The popular media has been feasting on a recent spate of bad news coming out the e-book field. The shutdown of AOL/Time-Warner's iPublish is the latest blow, but other events such as the closings of Contentville and Reciprocal, the pullback of At Random, frustrations at Rosetta and turmoil at Net Library have created the impression that e-books are a novelty whose time has gone. "Another CD-ROM," one critic sneered. Indeed, a reporter covering e-books issued what amounted to an obituary on the front page of the New York Times.
Those of us making money in e-books, delivering thousands of downloads every month, paying royalties to authors and publishers, have to wonder what planet these pundits are on. How could perceptions be so completely at odds with evidence that the e-book industry is healthy and pretty much where it was projected to be on growth charts?
In their haste to gloat, observers have been less than balanced in their analyses of the failures. Firms with unrealistic business models; start-ups blowing millions of dollars to brand Web sites that carry scarcely a shred of content; publishers dragging tons of overhead, outmoded traditions and unworkable techniques into e-book ventures—these make headlines, while thriving, well-managed companies are ignored or their achievements minimized. Analysts accustomed to measuring bestsellers on a scale of millions of copies belittle or ignore the pride (and profit) that e-book publishers take in a few hundred downloads of an e-book.
Admittedly, bad news does make for much better copy than success, and many of the failures have been high-profile companies that make a big crash when they fall. But that doesn't explain why the positive accomplishments have received so little coverage. In particular, scant attention has been aid to the hundreds of thousands of dollars in royalties paid every month to publishers for sales of thousands of titles in such e-book formats as Gemstar, Palm, Adobe and Microsoft Reader. And if you add revenue generated by books printed on demand—and extension of the same digital technology that drives electronic books—the numbers are even more impressive.
Perhaps our industry is out of touch with the consumers who are actually purchasing, downloading and reading e-books: the early technology adopters, the fans thrilled to find cherished books back in print, the young people for whom reading on handheld devices is commonplace. How long are we going to endure skeptics telling us that nobody wants to read a book on a screen, when in truth thousands are paying do so every day? In their haste to badmouth e-books, have critics forgotten the advantages of which they sang when e-books were first introduced—their conveniences, versatility, economy? Those factors haven't changed. What happened to all those encomia about the benefits of e-books to students, the elderly, the visually impaired? And has anybody asked authors how they feel to see even a few dozen copies of their out-of-print books selling to a new generation of readers?
It's begun to look as if a lot of editors, agents and even authors are half-hoping the new business will fall on its face. Why would they wish such a thing? Are they so afraid of being displaced by the new technology that they would prefer to live with the status quo? But what a status quo: a trade book publishing industry that pulps one copy out of every two it prints; that has operated for decades on profit margins under 5%; that authors complain has become hostile to literary endeavor; that readers complain has given them less content and less pleasure. Can we afford to wish this new enterprise ill when (talk about failure!) the past few decades are littered with the cadavers of conventional publishers merged, acquired or crushed by an antiquated and appallingly wasteful business model?
Those who scoff at e-books would do well to remember that publishing is simply a system for delivering books from authors to readers. One way of doing it is to produce the books in glass and steel skyscrapers, print them on presses, store them in warehouses and distribute them on trucks to bricks-and-mortar stores. Another is to load them on a server and e-mail them to customers. Though the fledgling industry has suffered some defeats, can anyone honestly believe that in the long run, the new model will not enhance the old and infuse it with new vitality and creativity?
It's time to focus on the good news coming out of the e-book business and support the pioneers striving to reinvent publishing and make it more relevant to the needs of authors and readers.