When we talk about on-screen reading, we tend to conflate two very different ideas, the first the book as book presented in digital format (ie, ebooks), and the second everything else that’s happening online (ie, the wovel, author’s blogs, publisher’s sites, etc).
I’m going to ignore the online world for a moment and concentrate on the thorny world of ebooks, ereaders, and edistribuors. (I HATE all those e’s!).
The Kindle was released about a year ago. I was curious enough to follow the release and marketing online, but not curious enough to buy one for myself. It took me nine months to find somebody who had one. When I held it in my hand, I thought two things: 1) This feels like an old Unix machine, and 2) This is going to get much, much better.
We’re in a period of flux. We have been for a while. Two dynamics are effecting that flux now in a way they haven’t before, and in a way that none of us can predict: 1) the rise of the technology native generation, those beings who we all refer to as “young people,” and 2) the changing business models of publishing itself.
It’s the business models that most concern me, from the publisher’s chair. I’m bound on all sides by confidentiality agreements, but, in the most general terms, even if ebook sales were off the charts (which they’re not), the split with the digital distributor (Kindle, Sony eReader, etc.) isn’t all that favorable to the publisher. The publisher pays the author a split of whatever money they get in, meaning that the author’s take isn’t all that high, either. It’s difficult for me to see how this all makes sense for the authors (who, I swear, would be better served by doing their own e-conversions), or the publisher. Put these things together, and you have publishers dragging their feet to do try something that might or might not make sense for their business. That’s sad.
To make matters worse, there are a host of different contracts, different terms, different file types, different platforms. Sadly, what I see happening is that the digital distributors are setting the terms of the next round of changes, not the publishers. Which publisher in their right mind is going to argue with Amazon? Which publisher (not the independents, certainly) have the power? It was with a feeling of dread that I signed my digital distribution agreement. I didn’t feel as if I had any power or any say over the terms or the execution. I didn’t even feel as if I’d see any benefit from the agreement.
But sign I did.
What I think is going to happen (in my gut, not in my brain), is that some fiesty, creative, passionate person is going to come along and shake things up a bit. What this person does might not be legal (think Napster), but it will be successful, or at least successful enough that publishers and authors have to take notice. In the brief and glorious history of the online world, what major developments have been crafted and executed by corporations?