The eBook – Déjà Vu All Over Again?

Editor’s note: Phil Dwyer is an author and freelance writer, and in the 1990s was the first editor of the seminal UK tech title, NMA. You can follow him on Twitter at @phildwyer or on his blog.

The publishing world is in turmoil. A series of recessions have all but eradicated innovation amongst the leading publishers and many small independents have gone bankrupt. Political turmoil and unrest has destabilized society to the point that publishing itself is regarded with suspicion by the powers that be.

Against this backdrop, a series of tectonic shifts are about to change everything forever. The forces which will bring about these changes are many and varied: new technologies which will drive down the cost of production, new distribution channels, which will bring together formerly distant and almost inaccessible markets, and a demographic shift of epic proportions amongst the publishers’ customer base — the readers.

One young author is about to embark on a project which will coalesce these disparate forces into a publishing phenomenon which will sweep everything before it, revolutionizing “publishing, distribution, bookselling, author-publisher relations, copyright provisions, and fiction itself.”1

The year is 1836.

The young author is Charles Dickens, and the project in question of the periodical publication of The Pickwick Papers.

The initial print run for the first part of this work (which was published in 19 monthly installments over 20 months) was 1,000 copies, but contemporary evidence suggests fewer than 400 were sold initially. By the time the last part was published in October 1837, the print run was 40,000. It sold out.

There is no overstating the impact Pickwick had on the publishing industry. For the next 30 years, parts publication became the dominant force within the industry, democratizing and expanding Victorian book buying and the book-buying public. It was hugely lucrative for publishers and authors alike. Figures like Charles Dickens were the rock stars of their generation. In their wildest dreams, neither Dickens nor his publisher-partners Chapman and Hall could have imagined the level of success their little project would achieve, and how much it would change the world of publishing.

Most people think it was the format that did it. But parts publications had been around for over a hundred years, without changing very much of anything. What did it was the unique combination of opportunity and genius. The opportunity was a previously untapped cadre of readers. The Industrial Revolution had created a class of workers who simply didn’t exist before. They weren’t exactly well-off — traditionally published books were mostly beyond their means — but they were literate, and they could afford the regular price of a parts publication. The comic genius was Charles Dickens.

Fast forward 188 years to 2012. The publishing world is in the midst of arguably the biggest wave of change to hit it since parts publication revolutionized Victorian publishing. This time the central disruptive power is the digitisation of the book. It turns out that turning a material object into a digital file is a big deal — a lesson music industry executives learned over a decade ago. But we’ve been here or hereabouts before. So what’s new?

There’s one big difference between the disruption sparked by Pickwick and the current eBook phenomenon. Pickwick democratized reading. The eBook is democratizing writers and writing. It’s quick, cheap and relatively easy to publish and distribute an eBook. The author doesn’t have to break through a plethora of gate-keepers (agents, editors, and the marketing executives at publishers, to name a few) to see their work in print. Almost anyone can self-publish an eBook , and almost everyone is (or at least, that’s how it feels).

Is this a threat or an opportunity for publishers and authors?

A little of each.

Everyone agrees that stories and storytelling is not going away. There will always be a demand for great stories, well-told. But everything else about publishing is in flux. Authors, even some established ones, are self-publishing. Agents are taking projects they can’t sell to risk-averse publishers, and publishing them as eBooks themselves. Even the publishers seem spooked. In the summer, Penguin became the first traditional publisher to buy a self-publishing outfit when it purchased Author Solutions Inc. for $116 million.

It’s the publishers who are being squeezed the most. Over the past couple of decades the grisly economics of publishing forced them to trim fat, then muscle. Today’s authors are increasingly being expected to invest in their own editing, do their PR and marketing, and pay for cover art. What’s left is the publisher’s distribution expertise: their network of sales people who get the books on bookshop shelves. But eBooks don’t need bookshops, and many of the sales interfaces to eBook stores are owned by players like Apple and Amazon, not by the publishers or the book trade. Canada’s leading book seller, Indigo, has learned some of the earlier lessons of the Internet era by cannibalizing its own business with Kobo (and before somebody else did it.

A new eco-system is emerging to enable this revolution. It’s far from clear who will emerge from the murk as victor, a prospect which is bound to confuse, perplex and frighten most authors.

So what’s a poor author (and most of us authors are poor) to do? Many are asking themselves why they need a publisher at all. If they have to pay for their own editing, PR and marketing and cover art, build their own author ‘platform’ and get the word out there about their work with Twitter and author blogs for their 10 percent of every sale, what’s the publisher doing for its 90 percent?

There’s no question the eBook has changed the economics of self-publishing for authors and lent it an air of respectability. It’s losing its vanity-press image. Even so-called serious authors are diving in, and the divas of the eBook revolution (writers like Joe Konrath, John Locke and Amanda Hocking) crow they’re making a fortune out of self-published eBooks.

Critical mass – the point at which there were enough eBook readers in the hands of the public to create a viable market for eBooks – seems to have been achieved somewhere between October and November 2010. In May 2012 Amazon announced that for every 100 physical books it sells, it sells 105 electronic books.

But now that the gates are down there’s nothing to hold back the dreck which for almost the entire history of publishing has been held at bay by the traditional arbiters of quality: the agents and editors. We’re drowning in it, and it’s only going to get worse in the wake of flash-in-the-pan success like that achieved by E.L. James’s 50 Shades franchise. Last year, 211,000 self-published books were released (up 58 percent from 2010’s 133,000)2*. Some 41 percent of them were eBooks.

What’s interesting is that though they accounted for 41 percent of the volume of books published last year, they only accounted for 11 percent of sales value, according to Bowker. The average price of a self-published eBook was $3.18 (the average price of a trade paperback and a hardback was $12.68 and $14.40, respectively).

This is one facet of the phenomenon that drove the expansion of the book market in the Victorian era – cheaper fiction democratized reading. The other was distribution. The railways put each of Dickens’s installments in readers’ hands at roughly the same time, no matter where they lived in the UK. This was unheard of at the time, when it sometimes took weeks for a copy of The Times to circulate in remoter areas. The eReader puts the storefront on your lap and the book in your hand seconds after you buy it. It has taken most of the friction out of book buying.

So why am I, a long-time proponent of new media in general, and the digitization of physical objects in particular, planning on going the traditional route with my debut novel? Why am I about to start the gruelling (and often demoralizing) process of querying agents, when I could have my book on virtual bookshelves within weeks?

There are many reasons, but here are a few of the most obvious. Becoming one of the 211,000 self-published books makes the task of getting your book noticed that much harder, especially if you’re a debut novelist. The market isn’t just crowded, it’s saturated. Most of the tactics that publishers traditionally use to differentiate their authors, and their authors’ books, aren’t available to self-published authors: newspapers and magazines won’t review self-published books, and they’re not eligible for the major prizes. You can’t get a grant from an arts organization with a self-published book.

But the biggest reason, the one which trumps everything self-publishing can currently offer, is quality. I want my book to be the best it can be, and the rigors of conventional publishing have forced me to work hard to achieve that.

I thought the book was done three years ago. In retrospect, that’s when the real work started. If I’d been self-publishing it’s likely I would have put that flawed draft out in the world. But because I wanted to go the traditional publishing route, I enrolled in a creative writing course at the Humber School for Writers. This matched me with a mentor — a published author – who tore that draft apart, and improved the book immeasurably over the course of the next six months. If I’d been self publishing I might have assumed that still flawed seventh (or was it the eighth?) draft was good enough. I wouldn’t have spent the next two years reworking it, with the help of a professional editor.

Now I’m screwing up my courage for the process of steady rejection known as agent querying. I’m probably not ready for it, but the book, finally, is. I know it will be brutal, but it’s a necessary rite of passage, because it will provide validation, from professionals with high standards, that I have served my time and learned my craft.

*2. Source: Bowker – reported by vp for publishing services Kelly Gallagher at Book Expo America 2012.