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.

Elizabeth Buchan



Posted on August 31, 2011, in Publicity & Writing, Writing & Publishing. Bookmark the permalink. 10 Comments.

  1. I am becoming a author, writer, and I really admire your article. It is great that you have experience in the publishing industry. I am having a hard time coming up with a topic since I know so much. Thanks for the article.

  2. I find this very interesting, as I am an author who will most certainly go the e book route in the future for my book in the works. My only concern is quality. When editors, lit agents and publishers are vetting books, only the best get through. Now, every "Tom, Dick, and Harry" (including me) are authors! And the more ebooks out there, the harder it is to choose which ones are worthy of reading. It's certainly a dilemma. Thank you, Elizabeth, for this post.

  3. Very interesting post! I've not been published in paperback yet, and have only been an e-book author for a whole two days, so I've a lot to learn about the publishing industry.To be honest, since my e-book is a short-story erotic romance, I'm not sure it would find light of day as a "real" book, but it's perfect as a 99 cents buy in the virtual world. However, I am working on a novel now, and it will be interesting to see how I feel once that's finished. Will I be satisfied with only my ebook sales, or will I crave having my book in people's hands so they can turn a page rather than move a mouse.

  4. This is a terrific article, Elizabeth.I'm currently in the process of publishing my sixth novel (House of Cards), all of them self-published using well-known US POD publishers. In the last year the greater preponderance of my sales have been in the Kindle format. So, the question I will be asking myself in the future, is: To Tradeback or Not To Tradeback. I have to admit, holding one of my newly published tradebacks, with its slick, color cover, is a fitting endpoint to the troubled path we all face in bring a story to print. But more and more, especially with some POD publishers moving offshore, the game is not worth the candle…especially when it's so easy to take a book's text; convert it to Kindle and EPUB formats; open accounts with Amazon, Kobo, and other retailers; and take the lion's share of the royalties for myself. G_d knows, with POD publishers, royalties are minimal, especially in cases where your publisher insists on high e-book prices (e.g., $7.99, for something that really should sell for, say, $1.99).But as you so aptly point out, these are dangerous waters. In the rush to e-print, the tendency might be to slack off on the editing functions, both developmental and editorial. Believe, me, MS Word will NOT catch spelling errors. And syntax? Don't get me started. I've been fortunate not only to have a wife and daughter who read mysteries and know the Chicago Style Manual, but also, who aren't afraid to tell me when something needs to be changed. Not everyone is so blessed or will seek out people who can provide this much-needed help.And therein lies the biggest problem with the future of e-books: quality. Frankly, without the necessary checks and balances in the system, I fear for the future of popular literature.

  5. I have more books than I will ever read in my life time. Try 6 huge book shelves that are double stacked in some of them. As I age, it makes it harder for me to concentrate while I struggle to read 12 pt even with my glasses.My sister gave me a Kindle for Christmas and I LOVE it. I can upload books for free. It will hold 300 books in its storage. And, as an author, I can upload my WIP and have it read it back to me, allowing me to catch those words that I thought I spelled but I reversed some letters and they spelled another word, but one that didn't belong. My paperback sells for $14.95 but my Kindle edition of the book sells for only $0.99. I'd rather get my name out this go round than make money on the book.I put my book on Kindle BEFORE it was published by a small press. I own all of the rights to the kindle edition. Needless to say, my Kindle sales outsell my Amazon sales. I love the Kindle because I can change the font size to something comfortable on my eyes. We may like the feel and smell of a good book, but the generation that is coming to adulthood and middle age is Generation E for electronics. That fact alone is going to make selling your book as an e-book mandatory if you want to have young people (40 to 16) reading your book.I agree with the author of this blog. SPEND the money on a GOOD editor with credentials. In fact, I hire 2 different ones. They each see things that the other didn't see. By the time I edit from both of them, I have a polished book. I can see that one day, publishing houses will go out of business as well as bookstores. It's sad, but it's a reality.

  6. "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. "One side note: the publishing industry HAS ALREADY changed. The onslaught of e-reading devices has predetermined publishing's future. I, too, love to hold a good book in my hand as I'm reading. But never will I publish another hard copy book. Print books have a limited shelf life whereas the ebook's shelf life is virtual and unlimited. I agree that an editor is mandatory to the production of a good ebook. Editors on the outskirts within traditional publishing will find new life in e-publishing.

  7. As an author who almost went the traditional route (I had a literary agent), I'm thrilled to have created my own publishing company with two partners. Initially, sales were okay for six months as print copies, but once we explored and experimented with ebooks, sales took off. We've been playing around with the 99-cent price point and, I believe, is a great strategy for a book in a series and/or to draw attention to a new book. Believe it or not, 85% of our sales are from ebooks (so far, our publishing company has published three books). The best prices we've found are between 99 cents and 3.99. But just because it's easy to e-publish, we don't sacrifice quality. We still have professional editors and have hired book designers. That's an absolute must! However, I'm experimenting with shorter forms of writing priced at 99-cents using stock images. The sky's the limit.

  8. This is one of the best post I have ever read, I would love to read more in future. Keep up the good work

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