. No more waiting six months for a check as e-books generate immediate financial results and automated payments. The author’s market instantly encompasses worldwide exposure, that is, to the extent of the English-speaking community. Of course, a couple translations could expand the market even more. Do Chinese like sci-fi? Hmmm...I wonder if Mandarin has a symbol for trans-warp drive.

Third, publishers win. No more hard costs for printing, distribution or hold-backs for returns. In addition, access to critics, promotional outlets and buzz-producing news releases fuel greater electronic sales than would be possible for traditional books. Nobody has better access to those resources than traditional publishers so they should still attract the very best authors.

Fourth, literary agents win. Not old style literary agents, clinging to the dinosaur model. No. The new breed who display excitement for the electronic evolution...they win, because they develop access for authors to the best eBook publishers that understand and embrace the coming digital era.

Those are the big winners in the coming Age of Digital Enlightenment, but evolution also produces fossils. The biggest losers are printers, wholesale distributors, brick’n mortar bookstores and any other dinosaurs who stare at the comet and ignore the implications.

What about me? My kids say I’m already a fossil. I tell them to be nice, because I can’t take it all with me, but I can sure as hell spend everything before I go! Seriously, how is this writer going to deal with the change? Storytelling will always be important to humanity. Simple lessons of the Three Little Pigs, or deep cultural lessons illustrated in To Kill a Mockingbird will always be valued by society. Stories are forever. While there is still water in the swamp, my fellow dinosaurs tend to graze quietly, breathing clear air of traditional publishing...but the comet is coming! And the outcome is inevitable. Fortunately, the cataclysm will happen slowly over a few decades, giving time enough to make changes. To that end, I seek only literary agents who share my vision of the future. I say, embrace the change, rather than cower from it. How about you? Now, where’d I put my Kindle?


  1. Very interesting. In this issue of AARP, there is a listing of books banned by schools. To Kill A Mockingbird, The Grapes of Wrath, Harry Potter, and other books that many of us grew up with........Unbelievable.

  2. Well put, Dean. I almost feel sorry for the literary agents and publishers that refuse to even consider a new way of doing things.
    It is frustrating for forward thinking people, in this case writers, to find someone to work with that refuses to even lift their heads to see what is coming. Heck, it's already here, and still they cling to their archaic ways. So - I just go around them.


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