Let them eat cake?

Let them eat cake!

A recent article in the Wall Street Journal on the impact of ebooks on writers, publishers and agents mixed genuine concern for the little guy with a lot of misplaced sympathy for industry fat cats.

The article describes how major publishers are signing fewer authors and offering smaller advances due to declining print book sales. The piece seems to want to point the finger at the ebook, rather than the recession or an overall decline in reading among Americans. After all, recent polls like the Harris survey I described in my last blog entry show that people who use electronic book readers purchase more books than their non-e-reading neighbors, and are a rare bright spot in the publishing industry.

The article doesn’t stop there. It quotes literary agent Ira Silverberg calling the digital media revolution “this digital disruption,” as if digital media were a bad thunderstorm that would soon pass.


Much as cheap digital-music downloads have meant that fewer bands can earn a living from record-company deals, fewer literary authors will be able to support themselves as e-books win acceptance, publishers and agents say. “In terms of making a living as a writer, you better have another source of income,” says Nan Talese, whose Nan A. Talese/Doubleday imprint publishes Ian McEwan, Margaret Atwood and John Pipkin.

Au contraire. “Cheap digital-music downloads” have opened the doors for thousands of previously unheard-of bands to reach new audiences. And has writing as a career ever paid well, except for the select few? And why are e-books to blame?

"Ping," part of Apple's iTunes, helps users discover new music.

Even more:

Unlike traditional bookstores, where a browsing customer might discover an unknown book set out on a table, e-bookstores generally aren’t set up to allow readers to discover unknown authors, agents say. Brand-name authors with big marketing budgets behind them are having the greatest success thus far in the digital marketplace.

The article fails to understand that social media and online reader reviews allow readers to discover unknown authors even more easily than stumbling across “an unknown book set out on a table” (that’s marketing?).

Perhaps it’s the raw deals e-book authors are signing. For example, the article says authors make about $4.20 on every $28 hardcover, and just $2.27 on a $12.99 e-book. Yet their work hasn’t changed. What’s changed is the publisher’s cost—close to nothing in terms of printing, binding and distribution, because it’s all digital. Any teenager with a computer can run an electronic bookstore from his basement for the cost of the electric bill. And perhaps it’s some authors’ world views:

(John) Pipkin, who has a Ph.D in English literature, says he cobbles together an income based in part on grants, fellowships and a partial advance he has received for his second book. “I’ve had to rethink my plans in terms of supporting my family full time as a writer,” he says.

His wife, a tenured professor, provides health benefits for his family. Mr. Pipkin, who teaches an undergraduate creative-writing class at Southwestern University in Georgetown, Texas, receives no benefits. Although he has an IRA, he doesn’t receive employer contributions. Mr. Pipkin, 43, says his goal is to find a full-time teaching position with benefits.

“Unless you’re a best-selling author, I don’t see how it’s possible for an author to get together enough income to pay for health insurance, retirement and other things,” he says.

Welcome to the recession, Mr. Pipkin! Thank goodness your wife has full-time employment, and that you have several advanced degrees which should make you eminently employable. If only the rest of the estimated 15 million unemployed Americans were so lucky.

The articles bemoans the fact that Mr. Pipkin’s award-winning novel “Woodsburner” has sold just 359 digital copies, compared to 10,000 print copies. Maybe that has something to do with how people buy books. In a brick-and-mortar bookstore, browsers judge books by their covers and have to hope the book is worth the cash they lay down at the counter. Buyers are more susceptible to traditional marketing—quotes from book reviews on the jacket, employees’ “picks of the month,” and so on. However, on a website, browsers can read reviews and comments by other readers (social media), which greatly influence their buying decisions. And Mr. Pipkin, patrons of Amazon.com are lukewarm on your book—it’s garnering 3.5 out of 5 stars. That’s a “C” average.

The real problem here is three-fold: one, a continuing failure of the publishing industry to embrace digital media, regarding it as an enemy rather than the future. Jann Wenner pushes print magazines and chides the Internet in those well positioned “Power of Print” ads seen in many magazines, even as his employees down the hall at rollingstone.com lure thousands of visitors to the iconic magazine’s website every day. It must feel odd and come off as more than a little counter-productive to have your boss publicly demeaning your work every day.

The second part of the problem is greed on the part of publishers, who want to pay authors less for the same amount of work, simply because a book is being published digitally and not on paper. And finally, there seems to be a failure on the part of some authors to understand the depth of the recession and the nature of their profession. Writing novels is an art, and art is largely a discretionary expenditure that comes well after food, rent, clothes and many other needs on most families’ shopping lists these days. As in all things, the days of oversized bonuses and easy money are gone.

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