Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Yet Another Benefit of E-Books

I’ve said for as long as I’ve been paying serious attention to e-books their greatest benefit to writers and readers is how they remove the demands of length from books. Traditionally published books could most economically be printed in “signatures” of 32 pages. This is why you so often saw blank pages at the beginning and end of books. (Sometimes still do.) They’re trying to get to a multiple of 32. E-books don’t care.

Price points are different, too. Publishers need to recoup the costs of publishing, binding, and shipping. (Including returns.) Those costs aren’t a great deal less whether the book is 160 pages or 320. The catch is, no one wants to pay $28.95 for a 160-page book. (As sales figures show, there may not be all that many people who want to pay $28.95 for a 320-page book, either, but that’s a different discussion.)

The two above points mean authors may be asked to either cut a long book, or more likely, to pad a shorter work. Cutting or adding material due to literary concerns is a good thing. Every story has an optimal length. Part of the writer’s chore is to figure out what that is, and match it. Cutting or padding for marketing or logistical concerns is never a good thing, but sometimes necessary. Even I understand that.

Not with e-books. They can be any length, and the price can be set accordingly, as there are virtually no physical production costs. No printing, no shipping, and—praise God—no returns. If your story requires 153 pages to tell, that’s how long the book is. Instead of charging $12.99 (or whatever the traffic will bear today for a full-length novel), charge $8.99 for it. Or $5.99. There won’t be any more assumed physical costs. E-books remove authors from the tyranny of length, Ray Banks caught this wave before a lot of people. I suspect someone like Scott Phillips will benefit, as well.

I recently discovered another oft-overlooked benefit of e-books, when Declan Burke re-released The Big O. Originally published in paper, the book received about one-tenth the notice it deserved before turmoil in the publishing industry cast it adrift in the stormy seas of unsupported books. Dec retrieved the rights and has recently brought it out as an e-book available for 4.99. (You choose the currency. Depending on where you buy it, it can be dollars, pounds or euros.)

This is good news for everyone. Obviously for Dec, as it gives him a well-deserved second chance for the book. (The final line in my original 2008 review, cut from my recent e-book piece, reads, “It's just as well Harcourt couldn't get it out in time for beach season; too many people would be staring, wondering what the hell you were laughing at.”) The Big O reminds me of a story Elmore Leonard could have written, if Donald Westlake had written the outline. It’s out of print in paper, but now Dec can re-launch on his own.

It’s good news for readers, too. Those of you who missed it—and you had to look hard to find it in the States—can now have Amazon drop one onto your Kindle in seconds. For cheap. You won’t spend a more entertaining 4.99 whatevers this year.

The best news may be for other authors. Publishers are getting hip to the potential and are looking for ways to keep rights from ever reverting back to authors, but books written before they wised up to e-books are fair game for their authors to re-launch. Keep your eyes open. With luck, all those gems noted in Books to Die For that fell out of print will soon be available for a relative pittance. These are books publishers decided had lived their natural lives, leaving serious readers to troll used bookstores and web sites, and less dedicated readers out of luck altogether. No more.

Good luck, Squire Burke. Not just for The Big O—though it deserves it—but for helping to break the path others may follow.


Charlieopera said...

Brother, do I hear you ... I know have at least 1,000 new readers since November 2012 (a pittance by best selling standards, but for me a newfound market) since I put the books I retained rights to in ebook format. And it's slowly (perhaps very slowly) gaining some new sales for my last two books.

I check the figures daily and so long as they continue to add, I figure it's a beautiful thing.

pattinase (abbott) said...

I am getting pretty despairing of this ebook thing. About a million ebooks come out each day and I have no idea how anyone would find one by an unknown writer (like me). Sure, for Charlie or Declan, a known writer,it is gold. But for an unknown person, how do you spread the word. And perhaps most ebooks do not deserve to be published.

Dana King said...

There are quite a few self-pubbed e-books that should never have seen the light of day; the basic writing just isn't good enough. That said, there is a gray area where there are a lot of unpublished books that are better than those chosen to be published instead; this at least gives them a chance.

As for how anyone would find an unknown author, we're in similar boats. Still, how much support does a traditional publisher give a new author, unless a large advance needs to be recovered? We're more or less on our won, anyway. At least this way the author can be his or her own boss.