Last Call in the Great E-Book Debate

I’ve written quite a lot in recent weeks about e-b0oks and self-publishing and La Revolucion! (Links abound at the end of the article for those who are painfully interested and didn’t catch them the first time.)

It’s funny.  I don’t even own an e-reader.  The dang things are expensive.  And e-books aren’t really that cheap – unless you want to read $0.99 or $2.99 e-books by no-name self-published folks (which is what this is all about, I guess), whereas I mostly want to read books by authors whose names I know and recognize, whose books I am assured to like.  As I mentioned when I wrote about my “to-read list” (here, here, and relatedly here), I’m not so overflowing with time that I can waste it on an e-book that I may or may not enjoy.  That’s right: the limiting factor isn’t the few bucks an e-book might save.  It’s the time to read them all.

So e-books might be marginally cheaper: but to recoup the cost of an e-reader I’d have to read so many books, and from where I stand there’s simply no way I’ll ever have time to read that many books.  I foresee that I am doomed to die and pass from this mortal life with a to-read list that still piled high.  I’ve blogged about this problem before, with respect to the e-book revolution

So, in some ways, as I talk about e-books it’s a tad hypocritical, or self-serving, or whatever.  I don’t own an e-reader, and I’m not likely to in the short-term at least unless one mysteriously ends up in my lap at no cost to me.  Do I want one?  Oh yes.  I am a geek, after all.  Gadget lust runs in my veins.  But I’m a practical geek.

My interest in e-books and the related digital self-publishing revolution relates mainly to my interest in building a hypothetical career as an author.  (I say hypothetical because it remains to be seen whether I have the chops for it.)  Is self-publishing the right path for me?  That’s a question I’ve struggled to answer – even as I acknowledge that it’s not a question I need to answer for a good long while to come.  Write first.  Worry about publishing later.

Given the facts on the ground, as it were – that being that I have yet no novel to worry about publishing – it would probably behoove me to shut my yap about digital self-publishing, for the time being, wouldn’t it?

Maybe so.  I don’t plan to stop learning about it, though.

But given my interests, as a reader, and my hopes for my career… I’m not sure I can see myself ever being satisfied with the digital self-publishing path.  How could I self-publish when I don’t really have the time of day for other authors who have self-published?  It’s nothing against them, you see, but as I said above I have so much I want to read that’s been traditionally published that digging through the self-publishing bargain bins to find the real gems (and I’m sure there are many wonderful gems) just doesn’t appeal to me.  If I were to enter that world, as an author, I’d feel obligated to participate as a reader as well… and right now that’s not something I can do.  Time does not permit.

So, for today, I’ve got just two more links about digital self-publishing that I want to share.

First: author Paul Jessop reveals another dirty little secret of the digital self-publishing world: “Amazon is a gatekeeper“.

Give the article a read.  He’s mostly right, of course.  

I will say that Paul is wrong that traditional publishers are not gatekeepers (and that they’re not “trying to keep people out, they’re trying to get people in”).  That’s patently just… false.  Agents, editors, slush readers… those who will talk about what they do will say that they get so many submissions that they’re looking for reasons, from word-one, to reject a manuscript.  Not, as it is, because the story is bad or because they’re trying to oppress an author, but because they have limited time and limited space in the magazine or publishing schedule or whatever, and they need to maximize the value of the resources they have.  So maybe they’d love to let more people in.  But they can’t… because they don’t have enough playground equipment for all the kiddies that want to come play.  So that little bit of his post is just an eensy bit condescending.  But the thing is?  I don’t blame the gatekeepers for keeping the gate.  That’s their job.  And if they do it well… it can be a thing of beauty. 

The word “gatekeeper” gets thrown around a lot, in a pejorative sense, by the people who are interested in self-publishing.  But there’s nothing wrong with having checks-and-balances on the limited resources of a publisher, to make sure that those resources are being used to bring out the best possible stories.  It’s a flawed system, sure… stinkers sometimes make it through, and gems are kept out.  But the problem emphatically is not that there’s a system in the first place.  The problem is that sometimes the system as-is is not always optimally efficient. 

Meanwhile, the fans of self-publishing like to pretend that Amazon is some pure utopia of democracy.  If there’s an audience out there for you, you’ll find it on Amazon.

Which is hogwash.

Amazon does not exist to connect you to an audience.  Amazon exists to make money.  They make money using algorithms.  If you find an audience on Amazon it’s not because of some pure golden democracy.  It’s because a computer algorithm saw fit to put your work in front of the eyes of some reader somewhere.

There’s nothing wrong with that, either.  Both systems are ways for authors to try to reach an audience.  Each has pros and cons.  Each has flaws.  Each is part-and-parcel with business that’s trying to make money by connecting readers with the stories they want to read.  It would be just a little disingenuous to characterize one as merely some perfect reader utopia and the other only as a greedy business out to make money at all costs, when in fact both have aspects of both.

Meanwhile, successful self-published author Bob Mayer muses about changes coming down the pipe in the industry that could hurt him if he doesn’t change his business model.  The short version of his take-away: things in the digital self-publishing world are continuing to change.  And as they change, traditional publishers are poised to re-dominate the market.  Though he’s successful now, he sees a certain amount of writing on the wall, as more and more successful digital self-publishers turn to traditional publishers, or agents-cum-digital-publishers, or the new Amazon imprint… this trend is clearly happening for a reason.

So, there’s that.

And then there’s this post by Catherynne Valente: “Little e and Big B: Books and EBooks and Love and War“, wherein she appeals for a shift in the discussion away from the technical details of e-books and back toward the love of books.  It’s a beautiful little post.  Valente does have a way with words.

Which brings me to where I began with today’s post.

I’ve talked a lot about e-books lately.  But really: I don’t know a thing about e-books, anyway.

It’s time I got back to talking about something I actually do know a thing or two about: Fantasy, Speculative fiction, books, and my own attempts at writing them.  There will be time enough to worry about publishing models and all that, later.


For the painfully curious, links to my most recent posts about digital self-publishing: here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and last-but-not-least here.


18 thoughts on “Last Call in the Great E-Book Debate

  1. An aversion to hypocrisy is one of my reasons for shying from e-publishing, also. I don’t own an e-reader, and I have no immediate plans to obtain one; I’ve got a love affair going with paper books, and they’re a jealous mistress (or… whatever the male equivalent would be). Whether I turn to self-publishing in the near future or not remains to be seen, but if I ever do, I’ll still be looking primarily to the actually printed word.

    • I would say the same, regarding loving paper books – except that my lack of experience with e-books means I don’t really have a basis for comparison. I can’t say whether I’d like e-books worse, better, even or not… I’ve never had the opportunity to try. But it’s undeniable that there are certain market opportunities in the world of digital self-publishing that don’t exist or are harder to replicate in print self-publishing.

  2. Same here.

    My grandmother bought me an e-reader, but to be honest I can’t read novel-length stories in any digital format so it goes unused, lol. I get too easily distracted for some reason. (Articles and shorts I’m fine with, though.) I like to get cozy with novels, and I’m sorry but e-readers and computers just aren’t “cozy”, imo. Not for a long haul.

    Heck, I get distracted with physical books sometimes! My success at sticking with these as opposed to electronic, however, is far, far greater. (In fact, I’ve yet to finish a full-length novel in electronic format!) Besides this, I just like having the cover art in my hands sometimes, as well, heh.

    So yeah, I don’t really understand the craze about the whole e-book revolution. It’s cool, in a way, but to me it’s just another way to reach potential readers.

    In any case, I count you as my ear on the e-book business, heh, so it’s good to know what’s going on and to see different professional writer’s opinions on the matter, as well. And no matter how my work gets published in the future (I’d prefer the traditional route right now, though we’ll see), I will, of course, consider those who prefer an electronic format. It would be stupid not to.

  3. There’s a couple of two main points I’m going to comment on:
    * The pricing of eBooks. Yes if you just want to read indie authors then you’re onto a winner but if you want to buy books from the big names, traditionally published authors then the prices just don’t add up. Certainly on a Stephen King or Neil Gaiman title will cost exactly the same for the eBook as buying the physical edition. Which doesn’t make sense to me because surely at least some of my money for the print edition is going towards the paper, the ink, the man who drove it between warehouses. And also, with no price difference, I’m always going to choose the paper version because once I’m done with it I can then sell it or pass it on, presenting a better investment. That whole thing confuses me.

    * The big players are going to end back up on top eventually. Damn straight. Things are going to change and be very different but there’s no way a single guy putting out content himself will ever be able to compete with the big publishers and their massive advertising budgets. Once everyone’s on eReaders then I feel we’ll see a return to a similar-ish landscape to what we’ve seen previously. I’ll point out a potential parallel to the early days of eBay when suddenly you had these handfuls of ordinary people managing to make large sums of money just by selling stuff from their front rooms. Those were certainly interesting times but they didn’t last because the site and the industry just couldn’t support it so rules changed, the big players started coming to eBay and the days of crazy bargains and profits drew to a close. I’m not saying people can’t make themselves a living selling on eBay any more but the margins are far tighter and they need to make a proper investment of time and money to survive. Which is what’s going to happen with the self-publishers. I reckon.

    • The pricing issue is one of the common complaints that has arisen during the e-book revolution: there’s a long argument over what the price of e-books “should” be, and some argue that it should be lower because they don’t cost anything to reproduce at a physical level, and others arguing that they should be priced higher because there’s still a significant but important fixed-cost that goes into book production that doesn’t include the actual physical printing and distribution, i.e. editing, cover art, type-setting, marketing, etc. In fact… both arguments are at least somewhat valid: with the net-effect meaning that e-books probably should be priced less than mass-market paperbacks, even if just a little. Eventually, I expect it will settle out into a territory just south of mass-market PB. (Although, I understand you guys don’t have MMPB in the UK… only HC and Trade Paperback… so I’m not sure what the price comparison will be.) That’s one of those “predictions” that I think I buy: the e-book eventually replacing the MMPB as second or third-tier format. As for the rest… I can’t really disagree with that. Economies of scale can’t be argued with. They just are.

  4. I’m a little confused about the fact that you’re talking about digital vs. paper publishing (since you read books on paper and don’t own an e-reader) and self-pub vs. traditional (since you prefer not to self-pub because you don’t read indie books).

    It seems to me that these are two separate questions. Both indie and traditional authors publish in both digital and paper versions, after all. I’m self-pubbed and only on paper (so far), for example (and it sounds like Danielle might head in that direction also at some point).

    As far as I can see, the real “revolution” (real or not — and we’ve talked about that before) is a self-publishing revolution. The big question is whether the heroic self-pubbers will overthrow the supposed Evil Overlords of the traditional publishing world. If those Evil Overlords are overthrown, it will affect both hard copy and e-pub, if not, then not.

    It seems that the “death of real (paper) books” question is a separate question from self-pubbing, and one that’s easier to answer. Whether or not the heroic self-pubbers triumph in the end, both paper and digital formats will continue.

    The key breakthrough in self-pubbing is not, it seems to me, the rise of e-readers, it’s the fact that people can now self-publish (in both formats) without any outlay of cash in advance (unlike traditional vanity publishing). This has been in the works for some time, starting before the rise of the e-reader.

    • You make a good point: i.e. self-publishing ≠ digital self-publishing. Technically speaking, you can self-publish these days without relying on e-books. I do largely conflate the two, however, because of the way the e-book revolution, in specific, has impacted the world of self-publishing. You’re right that the cost factor for self-publishing has been eroding since before e-books, especially with the advent of POD, which has enabled self-publishers to do what they do in a more cost-effective manner.

      However, I tend to conflate them because digital self-publishing conveys one important advantage, market-wise, over print self-publishing (POD or otherwise): distribution. Typically, with print self-publishing, there’s very little chance that you can achieve a significant distribution even remotely approaching what traditional publishers can do. With the internet this is ameliorated somewhat because you can connect directly with readers. However, there’s still a problem of the scope of that connection: the internet is so large that it’s difficult to capture the attention of enough readers to come close to the distribution reach of a traditional publisher. With the advent of the e-book revolution and selling through large online retailers like Amazon and, a digital self-publisher can achieve a distribution reach that comes close enough to what a traditional publisher can reach that it enables self-publishers to be successful without a significant additional investment in creating a distribution channel. In truth, that’s the real revolution: the semi-democratizing of the distribution channel as opposed to the the format.

      Besides that, there’s also one other factor that would cause me to tend to conflate the two: the fact that a large amount of the interest in self-publishing right now is centered on e-books specifically, and that most self-publishers are focused on the digital route and forgoing print (in large measure because many self-publishers now aren’t seeing significant sales from their print efforts, making it not worth their time). I’m not sure on what the statistics are, as to how many are digitally self-pubbing vs. print self-pubbing, but if the general online chatter is any indicator, it’s significantly in favor of digital, at the moment.

      • I think this is where my confusion is. I’m not getting your point about the increased distribution opportunities for e-books. My book (hard copy) is available on Amazon, just like the e-books, so I’m missing at least part of your point.

        The huge advantage that I see for digital self-pubbers is price control. As you’ve pointed out, traditional publishers are keeping the prices of e-books and regular books roughly comparable. Digital self-pubbers have the option to do what the trad publishing houses are not willing to do yet: go a _lot_ lower than that and see what happens.

        Paper self-pubbers don’t have that option. A Sane Woman is $10, and very little of that is profit (and it’s a fairly short book). With POD, you lose the economy of scale that traditional publishers have, since every book is a unique production.

        I do agree that a large (and probably increasing) percentage of self-pubbers are going digital these days. Other than price control, the other bit advantage that I see is ease of production. Making a real paper book (one that looks even somewhat professional) is a _lot_ of work. Line breaks, page breaks, widows and orphans, hyphenation, kerning, leading, etc. Digital self-pubbers don’t have to worry about that stuff.

        I’ve been doing desktop publishing professionally for over 25 years, and I had to learn a lot to lay out ASW to my satisfaction.

        (I have friends who are professional book designers, and I have not asked them for their opinion — I’m afraid of the hoots of derisive laughter, despite all the work I put in.)

      • Well, I’ll be honest… I haven’t studied or read as much how to do a print self-publication as I have about digital self-publication. There’s just not that much talk or chatter about it. But it does sound like there’s a lot of work involved in print, which is somewhat of a barrier for potential self-publishers. I’ve been aware that the profit on POD is very narrow… it costs quite a bit to print, per book, especially compared to the per-book cost of something like the mass-market paperback (where it’s on an order of pennies per book). And that’s certainly a significant constraint on print self-publishing. As you point out, digital doesn’t have those contraints. Interestingly, I’ve followed some authors who have done print self-pubbing alongside digital who are talking about dropping or have dropped print support, because there’s just no sales there. Still, I ought to learn more about the print self-pub side of things though… if I were to ever self-publish I’d definitely want to include this as part of my offering – becaue I like print.

      • Even if I do go to e-pubbing at some point (and, as we’ve discussed before, my qualms are technical), I expect I will always do paper as well, for similar reasons. When I look at A Sane Woman, I think, “_This_ is how I wanted it to be.” Even if nobody buys it (and some people have, I hasten to add), that’s a particular pleasure.

        I just saw this article in the NY Times, about comic books and e-readers: It’s a volatile situation since, far more than traditional publishers at this point, comic book companies are fighting for survival (I talked about DC comics’ reboot of their entire line, which was driven by a hope for a few new readers, here:, as is B&N, and obviously nobody really knows the best course to follow. I think the main reason mainstream comics still exist at all is because they generate characters and stories for movies.

        I’m fine with e-books for regular books, but I do think comic books should be comic books, on paper, but I can understand why they’re trying to find a digital alternative.

      • Yes, I agree with your sentiment on the physical books. You can’t put an e-book on the shelf… so if you only digitally self-publish where’s the physical awesome that you proudly display on your own bookshelf, the proof of your accomplishment? If I had a book that people are buying, I’d kind of want to have that physical evidence.

        I’d read about the situation with DC and the Amazon-exclusive. I think the whole thing is a shame: and I hope exclusives go the way of the dodo. I despise the very idea of third-party platform-exclusive content. I’ve got no problem with exclusive content that’s developed internally for the platform – but when others on the outside decide to take their content exclusive I think it hurts the market. (So, for instance, I’ve got no problem with Mario or Zelda being Nintendo-exclusive – those are properties developed internally at Nintendo. But it makes me sad when a Final Fantasy title is exclusive unless there’s a legitimate hardware issue that other platforms can’t address…) With books and e-books the idea of exclusive content rankles even more, because there is nothing inherent in one platform that makes it superior to another in terms of displaying static content – in other words there is no legitimate hardware issue between one color e-reader and another, so I seen no reason why a color title should be exclusive to one such e-reader. If Kindle were the only color e-reader on the market, I could understand. But it’s emphatically not: not with the Nook Color and iPad and Android-tablets also available.

        But I agree that comic books, in particular, aren’t a very good fit for e-readers, even color e-readers. (I highlight the color issue above because I realized that color was a critical component of the reading experience for comic books.) How do you handle a full-page spread, for instance? On an e-reader, it’s tough, because the screen isn’t large enough to handle it. An iPad or other 10+ inch reading device might be big enough. But the 7-inch or smaller screen of something like the Kindle Fire just seems way too small to do something like that justice.

  5. As I was just mentioning over at Tiyana’s blog, now that I’m going to put the mystery stories in print (real print, on paper) I’m finding all sorts of things to tweak that I’d never seen before. Punctuation, word choice, sentence structure. I’m sure this is because I still think of print publication as being more official, more real. As the teachers used to say when I was in school, “This is going on your permanent record card.” 🙂

  6. Pingback: Links to Chew On: Publishing, Dialog, Language, Culture, DRM, and Weirdness « The Undiscovered Author

  7. Pingback: Book Making: Biggest business blunders of self-publishing authors | The Independent Publishing Magazine

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