It's last rites for the book

Five years ago I independently published my first book. I did so largely because I like to play with new technology and publishing a book allowed me to try digital ‘print-on-demand’ technology. ‘POD’ promised to greatly simplify and reduce the cost of book production. I won’t be retiring, or even snacking, on proceeds from the sale of that book, but I did learn lessons which have been applied to the publication of a number of other books since. This week I’ve republished that book using even more current technology: e-book technology. Within an hour of uploading the book it was available for purchase online. Within weeks it will be available, globally, from all the major e-book retailers including the Apple iBookstore, Amazon’s Kindle store, Borders, Barnes & Noble and the Sony e-book store.

It has taken a while but e-books are, finally, here to stay. On top of that – and you can gnash your teeth, grumble about the good old days and nostalgically blow dust off ancient red-bound volumes all you like as I say this – it is becoming increasingly clear that the future of the traditional book is about as rosy as that of photographic film and the wine cork.

Yes, yes. We all love a good book. Its heft, its smell, its je ne sais quoi. And, we say, we’re happy to pay a premium for all that romantic stuff. But we live in an era of profit maximisation and carbon minimisation and, like it or not, emotional attachment to ‘the book’ contributes bugger all to either of these.

Traditional book publishing is stupendously inefficient. It consumes vast quantities of paper, most of which is never read and a large quantity of which ends up being pulped. It eats energy, both in book production and in transport (a lot of printing is now done in Asia). And it gulps down profits, providing only nominal returns to most authors and super-profits only to those publishers lucky enough to have Harry Potter as phenomenon-in-residence.

By contrast, quality e-book publishing shares some of the same upfront costs (writing, editorial, etc.) as traditional publishing but has none of the downstream costs and risks.

This all makes for very attractive potential rewards for both writers and readers.

The writer’s side of the equation (scroll down if this is irrelevant to you)

Let’s look at the writer’s side of the equation first. After all, if there are no writers there are no books, paper or otherwise. We’ll use that first book of mine (small scale as it is) as an example. (Bear with me as we crunch some numbers but if you’re a book writer or aspiring book writer you need to know this stuff.)

The cost of producing that first book – including editing and proofreading, cover design, typesetting and digital printing – was in the vicinity of $2,000, or $10 a copy.

I could have achieved a cheaper per-book price if I’d used offset printing and printed more copies, but I would have had to outlay the same or more. And I probably would have been left with half the print run as unsold leftovers taking up space in the spare room. So the total cost would have ended up roughly the same.

The gross profit, as a self-publisher doing my own distribution, was around $10 per copy; the net profit was around, well … let’s just say I broke even.

As an e-book? The cost of republishing and globally distributing (via Smashwords) this existing book as an e-book was the princely sum of $10 – the cost of an ISBN. Had I been starting from scratch, and assuming I spent the same on cover design and editorial, the upfront cost would have been around $500, with printing costs after that of zero. To cut a long story short, my break even cost would have been around 100 copies. The risk, needless to say, is much, much lower.

Bottom line: e-books make lots of sense for self-publishing and will increasingly make more sense for mainstream publishers too. Already I hear discussions such as this one from photography experts in which the authors are saying they have stopped writing books and moved to e-books and video as lower cost, lower risk alternatives.

The reader’s side of the equation

After a lot of mucking around, as is the nature of these things, the e-book equation for readers is now looking more positive.

First, reader devices are increasingly ubiquitous, of better quality and, most importantly, cheaper than ever before. A good, light-weight e-reader such as Amazon’s Kindle or Border’s Kobo can be had (when they aren’t sold out) for the price of four or five hardbacks. Further, both the Apple iPad and iPhone incorporate excellent reading functionality too (including the ability to read Kindle and Kobo books from the point you left them on the other device) which means that a large number of people already carry an e-book reader with them. And if you can overcome the psychological barrier of reading from some form of screen, the convenience of instantly sampling and/or buying a book from whereever you are has a very high convenience factor.

Second, the industry seems to have settled on a universal format for e-books. The ‘epub’ format has become the mp3 of e-books: a format that can be read on almost every device, no matter the brand, so you no longer need to worry too much about which brand of device you buy. (The Kindle remains an exception here.) The rise of the epub format has even made the ‘borrowing’ of e-books from public libraries a reality. This all makes negotiating the world of e-books a whole lot easier.

Third, and we may have Amazon to thank for this, e-book prices are settling at pricing levels which should be attractive to both readers and publishers. Publishers may complain that $10 is too cheap when they sell a hardback for $35, but the reality is that most of that $35 is absorbed by the waste I talked about earlier. Lower prices should mean a lot more unit sales – I know I have bought a number of books I would not have bought otherwise – and at least the same, if not better, profitability across the range.

In short, consuming e-books is rapidly approaching the convenience and ease of use that consuming digital music has offered us for some years now. It is worth experimenting with; it will almost certainly become more comfortable.

Purists never fear: the printed book is unlikely to disappear altogether, just as paper is a long way off disappearing from the digital office. But mass produced printed books will probably be replaced by print-on-demand versions except for the biggest of best sellers. If you want the printed book, you’ll pay for it.

And while other aspects of the book industry will no doubt change over time, one thing won’t: you’ll still have to market well if you want to sell your work.

There are interesting times ahead … but think twice before you order that next bookcase.