Report From the Front



A couple of months ago, I was at a party, talking to a couple of lawyers, and the conversation got around to the fact that I write books. The topic of e-books came up, and one of these guys said to me, in essence, “You should love e-books! I could take out my smartphone, and buy everything you’ve ever written with a couple of clicks. It’s so easy to sell your stuff!”

I said it was more complicated than that, but not until now have I realized how true that statement is. About a week ago, I “published” my very first e-book, a collection of pieces on language originally published in Lingua Franca, Slate, and elsewhere: You Need to Read This: The Death of the Imperative Mode, the Rise of American Glottal Stop, the Bizarre Popularity of “Amongst,” and Other Cuckoo Things That Have Happened to the English Language. Just like the lawyer said, it’s awesome! Anyone reading this can click on that link, pay $3.99 for the book (what a buy!), and within seconds be able to enjoy it on his or her device of choice. Two words: ka ching.

But, again, it’s complicated. The first complicated thing, for many people, is how to get and read the darned thing. The above link takes you to, where you can download the book to read either on a Kindle device or through a (free) Kindle app for your computer, tablet, or phone. If you don’t want to deal with Amazon, this link will help you sort out other options for obtaining my precious words.

Presumably everyone will be comfortable with the technology before too long. But that hardly makes this state of affairs less complicated, or problematic. The reason can be summed up in one aforementioned word: Amazon.

You have surely heard or read of the continuing dispute between the giant online retailer and the publishing industry, which is represented at this juncture by one of the Big Five publishers, Hachette. But you probably don’t know precisely what the fight is about. That’s because neither side is talking. However, industry reporters and insiders seem to agree that it centers on, that’s right, e-books. The point of contention seems to be that publishers make a lot of money from these items, and Amazon wants to cut into their margins.

Why do e-books make so much money? To be sure, the price tag is less than that of a paper book. But costs for paper, use of presses, delivery, and warehousing are substantially reduced eliminated. And—as I can testify—the author doesn’t really share in the windfall. For a hardcover book, the standard author royalty is 15 percent of the cover price. For an e-book, despite all those savings, it only goes up to 25 percent.

As reported in Slate by Evan Hughes, the literary agent Brian DeFiore posted some figures the big publisher HarperCollins had bragged about in a meeting with investors: A “$27.99 hardcover generates $5.67 profit to publisher and $4.20 royalty to author. $14.99 agency priced e-book generates $7.87 profit to publisher and $2.62 royalty to author.”

Rings true to me. As opposed to every paper book I’ve published, I didn’t receive an advance payment (against royalties) for You Need to Read This. I do get paid for every copy sold, but with that 25-percent figure, minus a 15-percent agent’s fee, it amounts to 85 cents. Drinks on me!

I did have another option for this e-book. If you anticipated that I am going to say “Amazon,” then congratulations—you’re getting into the mind-set of this strange new world. Amazon is willing to format and offer for sale your e-book, whatever it is and whoever you are. It’s quick. (“Publishing takes less than 5 minutes. Your book appears on Amazon within 24 hours.”) You set the price, and here’s the beauty part: You collect not 25, not 50, but 70 percent of the price.

In some cases, this has worked out quite well for authors. A guy named
Mishka Shubaly recently wrote in The Huffington Post.

In the spring of 2011, I was working three nights a week night-managing a bar on 14th Street, making about $350 a week. I had published a couple articles in a free weekly in 2008 about the drugs I’d been abusing and the ensuing chaos but, when I dried out in early 2009, my venues for publication dried up. Amazon approached me about writing for Kindle Singles, their new digital publishing platform. I had no name as a writer, a reputation only as a drunken rabble-rouser. I had little faith in their idea or my writing, but I gave them an old story that had sat on my hard drive for nearly 10 years. If it made $500, it was $500 I didn’t have before.

To date, that story, “Shipwrecked,” has earned me more than $40,000 and been translated into two other languages. I assumed it was a fluke but still quit my bar gig when I got my first royalty check of more than $9,000, the biggest check I’d ever gotten in my life. My next story, “The Long Run,” tripled “Shipwrecked” in sales, overtaking Stephen King and Dean Koontz to claim the No. 1 spot for several months.

Shipwrecked sells for $1.99. For Mr. Shubaly, for me, and for anyone writing an original e-book (usually shorter than conventional books), there is an enormous pressure to keep prices down; virtually every e-book Amazon offers ranges from $.99 to $2.99. So even with a 70-percent royalty, you have to sell an awful lot of books to make a reasonable amount of money.

It goes without saying that Shubaly is the exception rather than the rule; the writer’s odds in the Amazon model are long indeed. There is a more troubling aspect to it. I could have gone with Amazon but I chose to be published by Penguin, which flattered my ego by “accepting” the book, and which offered general editing, counsel on the title, copy-editing, design, the very nifty cover shown above, and promotion. Of course, I have a day job as a professor. If that were not the case, I probably would have signed up with Amazon.

Now multiply me by the number of authors, or aspiring authors, in the world. Surely most would take the 70-percent everybody-gets-in over the 25 percent gatekeeper model, and who can blame them? But it’s a complicated world, and actions have consequences.

David Streitfeld wrote in The New York Times:

Amazon …  promises a world where books are cheap, where anyone can publish anything, where there are no editors or distributors saying this is not what is selling now, go away.

Hachette is holding fast to the traditional publishing system that underpins modern culture. It was a world where publishers bankrolled writers in return for a large cut of the proceeds, where editors improved prose and sharpened arguments, and where books were selected and presented rather than simply released.

Eliminating the gatekeepers, as Amazon seems to want to do, may or may not be good for authors in the aggregate. But it’s not at all hard or complicated to conclude that it would be bad for books.



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