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What is this ebook revolution anyway?

Why ebooks? Why are people so excited about them when they're not as nice to curl up with as a real book? When you can't read them in the bathtub? When they don't have that lovely book smell? Why? Some thoughts, as a reader and a writer.


In the print book model, it is only possible to publish a book that will sell a lot of copies. One of my editors has put the line at 10,000 copies -- that's the point where it's profitable to print, distribute and sell a paper book. Or, to use her math, a book that is not going to sell 10,000 copies is not worth publishing. As the economy has tightened, that math has gotten more and more brutal. Unless a book is going to have wide mainstream appeal, it simply isn't reasonable to publish it. Got a romance set in pre-Columbian Taxila? A historical fantasy set in ancient Persia? A detective novel set in 1930s Colorado? A book with a bisexual hero? A hard sci fi book with a female main character? In the current climate it's getting harder and harder to sell anything that isn't readily accessible to a large mainstream audience. Many excellent books published ten or twenty or thirty years ago would never see the light of day now. They simply don't have wide enough appeal to be worth the cost of printing.

Another issue is length. There used to be magazine markets for novella length works. They're almost all gone. There is simply nowhere to sell most novellas. Even in genre, maybe ten a year are published. And then there's the too long book. More than 110,000 words is too expensive to print and keep at a low price point, and at a higher point it won't sell. I could not sell Hand of Isis today without cutting a third of the book. You can bet The Mists of Avalon wouldn't be printed at all. With epublishing you have no length constraints on content. The book can be as long or short as the author wants, and priced accordingly. Yesterday I bought a novella by Lauren Willig for $.99. There is no novella market even if you're NY Times bestselling Lauren Willig! But I will gladly buy her Regency spy romps in novella form for $.99. And would you buy a book from me at $5.99 instead of $4.99 if you knew it was 150,000 words instead of 110,000? Would you buy Hand of Isis at full length, or cut by a third to make it profitable to print?


A while back a numinous world reader was asking me why I didn't write more books in that world. I can. I have. But they are sitting on my hard drive for years waiting for a publisher to buy them. I want to publish them. You want to read them. But we can't make that connection because there has to be a middleman who puts up the money for the print run. Suppose there didn't have to be that middleman? Suppose there didn't have to be two years or five years or more between when I write it and when you read it? With epublishing I could write it and have it up for sale in six weeks.


One of the things I find absolutely shocking about the publishing industry is the waste of returns. It goes like this. A bookstore buys ten copies of a book. But they don't pay for them. They order them on spec -- they'll only pay the distributor if they sell them. They sell one in the first few months and decide the book isn't worth stocking. But instead of returning the nine unsold copies, they rip the front cover off and mail it back, thus proving they haven't sold them and not having to pay for them, and then throw the rest of the book away.

Yep. You heard that right. They throw it away. Perfectly good books. Hundreds of thousands of books a year. Destroyed. Wasted. All that paper, all that time, all that expense of shipping and stocking and paying cashiers and salespeople. For some books, 90% of the print run is destroyed without being read. Publishing is the only industry where stores get products from the producers without paying for them and then destroy the product if they can't sell it.

With ebooks and print on demand, that doesn't happen. Books aren't printed until they're bought by someone who wants them. And ebooks aren't printed at all. There can be as many or as few copies downloaded and sold as you want -- no additional expense, no guessing how many will sell and throwing away the rest.


When you buy a new paperback book, how much of the cover price do you think the author gets? Usually between 4-8%. 92-96% of the cover price does not go to the person who wrote it.

Let's break it down. When you buy a book from a bookstore for $10, roughly half the cover price goes to the bookstore. $5 pays the overhead for the physical space and the wages of the people who sell it. Another $.50 is spent shipping the book from the distributor to the store. Another $1 belongs to the distributor, who got the book from the publisher and sold it to the bookstore. Another $.50 shipped the book from the printer to the distributor. We're up to $7 now. $.80 is the cost of printing and binding the book. $1.50 is what the publisher gets -- paying the editor and the overhead. So in theory, $.70 is the author's cut. But 15% of that goes directly to their agent. So your $10 purchase pays the author $.59!

How many books a year do you need to sell to make a living wage? 80,000? Four major sales of 20,000 copies each, all of which sell out the print run entirely? One New York Times bestseller -- annually?

With ebooks you do not have the enormous expenses of middlemen and overhead. The author typically gets 35-70% from an independent ebook publisher rather than 4-8%, so even if the cover price is less than half of the cost of a print book, the author makes 2-5 times as much per copy sold. In other words, you are paying the author for what they create, not the bookstore, the distributor, the printer, the publisher, and the agent. Soon it may be possible for authors to once again make a living wage writing full time, to bring home a modest salary of $30,000-50,000, in the neighborhood of the US median income of $46,000. Writing could be a profession again, not a hobby or something supported by second jobs.

That's what the excitement is about -- content that isn't dependent on the length of a physical book that can be about anything without having to be assured of a large mainstream audience, speed of publication that cuts down the lag between author and reader from the years it now takes, the end of the absolutely horrible waste in the modern booktrade, and living wages for the people who create the content.



( 31 comments — Leave a comment )
Dec. 10th, 2011 01:00 pm (UTC)
There's also the space issue.

I had to drastically cut down on buying books years ago as I have a tiny, tiny flat and had basically run out of room. So I had to move to an only friends and absolute fave author books, library the rest and I still had a space problem.

Now I can read on the Kindle App on the Droid, I can read in colour and all the authors I've been recced over recent years are mine at no extra space.

And I can read wrist crackers like GRRRM's, which rozk had been telling me for years to read, but I had not only no room, I have a damaged wrist which was nearly finished off by Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrel and could never have managed all those dragons. Now, its phone weight and I can curl up on the sofa with the Droid and powere through it at my normal reading speed, not my OUCH speed.
Dec. 10th, 2011 06:33 pm (UTC)
Good point! For those of us who do not have the library space of a country estate, figuring out where to put a thousand books is something of a challenge! Rather than in our pockets!
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Dec. 10th, 2011 06:36 pm (UTC)
Print on demand is 20-25% more expensive for the reader. But it does eliminate the enormous amount of waste, which I find just horrible.

The thing about the distributor is that they're the ones who sell the book. Stores get a catalog from the distributors and order from there. Without a distributor, each printer would have to market the book themselves -- hire marketing staff, pay them to travel, create catalogs and promotional material, distribute that material, hire sales people, etc. For a gigantic international publisher, maybe it's worth it. But a small press would never sell to a single bookstore without a distributor.
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(no subject) - dbalthasar - Dec. 10th, 2011 07:12 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - dbalthasar - Dec. 10th, 2011 07:16 pm (UTC) - Expand
Dec. 11th, 2011 12:37 am (UTC)
The thing that rather concerns me about the EBook revolution, from a reader's perspective, is marketing.

As it stands now, the authors published by, let's say, the Big 6, or even mid-sized publishers have a network. I, as a reader, gain most of my recommendations from authors who are reccing other authors work.

The problem with EBooks is that with the ease of publication, unholy amounts of books will suddenly flood the market, and as a reader, I'm almost afraid I'll get drowned in the less than ideal content before I find the good things like Ravens!

You get a certain quality garuntee, with the rather strenuous standards publishers insist on. I can certainly understand, and agree with excitement over the fact that books with less main-stream appeal will be published, because those are the books I love to read! But getting published by a large house garuntees at least a competent level of writing, whereas anyone can be published in EBook form.

And aren't you a bit concerned, as an author, about getting lost among all the other titles published. With mainstream publishing, the publisher, if I understand the model correctly, sends arcs to reviewers/magazines etc. etc.? Isn't that how authors establish followings, and wouldn't a lot of that be lost with EBooks, or at least, isn't the potential there?

I agree with every point you made concerning length and a wider market; I'm excited, and yet strangely apprehensive, and this comment is more me thinking aloud, as it were, than anything else, and asking for more thoughts, I suppose, because I've rarely seen an author endorse EBooks this completely, and all your points fascinate me.
Dec. 11th, 2011 07:05 am (UTC)

Me, too. I gave up with the Kindle because it took longer to filter through the garbage available in the store than to read a new novel. I find myself relying more than ever on the inventory of used bookstores. I have my favorite authors' backlist to read, plus whatever older goodies I find on the dusty shelves.

(no subject) - jo_graham - Dec. 11th, 2011 12:08 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - jo_graham - Dec. 11th, 2011 12:06 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - frontdoorangel - Dec. 11th, 2011 03:28 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - jo_graham - Dec. 12th, 2011 03:50 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - elizkcampbell - Dec. 11th, 2011 04:22 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - jo_graham - Dec. 12th, 2011 03:52 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - m_nivalis - Dec. 11th, 2011 04:05 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - jo_graham - Dec. 12th, 2011 03:52 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - m_nivalis - Dec. 12th, 2011 03:59 pm (UTC) - Expand
Dec. 11th, 2011 12:59 am (UTC)
As an e-book author myself, I'm a little torn. I'm pretty sure I'd have been much longer breaking into publication without the e-book revolution. And I am coming to love the convenience of having dozens of books on the reader in my purse. On the other hand, I also like my print books. And there's nothing quite like fondling a printed book with a story you wrote.

Lately I've been reading blogs by Kristine Kathryn Rusch (http://kriswrites.com/) and Dean Wesley Smith (http://www.deanwesleysmith.com/), and they've jumped on the bandwagon for e-books in a big way. One of the additional points they make is that it's a good way to keep your backlist available when most publishers only want it for one print run, or a 2-3 years.

I suspect the ideal sweet spot is really a mix - have some things published traditionally to introduce yourself in that market, and then keep your backlist and side items like series spin-offs that the publishers don't want available on your own. There's a lot to it though that aren't a normal part of writing - typesetting, formatting for the various e-book formats, arranging a cover, and handling distribution and marketing.

I'm not convinced that a mainstream publisher is necessarily much of a quality gateway. These days they seem to be more of a "lowest-common-denominator" gateway in many cases. If the book won't sell to a mainstream audience, they're not interested. They also don't seem to have much of an investment in editing and proofing lately. I picked up a book recently from Ace which left me tempted to throw it at the wall, and asking seriously if it HAD an editor.
Dec. 11th, 2011 12:12 pm (UTC)
I suspect the ideal sweet spot is really a mix - have some things published traditionally to introduce yourself in that market, and then keep your backlist and side items like series spin-offs that the publishers don't want available on your own.

I think that's very astute. We're not in a place yet where the traditional publishers are irrelevant. That's still where most readers are getting their content. They still have the marketing, and while options are emerging none of them are really there yet. I think they will be, but they're not yet.

If the book won't sell to a mainstream audience, they're not interested.

That, to me, is the big issue. And as a businessperson, I understand their math. The editors have to make a business decision. They don't have the leisure to publish things that won't make the numbers. But. As a writer, I want to do things that are decidedly not mainstream! And so a lot of it is walking a fine line -- how much can I push the envelope and still stay with a mainstream press?
Dec. 11th, 2011 07:09 am (UTC)

I've been paid a non-living wage to rip those covers off and throw the books in the trash. It's heartbreaking. I couldn't stand it. The store (now the only extant national bookstore chain) wouldn't even pay to have the trashed books picked up for recycle, and it was "against store policy" for me to take them. Truly waste.

Dec. 11th, 2011 12:12 pm (UTC)
Yeah. It utterly shocks me.
Dec. 11th, 2011 07:13 am (UTC)

P.S. I say "Boo!" to Hand of Isis being any shorter than it is. It's lovely.

Dec. 11th, 2011 12:14 pm (UTC)
Thank you!

You see what I mean with the length constraints, don't you? It can't be 600 pages unless you're Stephen King, because the stores won't stock it and the readers won't buy it at $19.99. And so a 600 page book has to be cut to 400 pages.
Dec. 11th, 2011 11:06 am (UTC)
Well, I love "real" books made from paper. I'd buy ebooks for environment protection, but I'm really p***ed of by the manner as especially amazon is trying to sell their ebook-readers. I want to have the choice between paper and electronic versions, not beeing forced to buy something I'm not completely convinced of yet.

I'm old-fashoined: I appreciate my printed books, love to smell the paper and the colour, to flip through the pages, TOUCH them. That's what I miss with ebooks. I want to own the books in real that I love, but I'd read most books on an reader - and order them as paperback/hardcover afterwards - if they are "worthy" to be presented (and preserved) in my own personal library.

As aishabintjamil wrote: I've also read some printed books by "so-called" bestseller writers that were crowded with orthographic and spelling mistakes, sold for hard (and a lot of) money that made me wonder the same: do some of the publishers still pay for editors?
Dec. 11th, 2011 12:16 pm (UTC)
I like the printed books too, but as a reader they've simply gotten too expensive for me. I can't afford to spend $15 on a trade paperback book by an author I've never read before. I just can't. So I find myself only buying books by the same authors over and over, people I've read for years who I know will deliver, and skip all the new people. Which is exactly what bites me!

But when you cut the price to $5.99, I can afford books again.
(no subject) - silverbullet27 - Dec. 11th, 2011 12:48 pm (UTC) - Expand
Dec. 11th, 2011 04:26 pm (UTC)

What brings on this discussion? Are you considering publishing some of your work to e-book?

Dec. 12th, 2011 03:57 pm (UTC)
The Ravens of Falkenau was published as an ebook and print on demand, so I've done it. There is no market for a novella except epub.

But no, this was sparked over the Stargate novels moving to a model of ebook and print on demand in order to cut the overhead. One of the big issues with them is that it's a world audience, and the costs of shipping to half of the customers are incredibly high -- people are paying three times the cover price of the book to get it shipped to the Slovak Republic or South Africa, and waiting weeks after the release date. Even customers in Germany are waiting two months after the release date for Amazon Germany to stock the books. The ebooks mean that the international customers can get the book immediately and at the same price as the US customers. It also means that there's not the tremendous cost of printing and holding books that haven't been ordered. They're only printed in response to actual orders. But that does mean that US customers who are buying a print book have to wait a week longer instead of having immediate delivery.
Dec. 13th, 2011 11:23 am (UTC)
Thanks for all this information; I hadn't known much of it, and it's compelling.

I've been resistant to e-books, mostly because I work on computer all day and the idea of staring at another one for my recreation is a real turn-off. Not to mention the bathing.

However, one of my favourite authors is a fanfic writer, and I print out most of her material anyway. I suppose I could print an e-book myself, if I really want a hard copy, still for way cheaper than buying it in a bookstore.
Dec. 13th, 2011 05:56 pm (UTC)
The price is a big issue. Books have gotten so expensive, and especially when it's a trade paperback the ebook is often half or less the original price. I know I can't afford to buy paper books on a whim just because I think they look interesting, and I know that other people are deciding not to buy my books for that very reason!
Dec. 13th, 2011 06:41 pm (UTC)
Tried to leave a comment a couple of dys ago but for some reason it wouldn't let me!
Just wanted to say thanks for sharing the info about publishing - it was fascinating to read, if rather shameful to see such waste in destroying books, and scary to think that books like 'Mists of Avalon' would not be published if it was written today!.
I can see both sides of the coin, lack of space and funds pushing me towards e-books. I like that you get a bigger chunk of what I spend, but also appreciate that more e-books = less paper books = less jobs in the industry. I think it's a question of finding a compromise between the two.
What does annoy me though, bearing in mind that producing e-books is so much cheaper, is where I find Amazon offering the e-book at a HIGHER price! That, I just don't understand.
Dec. 14th, 2011 09:07 pm (UTC)
That's the thing -- it does mean fewer jobs. The middlemen are jobs. The cover price is currently cut between fifteen or twenty people, which is why the author gets so little! It is absolutely true that the 92% of the book that doesn't go to the author is going to other jobs. And of course to gas, to ship the book across the country two or three or four times. And to the bank that has the mortgage on the bookstore. And to the investors who own stock in the publisher.
( 31 comments — Leave a comment )