The Times, They Are A-Changin’

It was my intention when I started this blog to write as originally as I can with every post. Sure, there’s always references and links, but I didn’t want to just rehash what someone else had already blogged, I wanted this to be my own thoughts and opinions (see my sub-title). Sometimes, however, you come across something that says what you mean, then it makes the most sense to run with that, which is what I’m going to do for this post.

I regularly read JA Konrath‘s blog, where he talks at length about what’s going on in the publishing industry, specifically digital publishing vs. ‘legacy’ publishing (as he calls the old, tired, traditional method). His most recent post is an interview with NY Times best-selling author Barry Eisler. For those who may know know Mr. Eisler, he writes thrillers and has had a good deal of success doing it.

Turns out Mr. Eisler has just turned down a $500,000 contract with St. Martin’s Press (yes, you read that right: half a million dollars) in favour of digitally self-publishing.


Half a million dollars.

More than what most people earn in 10 years.

More than most authors ever earn from their writing.

Why would he do such a silly thing? Read Joe Konrath’s blog to find out (be prepared: it’s 13000 words — a long conversation which meanders not just through publishing but some politics, too).

Here’s  a couple of highlights:

Barry: First, because the price of digital readers would continue to drop while the functionality would continue to increase; second, because more and more titles would become available for digital download at the same time more brick and mortar stores were closing. In other words, everything about paper represented a static defense, while everything about digital represented a dynamic offense. Not hard to predict how a battle like that is going to end. Apple sold 15 million iPads in 2010, and the iPad2 just went on sale. And Amazon sold eight million Kindle books in 2010–more digital books, in fact, than paperbacks. Meanwhile, Borders is shuttering 224 stores. So I think it’s safe to say the trends I just mentioned are continuing. And the trends reinforce each other: the Borders in your neighborhood closes, so you try a low-priced digital reader, and you love the lower cost of digital books, the immediate delivery, the adjustable font, etc… and you never go back to paper. The reverse isn’t happening: people aren’t leaving digital for paper. There’s a ratchet effect in favor of digital.

Sometimes my wife suggests that she prefers printed books and wouldn’t switch to reading books electronically. I’ve heard that from a few people, though I think the majority of them are thinking about what it’s like to read on a computer, which is different than reading on an e-reader like Kindle or Kobo. No one thinks paper publishers will die, just that their role will change.

Barry: I can’t tell you how many people I’ve heard saying, “But paper isn’t going to disappear.” That isn’t the point! If you ask the wrong question, the right answer to that question isn’t going to help you. So the question isn’t, “Will paper disappear?” Of course it won’t, but that’s not what matters. What matters is that paper is being marginalized. Did firearms eliminate the bow and arrow? No–some enthusiasts still hunt with a bow. Did the automobile eliminate the horse and buggy? No–I can still get a buggy ride around Central Park if I want. Now, some new technologies really have completely displaced their forebears. For example, there’s no such thing as eight-track tape anymore. And yet some people still do listen to their music on vinyl, despite the advent of mp3 technology. The question, then, is what advantages does the previous technology retain over the new technology? If the answer is “none,” then the previous technology will become extinct, like eight-track. If the answer is “some,” then the question is, how big a market will the old technology continue to command based on those advantages?

Joe: You’re talking about niche markets.


Joe: We’ve discussed this before. Paper won’t disappear, but that’s not the point. The point is, paper will become a niche while digital will become the norm.

Barry: Agreed. Lots of people, and I’m one of them, love the way a book feels. I used to like the way books smelled, too, before publishers started using cheap paper. And you can see books on your shelf, etc… those are real advantages, but they’re only niche advantages. Think candles vs electric lights. There are still people making a living today selling candles, and that’s because there’s nothing like candlelight–but what matters is that the advent of the electric light changed the candle business into a niche. Originally, candlemakers were in the lighting business; today, they’re in the candlelight business. The latter is tiny by comparison to the former. Similarly, today publishers are in the book business; tomorrow, they’ll be in the paper book business. The difference is the difference between a mass market and a niche.

Go read the rest of the post, they say it all better than I can. And they throw in a few interesting links, too.

I promise to blog my own thoughts and opinions next time.

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