Yesterday Borders bookstores filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection. (This is an arcane procedure which Jeff would need to explain to anyone outside the United States. As far as I can understand it, it means that the company goes on operating and its creditors write off their money.) Nevertheless, as Jack Quick wrote on 4MA today: “First 10 chapters so-so. Don't really expect a strong ending....” And the process will be far from painless. 200 of the 650 Borders stores are to close and the staff – already down by nearly half from the good days – face steep cuts in the same proportion. The news was not unexpected, but it leaves publishers holding fistfuls of dud checks and tasting ashes in a market which has had little cause for celebration for quite some time. This comes hard on the heels of the demise of The Mystery Bookstore in Los Angeles. Jeff wrote about it last week (and I stole the picture from him) but it’s poignant that the big chains and the specialist independents are crashing together.
So where does that leave us as readers and authors? “Avante!” we cry. “On to the e-book future!” So we shrug off Borders and, having paid nostalgic respects to the mystery independents as they close one by one, we order what we want on Amazon, downloaded to our Nooks and Kindles and IPads and laptops at the convenience of a mouse click or two. Google stands ready to make it easier to pay (10% for them); Apple and Amazon want 30%. That’s lots more money for authors and much cheaper prices for readers, right? The ultimate win-win. And the middle people – agents, publishers and booksellers – move on to other things.
So let's imagine an e-book world - a world where all books are e-books (except perhaps a few superstars that remain available in hard copy and sold through the online retailers). I’m not as sanguine about this outcome as some. I’m aware that other authors have had varied experiences ranging from brilliant to horrendous, but our editors have done a great job improving our books. I’d be very sorry to lose that input. We have just been through the copy edits of our third book. Perhaps it’s not changed dramatically as a result, but it has a gloss now which comes from the expert reading of English. And the copy editor caught some inconsistencies and even a couple of howlers. Who would believe that after the number of times we and others have read the book, it still contained: ‘Kubu leant back in his chair causing a loud creek’? Okay, so no readers will imagine white water gushing from the seat, but it’s embarrassing! I know of someone who was retrenched from a South African book publisher and decided to choose the niche activity of editing e-books for authors. He had lots of enquiries, but few takers. It’s a painstaking process and it comes at a price. If the author is unknown, and paying from his or her own pocket, there is a strong motivation to throw the book at the internet as it is and see what happens.
That’s another issue. How will the strong new voices stand out in the cacophony? How will they be distinguished from the other 749,999 new e-books that come out each year? We’ve all heard the stories of unknown authors selling books from the trunks of their cars and becoming best sellers, or writing cooking blogs that become books and films, but how many of those are there actually? Pretty much the same as winning a lottery, I’d guess.
Libraries are another critical area. There is talk (perhaps it is already reality in some places) of lending Kindles rather than books. Yes, they are more expensive, but the libraries will get bulk discounts and, of course, can store multiple books on each device. Much space, and perhaps even some cost, is saved. But I think this is trying to fit the new technology into the old thinking. Isn’t the reality in the days of cost cutting and budget deficit shrinking, that we will be told one only needs a single electronic copy sitting, say, at the Library of Congress. Everyone can download it from there. Of course, delete after two weeks, don’t copy, don’t lend on...
As Jeff pointed out last week the music industry is at 10% of the revenues they might have had in the bad old hard copy days. We haven't even mentioned the pirate sites where you can download for free or almost nothing. No solution to this one. If the CIA can’t keep their stuff off the net, what hope have the rest of us?
Certainly someone will be making lots more money in the e-book world, but I rather doubt it will be the authors!
Michael – Thursday.