To E-Book or Not To E-Book?
Guest Post by Elizabeth Buchan
Before I became an author I worked in publishing, ending up as a fiction editor. After that, the worm which has been eating away at me for a long time became so insistent that I gave in my notice, used my final salary to stock up the larder and the freezer (just in case) and set down to writing the novels.
There were many things to be learnt. First off – and apparent from Day One – you may know everything there is to know about publishing (I hasten to say that I did not. I am the editor who turned down the chance to publish the UK paperback of The Bridges of Madison County) but you know nothing about being an author. As an author, your life and ways of seeing are totally different. Once embarked on the writing life, you leave publishing considerations behind you and become as deeply neurotic as the next author.
The publishing industry is stuffed with delightful, interesting people, some of whom become life-long friends. Most of them begin their publishing careers filled with idealism and ideas. Naturally, as with so many professions and industries, these become battered over time. How many times did I listen in at a meeting when an impassioned editor begged to be allowed to publish a book only to be told it would not make sufficient money? Far too many times. But not always. There was still room in the publishing industry for the punt, the gamble and the brave advocacy of the editor. Once taken on, any such book would be put through the publishing process… edited, copy edited, jacket, marketed and sold. It was big team effort.
This is going to change. It is too early to be definitive, but the signs are that the E-Book is going to dominate the business in a manner which was inconceivable only a few years ago. As an author, I have to confess double standards here. I want my novels to be read (preferably by millions) and I am not particular if they are read by readers dangling from chandeliers, skateboarding down a mountain or deep in the Amazon jungle. I happen to love the feel of a book in my hands. (After all, it one of the oldest and tried and tested of technologies.) But the E-Book allows the skateboarder and jungle explorer more freedom and flexibility. It also panders to the spur-of-the-moment purchase. What’s not to like? No doubt about, the E-Book will open up new frontiers, new reading patterns and new possibilities. What’s more, as an author I can publish myself in the future if I was so minded, thus saving money and, hopefully, making it.
How can I argue these advantageous developments? Answer: I do and I don’t. First off, there is the worry that an author cannot guard their copyright and text any longer once it is on-line – and thereby compromising their income stream. These questions are being fought over as I write.
Second – and this is to return to the delightful, interesting publishing people who have taken such risks in the past, and worked so hard for the love of publishing. What is going to happen to them? Those jacket designers, print experts, production people and the sales and marketers? Their future is going to different and the expertise and artistry they bring to book jackets, typography and marketing is no longer going to be needed. Or, at the very least, it is going to be eroded. This is expertise we cannot afford to dispense with.
As to the editor? If authors choose to go their own publishing route, the editor is cut out of the process. This is not – I repeat – not a good thing. Even the most gifted of us need an editor to pull a book together. Of course, some of them will hire themselves out on the net as freelancers. But, in my experience, there is nothing to beat the in-house, grounded, knowledgeable, experienced editor whose gentle critiques come laced with steel. They are the best. I shudder to think what my novels might have been like if I hadn’t bowed to their advice.
To borrow from the great Charles Dickens. It is the best of times. It is the worst of times for publishing. It is going to be fascinating to see how publishers pull rabbits out of the hat in order to survive – for, without being too drama queen about it, I do think their survival is being questioned.