A new way to distribute books?

The news a couple weeks ago about the release of Sony’s new ebook reader has aroused only a touch of speculation. Instead of focusing, like I did, on how the technology will transform publishing (if it has any effect at all), most of the articles I’ve found on the topic tend to center on how publishing companies will be able to use the technology to cut costs:

E-paper could save newspapers a bundle on printing and distribution. In 10 years 12 percent of newspapers could be published on e-paper, says Harald Ritter, technology chief for Ifra, the publisher’s group; eventually they’ll all follow suit, just as the recording industry dropped vinyl. “In 20 to 30 years we will see newspaper publishers abandon print for economic reasons,” says Roger Fidler, director of the Center for Cyber Information at Kent State University.

Wow! Newspapers will save a bundle? Gosh! Let me be the first in line to buy a $400 reader so newspapers can save a bundle! A better question is this: what will a newspaper be when it no longer involves paper? Will the 2034 equivalent of a “newspaper” even exist? Why should it? The reason they exist now is because they are a cheap way to distribute news. Surely with technology like e-books, we can come up with an even cheaper way.

Of course, newspapers aren’t really my thing. I write books. In fact, I’ve just written one, and all this talk of e-books has gotten me to thinking about how I might want to distribute it. Do I really need a publisher? As I pointed out before, the main purpose of publishers is to help authors defray the cost of printing. Once printing is out of the picture, the cost of “publishing” is trivial. Why couldn’t I, for example, distribute my book from an online store? You send me $3, I e-mail you the file, ready for downloading to your e-book reader.

But how would anyone hear about it? How would I get the word out? I could do the same thing “real” publishers do: hire a publicist. Or I could try to do publicity on my own, sending out press releases and offers to do radio interviews. I’d even have a “hook,” since I’m trying out a novel form of book distribution.

I could try other methods: Maybe distribute the first three or four chapters for free, then ask for money once I get readers “hooked.” I could distribute the whole thing free and ask for payment on the honor system. I could try any number of means to get my book out there, and I suspect that’s exactly what most authors will be doing as soon as we see a widespread distribution of e-book readers. Meanwhile, publishers, instead of counting how much money they’ve saved, will be trying to figure out why they exist at all.

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5 Responses to A new way to distribute books?

  1. charlie says:

    “How would I get the word out?”

    By blog reviews and through posting sample chapters to P2P networks, assuming that the RIAA and MPAA don’t demonize P2P so much that it never takes off as an effective distribution technology.

    That being said, I like how you seized on the fact about how ebooks will benefit publishers in that piece. Given your comments about author self-publishing, as well as the ways that I can think of in how it will affect literacy–for example, will be easy to carry around an entire library of books if an ereader has one of those microdrives such as in the iPod–would seem to me very limiting to only look at how it might support existing methods of textual distribution, as well as how it will support an existing industry instead of maybe creating new ones.

  2. Dave says:

    I think publishers have a lot of work to do if they are going to benefit from e-books in the long run. I can actually see this going either way–wide-scale P2P distribution of e-books putting publishers out of business, or authors unwilling to take the risk of self-promoting actually playing into the hands of publishers by signing distribution agreements. Publishers in this context can really only offer two services: centralization and DRM, something authors could easily accomplish themselves either through community blogs or some as-yet-undetermined communal system of grouping texts.

  3. matt says:

    I have to admit a strong dislike for ebooks. They seem to embody what Lessig warns
    about in Free Culture–enforcing copyright law by CODE. Indeed, trying to read
    an ebook through USF’s library system is a righteous pain in the arse. I can’t
    copy/paste, and have to put up with a truly inferior “reader” that is designed
    more to inhibit people from copy/pasting than to make the damn document easier
    to read.

    Have you considered releasing the book as shareware? Might be easier that way. If
    the book was a hit, at least it would be widely distributed. The more people that
    read it, the more likely you’ll get donations. You could phrase it as, “If you
    liked this novel, please consider making a donation. The more money you donate,
    the more time I’ll be able to set aside for writing. Also, you’ll be put on a
    special mailing list and receive copies of new books as soon as they’re ready” blah
    blah.

    The free chapter idea doesn’t seem too good to me. I’ve got so much to read
    that I’d probably pass on a novel that wasn’t complete.

    The key is to think of ways to benefit from mass reproduction/distribution.

  4. Dave says:

    I’ve considered the “shareware” model; unfortunately today publishers have enough clout that “shareware” is seen in largely the same light as self-publishing. The key, I think, is to legitimize author distribution of texts, and that can only be done when such texts are not viewed as “substandard.” What’s needed, more than anything, is a system that can help readers determine what’s worth reading while simultaneously rewarding authors for their work.

    I think there are many distribution models that have the potential to succeed, but one key is to preserve the idea that a book is something “special.” Opening a book should be a magical experience, and as ebooks become more popular, they need to preserve that special feeling that people get when they open a book. It can’t seem like “begging”–It’s got to be an experience that people really desire. I think it can be done, but one thing self-publishers need to realize is that sensation of desire that publishers work to create when they put out a book.

    There’s no reason that feeling can’t be duplicated with e-books, but it won’t be easy.

  5. matt says:

    That’s an interesting point. One obvious thing they should be doing with e-books
    is making Flash-animated “covers.” I’d be a lot happier with e-books if they
    would just lighten up on the security and let people choose their own way to
    view them. I’d 9/10 rather dump the thing into Word, double space it, and find
    the right font. Plus, I like to pull good passages/sentences out and stick them
    in a “notes” file for later perusal.

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