Thursday, September 30, 2010

E-books and the future of publishing

       I spent last evening “speed dating” with Wyoming librarians.  Six other authors and I went around the room and spoke to small groups of librarians about writing and publishing.  Since I don’t have a current book to promote, I mostly discussed e-books and changes in the market. E-books were specially on my mind because I’d just read Michelle Black’s post on the Rocky Mountain Fiction Writer’s loop about how her recently self-published e-book is actually out-selling her new conventionally published print-book on Amazon. And only a couple of days ago, I was discussing e-books with a long-time library patron, who said that since he’s gotten an e-reader, he’s actually reading more than he ever did before, because of the convenience and the relatively low cost of e-books. 
       The consensus seems to be that e-books have finally arrived and are going to become a larger and larger part of the market. Confirming that thought was the conversation I had recently with my new agent. I was discussing with her the prospect of releasing my early books as e-books.  She advised against it, saying that if I ever wanted to resell those books to a conventional publisher, they wouldn’t be interested unless they got the e-book rights as well. 
       So e-books are the new buzz word, but nobody really has any idea how they’re going to change things.  Michelle’s take on it is that publishers, who traditionally served as the “gatekeepers” of printed stories and information, will no longer have that role. Instead, the new gatekeepers will be internet review sites, blogs and social networking. The role of “word-of-mouth”, which has always been important in creating bestsellers, will become more and more important.  But it won’t be people talking about books in person, but through electronic communication.
       With the librarians, I discussed how this change will impact librarians. My belief is that libraries will still be important, but in different ways. For one thing, there are certain books that people will still want in print.  Despite e-books, hardcover sales are up. People are still buying books, books they want to have in the personal collections, books they want to hold and cherish in the traditional way. One of the authors presenting last night, Cat Urbigkit, has written some wonderful children’s picture books on sheep herding and Wyoming wildlife. Her wildlife books are illustrated with gorgeous photographs by photographer Mark Goche. Those books would certainly be much less enjoyable in e-book format. 
       But for those of us who write adult novels, e-books are likely to have more impact. Western author John Nesbitt was also part of the program and he’s already had to come to terms with the changes e-books have wrought.  His latest western was supposed to be published this month by Dorchester Books, who just a couple of months ago announced they were no longer going to publish mass market paperbacks, but release their current contracted titles as e-books and then maybe, six months later, as trade paperbacks. So John’s latest book isn’t going to appear in print until sometime in the future—and possibly not even then. Certainly a discouraging development for a western author, who’s primary readers are fairly old and probably too traditional to make the change to e-books.
       The always-amazing Kathleen and Michael Gear were also part of the program (they write the “People Of… historical series, among other things.) As we were discussing the Dorchester move and the thought that the company may have to been forced into that decision to avoid bankruptcy, Kathleen mentioned she believes that several of the big publishers are in big financial trouble. If e-books and other market trends force the conventional publishers into bankruptcy, what does that mean for us authors?
      Change, change and more change, I guess.  I’m not wild about change, but it seems to be the nature of things. But whatever happens, I believe that people are more desperate for stories now than they ever have been. They yearn to escape into fictional worlds, to visit other times and places. As writers, that’s what we offer, and so no matter what happens, I’m confident that writing, and publishing, will survive in some form.

Keep the faith,



  1. Thanks for the post, Mary - especially that last paragraph. It's hard to keep up with all the changes in publishing lately, but you're right - what we do will always be in demand in some form.
    I'm wondering if the move toward e-books will increase the quality of traditional books as publishers realize people who buy print-and-paper books are collectors who want something to save and re-read. I've always loved the illustrated novels from the turn of the century. Maybe there could be a renaissance of beautiful, well-designed, illustrated books.

  2. Great post Mary, and thanks for the kind words.