As E-Books Rise, Publishing Still Waivers

FRANKFURT AM MAIN, GERMANY - OCTOBER 10: A young girl looks at a Sony e-book at the Frankfurt Book Fair on October 10, 2012 i
FRANKFURT AM MAIN, GERMANY - OCTOBER 10: A young girl looks at a Sony e-book at the Frankfurt Book Fair on October 10, 2012 in Frankfurt, Germany. The Frankfurt Book Fair is the largest in the world and will run from October 10 - 14, 2012. (Photo by Hannelore Foerster/Getty Images)

There's probably no going back: e-books are going to be the dominant form for publishing pretty soon.

Consider that 23 percent of Americans now read e-books, up from 16 percent in 2011, and that the number of people reading "traditional" books is declining. On top of that, according to a study released by the Pew Internet & American Life Project, "the number of owners of either a tablet computer or e-book reading device such as a Kindle or Nook grew from 18 percent in late 2011 to 33 percent in late 2012."

Okay -- and tablets are likely even to overtake e-readers, as tablets grow smaller and more comfortable to hold and still more versatile than many models of e-reader.

And publishers may be embracing e-books more than they had in the past. They have, for one thing, the ability to change prices. As Dominique Raccah, president of Sourcebooks said in an piece on NPR, "The exciting thing about digital books is that we actually get to test and price differently," Raccah says. "We can even price on a weekly basis."

On top of that, too, publishers can release books more quickly. Although in traditional publishing, you still have to wait a good year for a book to appear on shelves once it's been accepted for publication, with e-publishing, of course, those delays -- brought about by distribution, printing schedules, etc. -- no longer exist.

Still, as publishers continue to figure out how to handle digital information (and the world of authors who are becoming more digitally savvy), they continue to tread in uncertain waters, and remain wary of so much commitment, like a jilted bride in a 19th-century novel.

Consider this: Alan Seppinwall, the blogger and author of the self-published The Revolution Was Televised, recently signed a book contract with Touchstone. After the New York Times had praised the book (and mentioned its being self-published), and after Touchstone had previously passed on it. Before the praise and success of the book on its own. What does that tell you about publishers willing to take a chance?

So, if publishers are thrilled by the flexibility of e-books, why didn't Touchstone just decide to publish Seppinwall's book electronically, rather than waiting to see how it might do as a printed book? Because publishers are still afraid of taking a chance on someone who, despite having a popular blog, What's Alan Watching, isn't the author of previous bestselling thrillers or a household name with a television show of his own.

Flexibility for publishers is different from that for writers. Seppinwall had the freedom to self-publish. Then he decided to sign with a publisher after his self-published book turned out to be a hit and the publisher came a-calling. Publishers may take comfort in the flexibility of dabbling in pricing changes, easier release schedules and such -- but they still exist in an analog age, thinking in terms of paper costs, sales teams and bookstores and of what won't work rather than what will, rather than taking advantage of the platform of a digitally knowledgeable authorship and readership.