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What Authors and Readers Need to Know About eBooks

The smart money says that things will get worse before they get better. Publishers will have to start thinking more like software start-ups. Are you ready for some aspirin yet?
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By all accounts, the publishing industry is in tough shape. Sales are down, bookstores are closing, and many authors are leaving traditional publishers in favor of publishing eBooks. I have been watching these changes with growing interest, as have most other authors I know who have either entered or are considering entering the burgeoning world of digital publishing.

Many of us are searching for new and better ways to market eBooks (more on that in a later post), or are following the big debate about eBook pricing. In case you are just tuning in, here is my list of digital publishing's most obvious advantages, as well as some strong cautions for both authors and readers. (I will focus mostly on Amazon's Kindle, the platform I am most familiar with.)

The Game-Changing Advantages of eBooks

1. Amazon has done a great job developing and promoting the Kindle platform for eBooks. The Kindle machines themselves are really nice now -- sleek design, great portability, with an incredibly easy, fast download process. The Kindle store has the widest selection of eBooks available anywhere. Most importantly, the Kindle store is not just for those who own a Kindle reader. Amazon now has free reader apps for Macs, PCs, and all the various smartphones and tablets, which insures their dominance as the eBook marketplace for years to come.

2. The Kindle platform is also easy to use for authors. The mark-up tags necessary to turn a manuscript into a Kindle eBook are easy enough to learn and use for DIY-ers, and have spawned a whole new industry of document translation services. Authors can easily revise their marketing copy or book prices online, and can get instant, up-to-date sales reports. Payment is swift, and Amazon gives you several ways to embed product links into articles, blog posts and websites. Putting aside the question of how Amazon has hastened the demise of traditional publishers, there is no denying that they have made things much easier for self-publishing authors.

Things to Worry About

1. Yes, eBooks have it all -- even spam. As Mike Essex of Koozai Media points out, abuse of the Kindle platform is rampant and unchecked. Anyone can upload content to the Kindle store, without fear of having their content searched for copyright violations or originality. Essex is especially worried that content farms, whose revenue has tanked now that Google filters out their worthless content in search results, will simply repackage all that spam into identical eBooks with multiple titles and upload them to the Kindle store. At low price points, unsuspecting readers will be lured to buy those books over more expensive titles, but will probably not complain when they realize the eBooks have no value. Meanwhile, legitimate authors will have a harder time making their books stand out in a crowd of clones -- and preventing their content from being used illegally.

2. Pricing: the race to the bottom. The rapid growth of the eBook market, along with persuasive voices encouraging authors to price everything at 99¢ (in part to make spammy books less profitable), has led to a huge discount mentality among readers. While some fault the big publishers' agency model for creating more confusion about eBook valuation, it is safe to say that the problem has multiple causes and no clear solution in the short run. Depending on where you sit, it may not even look like a problem. But for authors who believe their work has more value than 99¢, the burden of proof is on them. Non-fiction writers may have it easier in this regard, as specialized expertise is a more natural value proposition than genre fiction. Todd Sattersten notes that to combat the downward trend authors can move to serialized fiction, and non-fiction authors can publish individual chapters or partial books at the lowest price points.

3. Warring formats -- a headache for readers and authors. While Kindle is the leading industry format right now, hot at its heels are Barnes & Noble's Nook, Apples iBooks, Google Books, Sony's Reader, and undoubtedly many more to come. For readers, this started as a convenience but is also a growing problem because the eBooks you buy in one format are usually not readable in any other format or device, due to DRM and the fight for platform dominance. For authors, it means extra time and expense converting a manuscript into multiple formats, as well as the effort involved in marketing to all those different platforms. Authors like Joe Konrath are doing fellow writers a big favor by publishing their sales numbers for different platforms, helping others be strategic about where to launch their own eBooks. And then there's the eBook-as-an-app potential for the iPad and tablet market, which is indisputably cool and the wave of the future, but also requires authors to become software developers, with far greater up-front costs and not as big a revenue stream yet. Are you ready for some aspirin yet?

What's Next for Amazon, and for Publishing?

1. I think publishing will survive, but not in a form that we would recognize today. Right now, paper book sales comprise 80% of the market, with eBooks at 20% and rising. These numbers will probably be turned on their head in the next decade. We will likely see publishing deals driven by eBook rights acquisition, while print rights will become subsidiary. Undoubtedly, publishers will have to give authors a bigger cut of eBook revenue, and if they can prove their worth in terms of distribution and marketing (a test they are failing right now), it will be a good deal and a relief to many authors. Publishers will have to start thinking more like software start-ups, displaying a level of intelligence and creativity that eluded the music industry in the 1990s and signaled its own demise. The smart money says that things will get worse before they get better.

2. Amazon will have to step up its quality control game. Amazon is the leader in a digital publishing space that also includes Google, which was recently shamed into improving its search results by filtering out spam. Right now the call for curation in the eBook market is being drowned out by the clamor of those wanting to get in, but that will change very soon. If Amazon wants to insure its continued dominance they will have to take the lead in fighting spam, following the example of Smashwords, a prominent eBook formatter, which curates the content of every project submitted to them. Mike Essex has a handy list of nine changes Amazon can make to its Kindle platform right now that will fix the problem and boost its own image. Enlightened self-interest, anyone?

3. Writers will keep writing and readers will keep reading, and the numbers of each will continue to rise the cheaper it gets to do both. I will personally still prefer actual books over eBooks, because I enjoy not staring at a screen for at least a small portion of my day. But I will also have to experiment with all the different readers, to get a sense of how best to leverage their extra functionality with my own eBook content. It's a great time to get into eBook publishing. Don't quit your day job.

A version of this article was published at Creative Content Coaching. Subscribe to the CCC blog on Kindle.