Unexpected Camels

As I mentioned last year about this time (WW 1-05-11), I don’t do resolutions

Unexpected Camel

in the classic sense.  I am enough a product of my culture, however, that I hang a new calender on the wall and find myself reflecting on the year just completed.

When I go back and re-read last year’s entry, I see a reference to the Borders bookstore chain.  2011 was the year that saw Borders go under and saw Barnes & Noble transform itself into a cross between a toy store, a coffee shop, and a bookstore.  I’ve got to wonder about the wisdom of this last.  The Barnes & Noble I stopped in yesterday had a Toys R Us right next door and at least three places serving coffee and sweets within a very short walk.  I wonder if the end of 2012 will see the end of Barnes & Noble as well?

Of course, the publishing industry in all its facets is in an upheaval.  Devices like the Kindle and Nook are being perceived as game changers.  Some people are even saying the printed book will have disappeared within a decade.  I’m not sure about that, but certainly the mass market paperback may find itself vanishing. Or will it?  I had a heated discussion with three of my friends the other day about the print book.  All three of them are right in the middle of the demographic that is supposed to prefer e-reading.  None of them do.

As a writer, I can’t help but reflect on the changes I’ve seen in my twenty or so years as a published author.  I remember Roger Zelazny telling me how the business as he knew it worked.  This included publishers keeping some or all of an author’s backlist in print and considering it a “courtesy” to produce a short story collection every so often (if, of course, the author wrote short fiction as well as novels).

Both of those traditions have vanished.  Keeping out-of-print works available has become pretty much the author’s responsibility.  What the reader may not realize is that it’s the reader’s responsibility as well, since if authors don’t see an audience for those older works – or see too many of those works pirated –  they might not bother to spend the time (and money) to create e-books or print-on-demand editions.

Money?  What does money have to do with it?  Well, it applies in several ways.  If authors are spending time working on e-book conversions, they’re not writing.  This means a potential loss of income – not to mention a loss of new material for their readers.    A second expense comes to those authors who (like me) aren’t able to spend a long time on the computer doing conversions.  We also face the expense of hiring someone else to do the work.  Personally, I think the money is well spent because a fresh set of eyes often produces a better end result.

I’m not going to name names, but recently I was chatting with a friend who had been downloading e-books done by an SF/F author who has been among the most vocal in promoting e-books.  My friend admitted that he was going to stop purchasing this author’s works because the e-books were so sloppy and full of formatting errors that he was repeatedly thrown out of his pleasure in the reading experience.

And the rise of the e-book has also led to the creation of books that aren’t only sloppy in terms of formatting and the like, but in content as well.  Publishers may not have always been perfect in their choices of what they selected to publish, but at least the book got more of an advanced screening than is provided by the doting author and his/her circle of admiring friends.  I was discussing this with another friend who has become an avid e-book reader.  She admitted that, while initially she’d been sucked in by either very inexpensive books or by free downloads of samples or short fiction by author eager to create an audience, she was finding herself more often disappointed than not.

Since my friend is an avid reader, I doubt this will sour her on the reading experience.    I do wonder, however, about the impact of this glut of lousy fiction on those for whom reading is not yet a fixed habit.  Will they turn away from reading in favor of television or games?  So many of the devices that people use to read e-books segue easily over to such other forms of entertainment.  How can people tell the difference between good stuff and bad?

My goodness!  Believe it or not, this wasn’t my intended topic.  I was going to tell you about how Jim, me, and our friend Michael Wester went for a walk on a ditch bank trail near the new Bachechi Open Spaces and what we saw.  We’d expected ducks, geese, cranes, herons, and all manner of avians.  In the domestic realm, we expected dogs, cats, and horses.  Goats, sheep, burros, and cattle weren’t completely out of the question, since Albuquerque has a fair number of small farms.

However, the camel was a complete surprise…

Rather, in fact, like a lot of aspects of publishing in 2011.  I wonder what the 2012 camel will be…

Any speculations?


19 Responses to “Unexpected Camels”

  1. Peter Says:

    The thing with e-books and the backlist s that it’s a chicken/egg problem – if there’s no commercial version, somebody will, in the fullness of time, scan and distribute a copy, which is taken as an indicator that there’s no market for backlist ebooks, which means the only way to get electronic copies is to scan them yourself or download them, which means “there’s no market for the backlist” and round and round we go.

    This is hardly unique to ebooks, of course – good luck finding backlist titles from authors whose names don’t rhyme with “Tom Clancy” or “Stephen King” at your local coffee shop-cum-tchotchke-boutique in bookstore drag rather than a used book dealer.

    • janelindskold Says:

      The problem with “someone will, in the fullness of time, scan and distribute a copy” is that this is Theft. Why doesn’t anyone see this?

      Oddly, too, I’d see this theft as an indication that there _is_ a market for backlist ebooks, since why would anyone go to the trouble if they didn’t want them?

      • Louis Robinson Says:

        Many do see it as theft. What they don’t see it as is taking money from the author’s pociket – there’s no pocket there for them to put the money in, and often no money in their pockets to be transferred. That latter is an important point, and one that puts the pronouncements of the RIAA & Co. in a rather different light. The little evidence there is, both anecdotal and the one academic study I know of [in Germany, 2-3 year ago; please don’t ask for the reference, I don’t remember it] suggest that e-piracy has a null or possibly even slightly positive effect on sales. IOW, most of the people who _can_ pay, and can find a way to do so, will. The so-called ‘lost sales’ were to people who wouldn’t have paid for the product in the first place.

        Unless, of course, the piracy is of something that isn’t otherwise available. In that case, it definitely is indicative of demand. In fact, I’ve heard that at least some times, when a legal download becomes available, not only do illegal ones slow to a trickle, but many of the people who have them buy the legal one – if only for the infinitely better quality 🙂

        While I’m raving [i don’t think this is a rant, so I must be raving] I’d like to look at the question of ‘is it theft’ for a second. I can understand the argument of people who say that if there is no legal e-copy to buy, making and distributing one isn’t theft: if it’s not for sale, how can you steal it? The answer, of course, is to recast the problem: why is it theft to pull the Mona Lisa off the wall at the Louvre and walk out with it under your coat? The painting is an object, so that makes it stealable? Well, the collection of words that makes up ‘Changer’ is just as much an object. Just because Jane Lindskold isn’t quite as well-known as da Vinci doesn’t mean you are less deserving of recompense. In fact, I’d argue that the fact that you’re alive makes you far more deserving.

      • Peter Says:

        Oh, I wasn’t talking about legality or morality (although personally I’m in the weird position that if I download books from a file sharing service, that’s almost certainly legal under local law. If I try to buy them, in many cases I’m almost certainly breaking several US laws), just inevitability. If I say the average bookstore will see ~2% shrinkage in a year, that doesn’t mean I approve of shoplifting; if I say 50-60% of the print run of the average new book will end up pulped or remaindered, that doesn’t mean I think the current US publishing model is a sane or sustainable one.

        And I quite agree with you on the subject of unauthorized copying of otherwise-unavailable books indicating a potential market, but lots of people in publishing don’t seem see it that way, based on statements I’ve seen.

  2. Tori Says:

    I probably will get an e-book reader in the future, mostly for new releases that I want to read right away but don’t want to deal with a heavy oversized hardback book. However, I am not looking forward to the sloppy conversions that friends complain about. If the e-book version costs as much as or more than a mass market paperback would, then I want the same level of value. And frankly I would rather purchase a $7 well-edited e-book than the same one with an error on every other page for $2.

  3. Dominique Says:

    I feel strongly that books will not go out of fashion. I think what is really happening is that bookstores are going out of fashion ( a true tragedy if you ask me…). People will just order their books online, which is a direction the market has been going for a while.

    I know that I am not alone in my feeling that the e-book for some reason does not offer the same pleasure as the tangible book. In fact, while writing this response, I turned and asked my lab-mate her thoughts on the matter, and just like me she finds the e-readers as useful for work texts, but would never read for pleasure on one.

  4. Julie Hagan Bloch Says:

    i hope paper books will stick around! I admit, however, that my husband and I just gave each other e-book readers for Solstice/Channukah/Christmas. The reason? Lack of space! I have approximately 2,000 books in my studio, and very little room for more. Yes, I do give away ones I’m done with, but due to my poor memory, a book I loved once is worth keeping, because in 5 or 10 years, I’ll have forgotten enough of it so that it’s almost like new again. And that’s just the novels. There are also art books, natural history books, language books, all of which are better in paper book form.
    So for me it is totally a space issue.

  5. Heteromeles Says:

    I suspect that the eBook industry will be the new slush pile, and the goal won’t be necessarily to impress an editor, but to gain a sufficient following that a publisher decides you’re worth picking up.

    The real problem is that the publishers don’t have a good story for what they can add that someone who’s struggled to the top of the eBook industry isn’t doing pretty well already. Marketing? Where? I’m already on Amazon and Barnes and Noble. Cover art? Got that done. Typesetting? That’s done too. The only place publishers can get into that we can’t is small bookstores, and unfortunately, that hurts the bookstores more than the authors.

    That said, the one great thing is that books are democratized now. Back when I was a kid, we spent the entire summer putting together the favorite family recipes in a cookbook I still cook from. Now that it’s full of notes (all the stuff that didn’t make it into the recipes), we’re planning on turning the updated recipes into a computer file, making a pdf, and printing up something a bit more durable. Just a few copies. It’s so much simpler now.

    Every family can do this.

    We’re really in an era where an author can print up ten (or forty) copies of a book, take them to an event and sell them, like they are CDs at a concert. And that’s probably how it’s going to go, at least for a while. Not great perhaps, but it could be worse.

  6. Nicholas Wells Says:

    The big problem with modern publishing is self-publishing is getting a little out of hand too. An artist I follow wrote a novel and put it out there herself as an e-book. She soon pulled it because she got reports of it being full of errors, both grammatical and content.

    It’s so easy (though not exactly cheap) to get your work out there it’s getting harder for those us of that make the effort to get our foot in the door, much less an acceptance even if we already have it there.

    It’s sad when video games are holding more well written stories and more enticing, living worlds than books. Let’s face it. Even I have grown to love game like Mass Effect, and Starcraft 2, not because of the game-play (though that’s nice too), but because they take me to worlds I want to live in and visit. I’ve not found many books lately that do that anymore.

    Predictions? A fast growing list of sub-par books, most of them electronic. It won’t be long before we’re talking about “those rare gems” that are actually worth reading. Games will appear on our “E-readers” like cancer right next to those gems. And we’ll continue to debate just how much new writers need to worry about print over electronic.

    However, I stand firm here and will say this. Barnes & Noble will survive. It may weaken a little, but I think Borders failed because they didn’t adapt well enough or fast enough to the new world we live in. So far Barnes & Noble has. They’ll still be around. Count on it.

    • janelindskold Says:

      Nicholas, you have a tantalizing line here… Most people I know say that the story is the _weak_ point of a video game.

      A friend of mine (about your age, so not an old fart) was wearing a tee shirt with the Map of Every Game (or something like that) when I saw her over the holidays. That is, every game has basically the same plot…

      I would like more insight into what you’re saying here because I think it’s very significant.

  7. heteromeles Says:

    Agreed on Borders. They screwed up in part by hanging on to an inventory management system that was innovative in the early nineties, and massively outdated by the new millennium.

    As someone who has a passing fondness for smaller bookstores, I’d love to find a way to hook authors up with local bookstores, without having the massive machinery of publishers and distributors cluttering up the relationship. Unfortunately, there’s no obvious way to do this right now.

  8. Julie Hagan Bloch Says:

    Probably eventually there will be some sort of thing like an e-mail list of independent bookstores that authors can contact.
    I keep thinking that we do have the structure in place; we just need to figure out how to use it for this.

  9. Emily McKinnie Says:

    I have read a few things on E readers and I while I admit they are useful, I love books. Even though my personal library is a little over abundant, I still love having the actual book. I’m fairly certain that books have a long life left ahead. I willl be one of those wandering through the bookstore or library, excited and searching for a new book.

  10. janelindskold Says:

    The general “vibe” here seems to be that 2012’s “unexpected camel” will be the survival of the paper and ink book… And the strong desire for good stories will remain, no matter the format.

    Needless to say, I find that encouraging.

    As my responses above show, I really like the insights I’m getting and would welcome more.

  11. janelindskold Says:

    Louis Robinson’s “ravings” above provide a really good look at the different ways people look at books. I just may riff off of this a bit more next week — especially clarifying the money in pocket question a bit more.

    _Changer_ and the Mona Lisa, nice company to be in!

  12. heteromeles Says:

    I think that having Changer and the Mona Lisa together makes perfect sense.

    That said, here’s an alternate eBook example, from an author who posted a book online along with a tip jar. I downloaded the book, read a few chapters, didn’t like it, and deleted it without paying for it.

    Do I owe that author anything? With this particular author, I probably could have checked the book out of the library and done the same thing, perfectly legally.

    Now, I’m weird: when I can afford it and I really like a library book, I go out and buy a copy (you’re welcome, Jane–I’ve done it with at least three of your books). However, this is one problem with eBooks: they “feel” a bit like library books, in that you don’t really have something physical, and eBook vendors have made it abundantly clear that having an e-copy through Piranha-InfestedRiver or its competitors is not the same as having a book on your shelf. Ultimately, it may be like music, where those authors who cultivate a loyal fan base will be the ones who get paid by those fans.

    • janelindskold Says:

      I do the same thing with books I sampled first from the library. I call it “voting with my dollar for the author to continue having a career.” For the same reason, I don’t buy used copies of newer releases. It hurts the author and — indirectly hurts me, since an author I enjoy needs sales figures to continue to get paid.

      Interesting about the “unreality” of e-books. You’re the first person I’ve ever heard spell it out this way, but I suspect you won’t be the last!

  13. Paul Says:

    I love Emily’s description of having a library which is a little “over abundant” (mine is way over; just ask my wife). SFWA had a panel on what writers can do with their book collections last year when it met in D.C. But the upshot was, well, really nothing, the paper books aren’t worth much anymore. That conclusion was disappointing to the panelists as well as the attendees. However, Emily used another key word: library. These are our own personal libraries that we collectors have. If they get tossed once we’ve shuffled off this mortal coil, well, we’ve still enjoyed them.

  14. Julie Hagan Bloch Says:

    It tickles me that we’re talking about books, and in this context, largely fiction, and then use the term “unreality”.
    What is reality, anyhow? What if what we call “reality” is just another fiction (it is, of course, in many senses)… I’d love to have a definition of reality that really works!

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