Stephen King, Amazon’s Kindle and the death of publishing as we know it

Amazon Kindle ebook readerWe’ve been mentioning ebooks a lot lately here at Futurismic, as the big publishing companies have suddenly woken up to the fact that the 21st Century has well and truly arrived… and isn’t going to go away.

One can look at the ebook as a way for the publishers to move away from the increasingly expensive and wasteful dead-tree model and reinvigorate themselves in the process. But there is a flipside, of course, as pointed out by The Guardian‘s Naomi Alderman:

if ebook readers took off, big-name authors such as [Stephen] King may be able to move to self-publishing. And that could mean the end of our current publishing system. Because of the way the publishing business is structured, big-name authors who sell millions of books are, in effect, supporting the industry. I’ve heard various estimates of the percentage of books that actually turn a profit. One agent I spoke to said 95% of published books make a loss. Others have put the figure lower. Either way, everyone agrees that a large majority of profits come from a small minority of authors.

If King, Dan Brown, JK Rowling and Patricia Cornwell were all to decide to move to selling their books online themselves, rather than going through a publisher, they’d certainly benefit financially. Typically, an author only receives about £1 for every copy of their book sold. Rather than relying on a publisher, big-name authors could afford to simply employ an editor, a PR person, a typesetter and a designer. They could price their books at only £2 or £3 and still make much more money than under the current system.

There’s obviously a few flaws in Alderman’s reasoning here: first of all she’s discounting the nurturing aspect of the publishing industry, its ability to bring the next generation of Kings, Cornwells and (universe forfend) Browns up through the ranks; secondly, a shift to ebooks should see the loss margins on a title by a smaller author drop considerably, as there’ll be no massive pile of unsold books to pulp (not to mention much smaller distribution costs).

But what is plain is that book publishing needs to learn in adavance from the messy lessons that the record companies are still struggling with now. A look at the music industry blogs will show you that Alderman’s speculation above is an almost perfect mirror of what’s already happening with middle-band musicians as they (and their fanbase) realise the labels are primarily concerned with wringing the last few drops of profit out of a dead business model, and decide to leave them behind.

As has been pointed out before, the principle difference between the publishers and the record labels is that publishers haven’t yet been forced to innovate by the pressures of piracy. It looks as if they’d be wise to jump ship and start swimming for shore right now, rather than waiting to be made to walk the plank. [Image coutesy Wikimedia Commons]

10 thoughts on “Stephen King, Amazon’s Kindle and the death of publishing as we know it”

  1. Stephen King did make an early test of digital self-publishing when he posted the serialized version of “The Plant” online.

    At the time, he posted installments according to the rule “the next installment will be posted if enough readers pay voluntarily”. The experiment wasn’t entirely successful, but it showed a willingness to try new publishing models.

    Stephen King is going to do just fine on his own.

    With the new publishing models (Internet, digital text, e-ink etc.) come an array of new freedoms and choices. This kind of change will typically be seen as a threat to those who have a stake in keeping the Old Ways alive.

    Since I don’t have a personal stake in the publishing megacorporations, I don’t much care if they go under…

  2. Stephen King could do that right now–just go ahead and outsource the printing and binding as well and then make a deal with a distributor. (The distributors would probably pay him for an exclusive right to include his book in their lineup.) There are a lot of reasons not to though. Running the enterprise would be another thing to do, even if he outsourced most of the tasks. It would expose him to a bunch of new risks.

    I suspect the main result of these changes in technology will be contracts that try to get in on a successful author’s future success. Publishers already try to do this by signing promising writers to multiple-book deals. I’m sure they’ll try to expand that–maybe trying to get revenue sharing even if they don’t publish the next book.

    Their best move, though, is going to be to make sure they stay competitive with do-it-yourself. Writers want to write, not run a very small publishing house. It should be easy enough, with just a modicum of economies of scale, for a publisher to handle all the publishing chores at least as cheaply as the author could hire them done. They can also keep whatever the author would have had to pay someone to run the enterprise. On top of that, most writers will give up a share of the profits in exchange for getting an advance, rather than getting a larger share of an unknown amount at some unknown time in the future.

    Really, if you outsource everything, a publishing house is a specialized venture capital firm. That function will not be rendered obsolete by technological change.

  3. Modern publishers do no ‘nuturing’.

    That’s a joke right?

    Admittedly it takes more than one person to produce a book, but, publishing houses take the cream but they do not produce the milk. That is what the reading and writing public do, the publishing houses just try to corral them, using the whip of the big name author.

    I’ve already pirated several gigabytes of novels and text books, I’ve replaced all my SF collection of several thousand titles purged in 1994. And then some.

    Palm PDAs and smartphones are the easiest way to read them, mostly because you can pick them up for $50 on eBay. The dedicated ebook readers are a joke considering their price compared to what a 2 year old mobile cell smartphone (e-ink screen excepted) can do.

    On various bittorrent networks one can download books by the gigabite. e.g.

    History is a bit of a hole, but crime fiction and thrillers are plentiful. And if it’s written by a golden age male American SF writer it’s all there.

    Magazines like New Scientist and The Economist are available in PDF within about two days of release. Some are not scanned. Must be an inside job.

    It’s already happening, the dead tree preference is purely generational.

    The real killer app in napster was the convienece of it all their with a quick search, “it’s just there” on screen, this is what the itunes store copied.

    Piracy is a spur because it offers a more convenient way to consume media. It’s quick, and available and not hamstrung by marketing decisions, because the product is the advert and people desires direct themselves.

  4. mukkaka, I’ll dispute one thing: The kindle is actually a significantly superior reading experience to any small form-factor device (smartphone/pda) that I’ve yet seen. Very clear, really long battery life.

    Should it cost as much as it does? No way. You’re dead on, there. It’s worth thinking about the economics of that, which you don’t go into, but we should all remember that the Kindle is basically a tap straight from our wallets into the Amazon store. It is not in their interest to make the thing any more open or extensible than they absolutely have to, because that might mean you buying less books from them and getting one somewhere elase and readign off of the SD card (that you can’t plug into your Kindle).

  5. ‘A few flaws’ is putting it mildly. Writers are generally writers, not business people. Publishers and accountants are there to take care of everything else; writers and businessmen don’t tend to have the same skill sets.

    Although things may change, we’re years and years away from seeing any real shift away from reading paper books. This is what’s really going to happen: hard core readers such as myself, who are actually responsible for a disproportionate number of the books that are sold every year, will or have already bought e-ink devices and similar as an adjunct to their already existing paper habit. Those who like to read but are only much more occasional in their reading habits will read some material on multi-purpose devices like the iphone, but will also still buy paper books. And either way we’re still going to need publishers.

    If the publishers all somehow died off (a stunningly unlikely event) and ‘writers started doing it for themselves’, eventually someone would see the need to create a business model for an organisation to filter out all the crap and figure out what the good stuff is. And lo, the publishers would be reborn.

  6. Error analysis: “95% of published books make a loss. Others have put the figure lower.”

    “Published books,” unless someone notes otherwise, include a huge number of self-published books, books published by university presses and scientific journals that aren’t expected to turn a profit, and books published by small/start-up publishers that don’t tend to last very long.

    If you weeded it down to major publishers, i.e. the ones you’ll find on the shelves at Barnes & Noble, I’m sure the statistic would be far less imposing.

  7. There are plenty of other people capable of ‘nurturing’ new writers once the publishing industry fades away. I’ve discovered far more writers though blogs (including this one) and podcasts (such as Escape Pod and StarShipSofa) than I have through any publisher’s marketing efforts.

    The only function current publishers really serve is printing and distribution. Editing and formatting can be done elsewhere, and new-style literary agents will still exist to handle marketing and promotion to online gatekeepers such as the ones mentioned in the previous paragraph. You’ll soon start to hear about writers who achieve fame without ever having a physical book printed, just as stories have trickled in about musicians who’ve never had a recording contract.

    Since hardly any authors make real money from writing books even with publishing contracts, it’s hard to see the point of publishing companies once the print format starts to die out. Bring it on!

  8. I’ve dropped my Kindle a few times already (not on purpose of course) and it seems to be working without a hitch; so they’re durable at least

  9. I hope the Kindle’s not the future of publishing, I’d rather be certain that I actually have the books that I paid for, rather than simply having access to the remote server that contains the e-books. Most people with these things don’t seem to realize that if Amazon suspends your account, it’s a pretty damn expensive doorstop.

  10. I downloaded the “Kindle for PC” application which is free. It downloads the Amazon books I buy directly to my computer. No “server in the cloud” worries. The books are here rotating on my very own hard drive.

Comments are closed.