Electronic publication is nothing new and certainly nothing recent. All important newspapers today have their own websites and web editions, and issues can be downloaded into e-book readers, smartphones or tablets. Some newspapers in the world have already stopped coming out in the paper format because it was no longer profitable.
The same thing is true about book publication, in which I, as a writer, am more interested. The first novels published solely as e-books started to appear around the year 2000. It was a favorite tool for self-publishing authors who either did not want to bother with publishers, or whom no publisher wanted.
There, however, lies the problem. For authors, publishing and selling in the e-book format online was a means of self-publication, the same as publishing a paperback yourself or offering the “print on demand” kind of publication. Self-publishing has a negative connotation on the market and is not considered as a “real” publication. For years I have been a strong opponent of this kind of electronic self-publication for several reasons:
1) The fact that you published the book yourself (electronic or paper) would cause people to think “hey, no publisher wanted to invest money in it, so the author had to do it himself, so it probably won’t be so good”.
2) A publisher will have your book checked by content editors, copy editors, people whose job is to spot mistakes in the novel – everything from spell-check to character motivation and story logic. By self-publishing, authors may think that they are preventing their novel from being modified and losing quality for commercial reasons, and that only they can be relied on to produce high quality, but by that, they would also forfeit all the help which is designed to improve novels and allow them to earn more money. Unfortunately, not all authors are disciplined enough to have their own editors even if they are assigned to them.
3) Self-published authors have problems with distribution, and this may be more true for paper format, where it is virtually impossible for single authors to distribute their work widely into bookstores, but it is also true for electronic publishing. The novel may be available online, but readers have to know it exists in order to look for it.
4) The last problem is competition. Electronic publication makes publishing so easy that every author is at risk of being simply lost among the tens of thousands of other self-published authors online. Czech journalist and novelist Ondřej Neff summed the problem up in his specific way: “Thanks to the printing press, every moron could read; thanks to the Internet, every moron can write.” (Hokr, 2010)
All these problems are valid and I explain them to people every time somebody asks me about self-publishing.
But. There is always a but. Maybe the society and the e-publishing environment are now coming to a point where these four issues are no longer relevant. Maybe someone can publish a book online and be labeled as someone whom no publisher wanted, maybe the book will not go through its copy edit, will have trouble with distribution and would face huge competition. But it is still likely to sell.
Jane Friedman, writer, blogger and editor, postulated on her blog post that if an author would like to try electronic publishing, the basic format for doing it is simple:
1) Write a ton of material
2) Publish it on all digital platforms
3) Repeat as quickly as possible
4) Make a living as a writer (Friedman, 2012)
Although this is an oversimplification, Friedman explains that this approach is focused on readers that “eat books like candy” (2012) who will read a novel in a few hours, who go to the bookstore and library as often as to the grocery store. These readers constantly need something new and they do not care whenever it is self-published or not.
Another advantage is that if the authors publish first online and create their own fan base, they would then become more interesting for publishers who are often afraid to invest money into a new author without some guarantees. We do not need to go far for an example. The number one commercially successful novel in 2012, Fifty Shades of Gray by E.L. James, was first self-published as an e-book before being purchased by a publisher. There are many more examples, horror story writer Keelan Patrick Burke, who attempted electronic publishing after his paperback stories did not sell well, was reborn as a writer and through his success in the e-format, returned back to print version. Christopher Paolini, author of the successful fantasy series Eragon first self-published in print as a teenager with the help of his parents before a big publishing house noticed his work and offered him a contract.
There are many success stories, but we must not forget that for each of these successes, there are thousands of writers who published online and were forgotten. A new medium will not guarantee success, it never does; and the novel and its author still need to have something interesting in it to make readers not only read it but to return to the author for more.
The original question remains: Is the era of e-publishing here? Hard to tell. While e-publishing is now stronger than ever, the mainstream publishers still publish mainly in hardcover and paperback formats and only secondly as e-books. And almost never solely as e-books. However, with the boom in tablets, smartphones, e-book readers and other devices on which people can read electronically, e-books are becoming more popular. They are not yet a predominant means of publishing, but there is a strong possibility that it will happen at some point during our lifetime. Print books will probably never go out of the market completely, because people still love the physicality of the hardcover or paperback formats. Even those who purchase e-books first often buy print version later if they liked the book, so they can have it on the shelve and just skim through it when they have the mood, which is more difficult with e-books. It is possible that the publishing model will change in the upcoming decades and even mainstream publishers will first publish novels in electronic format and later in print, the same way as publishers now publish first the hardcover of popular novels and sometime later the paperbacks.
So we probably should not fear that printed books will become obsolete. But they now have a strong electronic sibling which is getting stronger and more important on the market, and it may open a door to the market for authors who would otherwise not get the chance for publication.
While it is hard to tell if this is already the beginning of the e-publishing era, it is certainly the end of the purely print publishing era.
Friedman, Jane. (2012). Commodity Publishing, Self-Publishing, and The Future of Fiction. Retrieved from www.janefriedman.com
Hork, Boris. (2010). „Interview with Ondřej Neff.“ Pevnost Magazine, issue 10/2010
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