A quick look at e-books

Filed under: Business of Writing May 17, 2011

When I started self-publishing in 2002, e-books existed but were not nearly as wide-spread as they are today. I knew traditional publishers were starting to experiment with downloading titles ~ I remember buying Stephen King’s Riding the Bullet when it was only available in PDF format ~ but none of the major bookstores online yet marketed hand-held e-readers. My few experiments in electronic publishing were met with insipid sales, at best. Granted, my self-published paperbacks didn’t fare much better, but I saw little or no profit in publishing e-books.

Then I was contacted by an up-and-coming electronic publisher interested in working with me. I admit, I was skeptical ~ why share my profit with an online press when I could publish the titles myself and keep all my profits? But I took a chance and submitted a story, which the publisher accepted. They had a bit more knowledge about the world of e-publishing than I did at the time, and I was more than a little surprised at the amount of my first royalty check. Suddenly my sales had increased 500% in the span of four months! I couldn’t believe it!

Part of the reason I never realized there was a growing e-book community online was the simple fact that I didn’t read e-books. I preferred printed volumes, and I think there’s a part of every writer who longs to see his or her name in print on an actual, physical book. It’s something you can set on your coffee table, or keep on a bookshelf, or show your parents to prove you’ve made it, you’re a real author. An e-book is intangible ~ there’s nothing to hold onto, nothing to show off. Before Amazon’s Kindle invaded everyday language, not many people even knew what an e-book was.

But in today’s technology-laden world, e-book sales have surpassed those of print titles in the marketplace to such an extent that traditional publishers and booksellers are scrambling to reinvent their business models. Libraries are including e-books in their offerings, and every day more online bookstores selling only in electronic format seem to crop up. Many cell phones now support e-books, and the two largest online bookstores ~ Amazon and Barnes & Noble ~ have revolutionized the industry with stand-alone e-reading devices. Even people who didn’t know e-books existed last year are jumping on the bandwagon.

So what exactly is an e-book, anyway?

In the simplest terms, an e-book is a story available for download. According to Wikipedia, the first e-book was a copy of the United States’ Declaration of Independence, typed into a teletype machine by Michael S. Hart, founder of Project Gutenberg, in 1971. Software dedicated to reading e-books was first developed in 1993, two years before Amazon.com launched its online store. In 1998, the first ISBN was issued for an e-book, the same year the Rocket eBook reader was released. In 2000, Stephen King’s short story came out, and the rest is history.

E-books are revolutionizing the way people read … and publish. Before electronic formats, the only stories that would ever make it into print were novel-length ~ short stories were relegated to anthologies or magazines. Very few authors could make ends meet writing short fiction. Anyone who wanted to make money writing was at the mercy of the big publishing houses of New York ~ many great manuscripts were lost in slush piles or rejected numerous times. How many would-be authors lost faith in their writing when no one picked up their books? How many short stories were published in magazines with limited print runs and are no longer available?

There is very little overhead for someone who wants to publish an e-book. You need a book or story, of course. Software ~ to lay out the book, create a cover, format the electronic files, and upload them to a distributor’s site. And really, that’s about it. With the wide range of free software or low-cost shareware available online, you can easily publish your own titles with a starting investment of $100 or less. Why some publishers insist on charging so much for their electronic titles, sometimes pricing e-books at the same price they charge for the paperback edition, is beyond me.

So why do e-books appeal to readers? Many like the ease of use electronic formats provide. Disabled readers can enjoy books they wouldn’t be able to read in print. Those of us who spend way too much on books can buy e-books without worrying about where to store them. They aren’t taking up space in your bedroom or closet, and if you have to move, you don’t have to worry about packing all those books into boxes or, more importantly, bribing friends and family to help you carry them.

An e-reader is easier to take with you on trips than a stack of paperbacks ~ there’s no more making room for your books in your suitcases when you travel. And with the wireless option available on Amazon’s Kindle, you can decide mid-flight to buy another book and be reading it in minutes. E-books are a product of our technologically-driven, on-the-go society, and like it or not, they’re definitely here to stay.



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