The New York Times has just reviewed the pros and cons of the Amazon electronic book from the viewpoint of publishers, booksellers, and readers. I thought I’d contribute a writer’s perspective.
The Kindle hit the market in limited supply last November. For those who missed the initial fuss, the device allows owners to download books in a minute, and the interface reads more or less like print on the page. The Kindle was the subject of hype, raves, rants, and mixed reviews.
Seven-plus months later, the Kindle — so says the Times — is making the book industry anxious. By most estimates, hardware sales have reached the 10,000 mark, and the Washington Post is willing to entertain a figure three times that high. Using a modification of the iPod sales curve as a template, the Post forsees well over a million Kindles in use within the next two years.
The current New Yorker cover has a young woman caught guiltily accepting an Amazon delivery; the onlooker is a bookstore owner opening his shop. For all the harm online sales have done independents, surely a popular download device would be the greater disaster. Jeff Bezos, the Amazon CEO, reports that Kindle owners buy more books in all formats, electronic and bound. Commentators have expressed doubts. But even if Bezos is right, and ebooks don’t cannibalize print sales, the Web’s siphoning off the most voracious readers is an ominous development for the corner store.
Meanwhile, publishers are shaking their heads. Publishing houses sell e-book content to vendors at full freight, 45 to 50 per cent of the full retail price, perhaps twelve or fifteen dollars for what is otherwise a new hardcover. Since Amazon offers Kindle versions at ten bucks, the company moves toward the red on every sale. As the joke goes, what they lose on each unit, they make up in volume. Evidently, Amazon is aiming for market share and monopolistic power. Soon, the company is bound to demand that publishers cut prices.
But then, fat is there for the trimming. A good chunk of a book’s cost for the publisher arises from the object’s physical form. There are expenses for paper, binding, printing, storage, and distribution, followed in unhappy cases by bookstore returns. For e-books, these considerations all but disappear. Right now, with e-books, publishers reap windfall profits based on expenses they don’t actually incur. If they had to share this excess with Amazon, publishers would still be ahead. If they had to cede all of it, they’d be as well off as they were in the good old days. The same, by the way, holds for readers. At twelve bucks, Kindle books would still be "half off" full retail, assuming that the device comes down to a price (it’s now $359) that can be more quickly amortized.
What of the author? I confess to a strong prejudice in favor of the Kindle. My most beloved child among my own books is my novel, Spectacular Happiness. It concerns a sympathetic sixties holdover who is blowing up beachfront homes as a way of reaching out to his former wife. It appeared to favorable reviews in August of 2001, only to become all but unmentionable after September 11. Scribner allowed Spectacular Happiness to go of print . . . more or less. Technically, the book was in limbo, attributed an intermediate status that allows a publisher to argue that a book is still available (in theory it could be printed on demand) so that the rights do not revert to the author.
There I was — no book, no way to find a new publisher — until Kindle came along. Spectacular Happiness was in the original group of titles accorded Kindle status and so has effectively made its way back into print. More, it’s “on the shelf,” available for purchase, anywhere in the world. Generally, as in a bookstore, Kindle subscribers can browse a first chapter for free and then choose. In effect, authors who would otherwise have no voice get to address their audience directly. What a pleasure!
To be clear: what is at issue here is less sales than readership. Few writers make money at their craft. Even fewer make money from royalties.
Here’s how the author’s cut works. A book proposal may receive an advance, which means an advance against royalties, which generally run fifteen per cent or less of the price for a hardcover. Paperback royalties are often seven-and-a-half per cent or lower. But as my college classmate, Andrew “The Jackal” Wylie, has said, if a literary agent is doing his job in the initial negotiations, a book will rarely accrue royalties in excess of the advance; publishers make more on each sale than the author does, so that they can prosper even while complaining that a title has not “earned out.”
The result is that, blockbusters aside, authors have a substantial, but finally an indirect interest in sales. What most authors want is to be read. E-publishing has advantages in this regard. At very low cost, books can be kept available indefinitely. And while the trend in the publishing industry has been toward ever fewer titles — less room for the mid-list, no support for literary fiction — outlets like Kindle suggest an avenue for publication that remains curated but that has room for variety.
Of course, there are substantial risks. I love bookstores, especially independents. If e-books become truly readable — cozy, like books on the shelf – bookstores will close. The financial pressures that worry publishers concern authors, too. Already there are many fewer unrelated publishers than there were when I started writing. This means fewer options for sales and, during the writing, less editing — certainly less editing devoted to quality rather than the anticipated bottom line. Oligopolies rob authors of what little power they have. And for me, as for most writers, there’s nothing like the feel of a volume in the hand. Books are beautiful objects, precious beyond their price.
But books do need to settle themselves into this century. Young readers are not going to tolerate a format that lacks text searches, cut-and-paste copying into other documents, and, yes, instant availability.