Friday, April 23, 2010

Our Bright Future

Barnes & Noble will sell their Nook in Best Buy stores. Amazon's Kindle will be available in Target. This week, in a piece in the Wall Street Journal, Barnes & Noble announced they will return to television advertising to spotlight the Nook.

Here's my pull-quote:
"Companies will have to create demand, which will take a lot of advertising," says Sarah Rotman Epps, an analyst at Forrester Research.

Put into context, Kindle sales "account for 2% of Amazon's revenue and its e-book sales account for an additional 1.5%." Once the handful of multi-national corporations who stand to profit lobby people through advertising and successfully convince them that they absolutely need these e-readers, then those percentages will rise.


I originally wrote this piece last fall that they posted at The Rumpus. From the time our distributor made the opportunity available to us in the winter of 2008/2009, we basically dragged our heels on making our titles available electronically until this spring. Now, three of our titles are available for download as e-books (Some Things That Meant the World to Me, by Joshua Mohr; The Drop Edge of Yonder, by Rudolph Wurlitzer; I Smile Back, by Amy Koppelman).

I'm on the fence about doing more, and I'd love to hear back thoughts and opinions.

My concern -- as the e-newsletter Shelf Awareness points out -- is that "Amazon seems to be engaging in some odd pricing strategies . . . pricing some hardcover and paperback bestsellers at e-book levels." They're taking a dramatic loss selling these hardcover books that retail for $25 at this price, further elbowing out local independent bookstores while single-handedly setting an industry-wide pricing standard of $9.99. This amounts to Amazon devaluing everything that a writer or a publisher does!



I have several messages saved permanently on my cellphone’s voicemail. Every month or so I trudge through the parade, when I’m required to re-save them. There’s a message from my wife and business cohort, Eliza, telling me that our daughter, Rio, has successfully managed to stand on her own. Another one, chronicling Rio’s first steps. Several from Rio, as some words inch out, Eliza gently prodding her along in the background.

And then there’s a stew of Two Dollar Radio-related messages. There’s one from independent publicist Lauren Cerand, saying that she saw Erotomania: A Romance, a novel by Francis Levy, in the window at City Lights. I also have saved messages from nearly every one of the authors we’ve published at Two Dollar Radio over the last two years informing me that their author-copies have arrived. They sound satisfied, and what they have to say always makes me smile.

I remember talking with Larry Shainberg, whose book Crust we published last October. I was asking Larry about Samuel Beckett, whom he was fortunate enough to meet on a handful of occasions and befriend (Larry also wrote a Pushcart-winning monograph on Beckett for The Paris Review). Larry told me that he went to see Beckett in Europe, and the pair was returning to the hotel where Beckett was staying when the desk clerk provided him with his mail, which contained the author-copies of one of his books. I don’t recall that Larry mentioned which book of Beckett’s it was, but I remember him saying that it didn’t matter whether it was your first book or your fiftieth, there’s still that feeling of intense satisfaction and joy that arrives with finally holding your book in your hands.

As a publisher, I derive a great deal of satisfaction myself when the finished book arrives. Recently, when copies of Rudolph Wurlitzer’s second and third novels, Flats and Quake, which we’re re-issuing in a back-to-back edition, came from the printer I immediately broke out my camera and took pictures. Certainly, some of the glee could be attributed to the fact that the book looked as we intended: we were nervous about the flipped/upside-down pages.

I’ve learned that publishing is a drawn-out process that above all demands patience. There is that initial burst of enthusiasm after reading a remarkable submission, then the re-kindled energy over presenting the title to the reps at sales conference, but the real flood of excitement comes upon holding the finished product in my hands. That’s when it’s real, the transition complete, when I find its spot on the bookshelf in my office: it is now a book.

As a publisher we’ve dragged our heels in embracing e-books (or even acknowledging their presence). Through our distributor, Consortium, we’re able to partake in their parent company’s program, that allows publishers to make their books available electronically rather painlessly, albeit with a modest fee. But it took us at least eight months to sign the contract, and we’re still, now, months later, resolving any further contract entanglements with authors.

Part of my reluctance is my inability to resolve in my mind the bitter truth of what we’ll be stamping our brand upon. As a publisher, I know e-books are a cheaper product – both to produce and consume (providing you can foot the tab for the e-reader) – and I’m certain that writers do too. What makes anyone believe that readers won’t arrive at this realization as well? Once the honeymoon with their sleek new gadget ends, they’ll start to demand more for their money. As a commenter to Nick Harakaway’s blog post on e-books points out: “I wouldn’t pay more than $10 for an eBook, because at more than that, I want more than I’m getting. I want a dust jacket, I want something physical. There’s an inherent belief (and I agree) e should never cost as much as its old world equivalent. You really do get less.”

Gimmicks such as Simon and Schuster’s snigger-trigger “Vook” are just the tip of the iceberg. Soon, because of the lack of page-count constraints, e-books will come complete with deleted chapters, a writer’s and editor’s cut, and alternate endings. The result will resemble more a videogame fantasia than a traditional “book.” And I don’t want to read that.

As Emily Pullen, of Skylight Books in Los Angeles, so aptly points out in a blog post: “Creating digital literature and harnessing the medium’s unique capabilities requires a specialized knowledge of programming languages. As such, it is software engineers and computer programmers (the techies) who are best suited to use this new literary medium, not the traditional Writer.”

Most likely, it will be several years and rungs on the evolutionary ladder of the Vook before even its initial potential can be imagined. In the meantime, at Two Dollar Radio we’ll casually make our books available electronically. At our size, the potential fifty dollars a month from e-book sales can make a difference. But I don’t expect many messages from authors calling to share their enthusiasm at their e-books arriving. And I won’t blame them.


As a post-script, I'd like to mention that of the three writers I notified that their "e-book" was available, only one wrote back, (a succinct "Cool!") while the others casually disacknowledged my note. No writer spends their hours toiling by themselves in a dark room to birth an electronic book into the world.

There's this amazing preface to Jaron Lanier's You Are Not a Gadget, which I'm really stoked to read (finish), where Lanier says: "The vast fanning out of fates of these words will take place almost entirely in the lifeless world of pure information. Real human eyes will read these words in only a tiny minority of the cases.

"And yet it is you, the person, the rarity among my readers, I hope to reach.

"The words in this book are written for people, not computers."

1 comment:

Scott Bradfield said...

I really enjoyed this spirited defense of those tactile, often-too-bulky, and makes-moving-a-chore books that literally fill the walls of my home, and as one of those authors you mention whose only real pleasure in writing comes from seeing the damn thing in a hard copy, thank you for making it. At the same time, I can still remember the long-dead days when I said, with great conviction, that I would never need to buy a) an answering machine, b) a cell phone and c) an I-Pod. Not long ago I found myself saying (with great conviction) that I will never need to buy an e-reader, or a Kindle, or an I-Pad! Oh no! They are coming.