These days, the writing community is focused on how the axis of amazon.com, eBooks, eReaders, and various self-publishing services has made it easier for authors and would-be authors to bypass traditional publishers. Using services like smashwords.com, a writer can create an eBook for almost no cost (except for their time) and get it listed on amazon and other online retailers. Here are some of the advantages…
For established authors:
- You can make your out-of print works available for sale again, and generate a little revenue.
- If you have a large established readership anxious to buy your next book, you can cut the publisher out of the loop and collect a bigger share of the profits
For non-established authors:
- Self-publishing allows you to by-pass the notoriously lengthy process of shopping your book around to agents and publishers, as well as the emotional strain of receiving dozens of rejection slips.
- If your book sells well, you may attract the interest of a traditional publisher or agent.
- A handful of writers have had great success with this model, and made good money from books that agents formerly rejected.
- Even if your book is not good enough to ever interest a traditional publisher, at least you may have the satisfaction of seeing it in print and having a few readers.
Of course, there are also some disadvantages, which many have pointed out:
- As with vanity publishing, many bad or mediocre eBooks get listed on amazon. The low quality of self-published eBooks is compounded by the fact that many of their authors don’t bother to hire a professional editor, proofreader, or book designer.
- So many thousands more books and eBooks become available for sale that it’s very easy for your book to be a needle in an immense haystack that few readers find.
Added to this is an even larger problem…
The Death of the Offline Bookstore
For some time, online booksellers have been taking a bite out of traditional bookstore sales. The collapse of Borders in the last year is just the most obvious example to date. What bothers me is that the shift towards online buying is changing the way readers find books.
Traditionally, if a new author got his or her books onto the shelves of bookstores, he had a fighting chance of being discovered by readers. Most bookstore shelves are arranged alphabetically by author (after being first separated into broad categories such as romance, literary, or science fiction). This practice means that books by budding authors are positioned side-by-side with bestsellers and classics. The bookshelf was a type of level playing field. Bookstore customers would scan the shelf looking for books they hadn’t seen before and that looked interesting. Often they would pick up a book by a new author.
(Of course, in bookstores, the bestsellers have the advantages of end displays and front-of-store displays, but shoppers can bypass these and go straight for the shelves.)
However, if people are shopping for books online at amazon or some other retailer, they don’t see a huge shelf of with hundreds of books. All they see is the equivalent of an end display. They see roughly 20 books at a time, usually the books amazon thinks will interest them – the bestsellers or books by established writers. The new books by authors that don’t yet have a readership will be buried 20 pages or more down. How often does anyone have the patience to click down through 20 pages of titles? How about 100 pages or more?
Oh sure, if someone searches for a book by specific title or author it will appear, but that presumes they have already heard of this book and are curious enough about it to make the search.
So here’s the conundrum. On the one hand, online retailers make it easier to publish, so that thousands more books are published each year. On the other hand, the nature of the online bookstore causes almost all of those books to be hidden where few readers will ever find them. It’s a model that promises authors a level playing field while at the same time rigging the system so that only the top 1% sell enough books to make a living. (In fact, the handful of top bestselling authors make millions while the average eBook author makes next to nothing.)
Of course, one attempt to solve this problem has been the growth of book blogs where readers can learn about new books that have not yet made it to the bestseller list. But I suspect you have to be a pretty dedicated book enthusiast to spend a lot of time reading book blogs. I doubt the average book buyer takes the time. Instead, they confine their infrequent purchases to brick-and-mortar bookstores (occasionally) or online bookstores where all they will see are the handful of bestsellers in each category.
I don’t have a solution to this. But I can’t help thinking that a better system would be closer to a real level playing field, one that allowed a much larger percentage of authors the chance to make a living income from their work.