On Sunday 27 December 2009, The Washington Post carried an article about the on-going battle within the publishing industry over how to handle digital publications. (Link to The Washington Post article) The article details the battle between the larger publishing houses, who want to keep their high profits and are fighting the advent of e-books, and authors/agents who claim that since set-up costs are considerably less for digital books, their royalties should be greater. No need for me to point out which side I'm allied with.
However, what interested me most about the article was the conflict between the major distributors over how to distribute digital works and which platform to use, and how customers' demands for inexpensive books are being ignored. According to the article (so please don't write and chew me a new butthole if I offend your digital reader), Amazon's Kindle is popular at the moment not because of its technological advancements, which The Washington Post describes as "closer to the computer aesthetics of the 1980s than today's digital world," but because Amazon sells its books at a price reasonable to the customers. Barnes & Noble's Nook has a better technological design concept but suffers from functionality problems. And more and more digital readers are coming out every month. But if you own a Nook, good luck buying books from Amazon.com, and vice versa.
Okay, you're probably asking about now. Publishers don't want to pay us more royalties and digital readers are still in their infancy. So how the hell can this be good news for authors?
Because authors are the barbarian hordes sitting on the sidelines waiting for the great powers to beat themselves senseless so we can ride in when the war is over and reap the rewards of someone else's victory.
Earlier this year, a New York literary agent I had lunch with compared the on-going battle over digital publishing to the Great Home Entertainment War of the 1980s when VHS, Beta, and Laser Disks were slugging it out to see which one would be the medium for bringing movies and TV shows into the family living room. VHS eventually won that conflict because they offered considerably more titles at reasonable prices. And VHS ruled as the supreme lord and master for almost twenty years until those upstart DVDs came along, offering even more titles at cheaper prices, and with extra features.
Throughout that war, directors (the creative talent) continued to make movies which played in theaters before making their way to VHS/Beta/LDs and eventually to DVD. The conflict had minimal negative impact on the making of movies, and in the long run directors benefited from the competition. For example, with the advent of DVDs, directors who earlier could never get the major studios to even look at the movies are now able to get them to the public by distributing them directly to DVD. Granted, many of those DVDs can be considered the war crimes of this conflict, but I've also been pleasantly surprised by a direct-to-DVD production that had exceptional quality, but otherwise never would have been seen by the public.
Authors are the creative talent in this present conflict. We'll continue to write no matter who wins on the digital reader front. We'll get our books published as e-books and in trade paperbacks, and if we're really lucky in hard cover and special editions. Every time digital readers are reformatted or updated, we'll sell more and more copies of our books. And someday, when the major publishers raise the white flag of surrender and join the digital age, we'll sweep down from the mountains and pillage them of higher royalties.
So I'm going to go practice my barbarian yell for when Random House comes looking to negotiate a contract.
Happy New Year. May victory be ours in 2010.