There is no doubt that e-books are a bright spot in the dismal economics of publishing. The current market is strong — according to a recent Harris Interactive poll, one in six Americans now uses an e-reader, and that number will grow as consumers become more comfortable with the technology.
Actually, the potential for growth is astonishing. The Association of American Publishers reports that e-books have risen in 2010 to 6.4% of the trade market, up from 0.6% in 2008. The Institute for Publishing Research predicts that by 2015, e-book sales will increase to $3.6 billion, from $78 million in 2008. In publishing terms, that’s petrodollars.
But the certainty of growth brings confusion. E-books are transforming publishing, but nobody is exactly sure what that means. We all know that Amazon is dominant, and Apple and Google are now players, but the future of e-books is perhaps better divined by looking at the smaller players: the innovative startups and the individuals in the publishing trenches — the editors, agents and writers.
In terms of digital publishing, perhaps the biggest of the smallest is Open Road Integrated Media, founded by Jane Friedman, a former president and CEO of HarperCollins, and Jeffrey Sharp, a film producer. Open Road publishes 12 to 15 new e-books a year, but its bread and butter is digitizing backlist titles by such authors as Michael Chabon, Leon Uris and William Styron — names big enough to shift a few e-units.
Simultaneously, as an exercise in branding, Open Road produces short films about its authors. The living ones talk about their inspirations (often shown conspicuously absorbed by their e-readers). The not-so-living ones are the subjects of brief documentaries. Though Rachel Chou, its chief marketing officer, wouldn’t provide sales figures, Open Road seems poised to do well — it is perhaps the only publisher, traditional or digital, with such a canny approach to marketing.
The slickness of Open Road is in contrast to intimate and organic Emily Books, the brainchild of writer Emily Gould and former literary agent Ruth Curry. While Emily Books also digitizes previously published titles, Gould told me that the publisher’s list reflects “our enthusiasm for criminally underappreciated books.” Gould and Curry see themselves more as curators than publishers, and their goal is to foster an independent bookselling culture online. Thus, Emily Books’ first two releases are “Inferno,” a novel by poet Eileen Myles, and “No More Nice Girls,” an essay collection by anti-authoritarian feminist Ellen Willis.
Perhaps the most interesting aspect of Emily Books is that it’s a book club. Titles can be purchased individually or, for $159.99 a year, a subscriber gets 12 e-books, one per month. While this is a chunk of change, Emily Books has more than 100 subscribers. That’s enough, Gould says, to put the company in the black, even to generate “a tiny surplus.”
So with e-books, one viable path is to brand older or neglected titles. Perhaps this is because most consumers are overwhelmed by the selection of books now available. In this regard, e-reading creates opportunities for selectors, whether they be curators or savvy marketers.
And e-books are definitely creating opportunities for writers, especially as the stigma of self-publishing declines. Though many self-publishers of e-books are as poor as always, a few writers have enjoyed success: Darcie Chan sold 400,000 copies of her novel, “The Mill River Recluse,” earning her a respectable six-figure sum; Amanda Hocking earned a jaw-dropping $2 million from her nine novels about zombies and vampires, and another $2 million from a traditional deal with St. Martin’s Press.
“But that’s like winning the lottery,” said Neal Pollack, who has five print books under his belt. He turned to self-publishing when he realized that “Jewball,” his basketball noir novel, would be a tough sell for traditional publishers. His e-book has been available on Amazon since October.
Pollack described his foray into self-publishing as “a mixed blessing.” He feels that “Jewball” is a quality piece of writing, and he says he’s broken even on his investment. But the e-book sold only a few hundred copies. Amazon didn’t provide the marketing support that Pollack had hoped for, which was the targeted emails and the inclusion in the “Customers Who Bought This Item Also Bought” algorithm.
Nevertheless, Pollack said he’s “not ready to put ‘Jewball’ into the failure category just yet.” He is in the process of working out a better arrangement with Amazon. “That’s what most people who are putting out their own books are missing,” he said. “Without that, the odds of success are incredibly small.”
But that depends on what you mean by “success.” When Matthue Roth wrote “Automatic: Death, Girls, and REM,” a short book about a friend who died young, he, too, knew that its brevity and subject matter would make the book hard to place with a traditional publisher. “But sometimes you just want to get it out there,” Roth said.
Roth doesn’t know how many copies he has sold: “I lost my Amazon password. It feels immensely successful just to get your stuff to people who want to read it.”
Like Roth, TV writer Rob Kutner also had “an idea that I didn’t know what to do with” — “The Future According to Me,” a collection of 35 short comedic musings about the future. (Example: A breakthrough in quantum physics will allow Israelis and Palestinians to occupy the same land at the same time.) Kutner, however, did not have to turn to self-publishing. His e-book was acquired by Amazon editor David Blum and published as a Kindle Single.
“It was direct, fast and sold way more than I thought it would,” Kutner said. He would not reveal sales figures, but he did admit that his e-book’s price, 99 cents, probably helped.
What’s notable is that all of the aforementioned writers are professionals releasing books without deal-making by their agents — an unthinkable situation before digital publishing. But Pollack’s agent, Daniel Greenberg, was directly involved in the editing and production of “Jewball.” According to Greenberg, his agency, Levine Greenberg, is actively trying to figure out where e-books are going and what they will mean to their clients.
“For us it’s very important,” Greenberg said. “Every job in the publishing ecosystem will change with e-books. That’s why we want to learn what works and doesn’t work.”
So there is money to be made with e-books, but even industry professionals are still unsure how to get a piece of the digital pie. So what, if any, conclusions can we draw?
One is that the word “former” seems to come up a lot in digital publishing — meaning that experience in traditional publishing seems to help a lot. Another, as Greenberg pointed out, is that even more responsibility for editing, marketing and distribution is going to fall on the shoulders of writers.
A third conclusion is that smaller is better. (Even Open Road, which is well funded, is a small company.) Amazon, Apple and Google can afford to battle for the retail market; the people involved in the actual creation of e-books need to keep their costs down. Emily’s Books and Pollack’s novel may be in the black, but that’s because there wasn’t much red to get through. And both Pollack and Gould admitted that they’re still puzzling out how to make a profit.
The good news is that e-books mean good things to readers. There are a lot of interesting, inexpensive choices out there, once you shell out for the Kindle or iPad. There is much hand-wringing that digital publishing will mean the death of print, and maybe it eventually will. But it’s also been the catalyst of creativity, thus preventing, for another generation, the death of literacy.
Gordon Haber is a frequent contributor to the Forward.