Why It Is Very Hard to have a Rational Conversation About E-Books

Thanks to Nick Mamatas’ blog: http://nihilistic-kid.livejournal.com/ for alerting all to this whacky article in the Wall Street Journal about literary fiction and e-books.


Among the howlers in the piece:

1) The article only talks about hardcover prices and e-book prices, ignoring that around 70% of the print publishing market is in paperback.  It also gets it wrong about e-book prices being universally low.

2) The article posits the total whopper that literary fiction debuts used to draw $50,000-$100,000 advances on average from the big publishers. The reality is that contemporary and historical fiction debuts, whether it was being sold as literary or not, averaged advances of $5,000-$15,000 from big publishers. Suspense, SFF, romance, and children’s debuts paid advances on average of considerably less than that, and those figures have largely gone unchanged for the last twenty years.

3) That publishers are buying fewer debuts and at lower advances because of the e-book market. This ignores basic realities such as that A) e-books are still only around 4% of book sales; and B) the actual reason that publishers are buying fewer debuts at lower advances is the same reason that they always have — we just had a giant recession. Every time we have a recession, especially a violent, bubble-inflated one, publishers do the same things: buy fewer new authors for less advance fees, cut mid-list authors from their lists, concentrate on big name authors and demand that those authors perform better, and fire publishing house staff, often starting with editorial. Book chains close stores and some of them usually go out of business. It happened in the early 1990’s recession, complicated by the Gulf War and the shrinkage of the wholesale market, and it happened in the late 1990’s, early oughts in the Tech Bubble recession.

But this recession was the Great Recession — the one that was only a hair’s breadth away from being a depression. With the shrinkage of the wholesale market over the last twenty years, and with real estate values tumbling, this recession rocked even the big chains — who haven’t been as well managed as they might be — caused mass firings and consolidations in the publishing firms and got some terrific authors punted from their contracts even as they were building a following. It was a mess and is still a mess. And in those circumstances, publishers are exceedingly cautious about buying new authors, while at the same time realizing that new may sell better than old.

The Wall Street Journal seems to want to pretend that the Great Recession never occurred or is no longer a factor. It revives the commercial vs. literary myth, creates an imaginary past where “literary” fiction was supposedly once more valued and declares that the barbarian e-books will cause publishers to throw out literary fiction for commercial e-commerce. This ignores that quite a few literary titles do exceedingly well in the e-book market. So much so that agent Andrew Wylie made a massive e-rights deal with Amazon for his highly eminent clients’ backlists of classics. (Wylie, known affectionately as “the Jackal,” has made his fortune getting mega international deals for some of the most revered authors of the 20th century. Perhaps that’s where the Wall Street Journal got confused about book advances.)

It’s all ridiculous hype, which Christopher Mims expertly dissects for Technology Review in this piece, “The Death of the Book Has Been Greatly Exaggerated.” (Yes, the Mark Twain quote will always be used.) Mims opens with the question:  “Why are tech pundits so eager to announce that the Ebook is taking over?” And the answer is because they are trying to sell gadgets. Mims lays it all out for you with graphs and everything:


The Wall Street Journal is interested enough in e-books (or rather iPads,) that it is planning to review books and cover the publishing industry a bit more. So expect more fantasy analysis soon.

Also, interesting news:


This is of course a really bad idea that Amazon is working up for a feature that helped negate their one disadvantage over brick and mortar bookstores — the ability to pick up the book, read the back cover and skim a few pages to see if you like it. It would also reduce Amazon’s effectiveness as a search site destination. Even if Amazon doesn’t ultimately charge for peeking — which they are blaming on publishers, the same publishers they charge to have the search inside feature for their books — it is a symbol of what’s probably going to come — more charges for access to various parts of websites. It seems like a really good way for Amazon to lose sales, though, on the whole.


Filed under book publishing, Technology

3 responses to “Why It Is Very Hard to have a Rational Conversation About E-Books

  1. Kirsten, the Denver agent with the PubRants blog, recently posted that for her clients, several of whom are on the NYT Bestseller list, have average ebook sales of around 1% of their total sales. So we’re still a long way from ebooks denting the overall market, despite the current hype. Most of the fuss seems to be people positioning themselves for ebooks becoming a bigger slice of the pie down the road. And, because it’s something new to talk about, for which no one really has any answers yet, meaning any old opinion tossed out there sounds as good as anybody else’s theory. (Much more interesting and ‘hip’ to talk about this new things rather than re-hashing the industry’s chronic problems that no one seems able to fix…)

    • The other problem is that book publishing is peculiar, fiction even more so, so you have a lot of opinions about book publishing from people who don’t know anything about it, but believe absolutely that electronics will radically and quickly change it, like on the Internet, ignoring that the technology has been around for awhile. And you have book publishing people who don’t really know much about electronics and are freaking out about what is really a great opportunity, and a market that is still building itself and is flux. Where did the Wall Street Journal get its figures on past debut advances, for instance? If you get a $50K-$100K advance starting out, that means the publisher is investing heavily in you and will be promoting you a lot and pretty much expecting you to be at least a lower rung bestseller. It means you’re on a whole other track, where some of them rise and some of them sink on those expectations. So it’s not surprising that aspiring authors have very strange notions about publishers when they are getting fed incorrect figures like that or that business people view publishing in an unrealistic way because it sounds like there’s a lot more money on the table than there is.

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