New Stuff and Old Concerns: The emerging ebook market can create a better future for writers

After all the Halloween stuff I did over the past few weeks on this site, I took a little time off.  Hey, cranking out 18 pieces in 14 days can be exhausting.  Anyway, I was very happy with how that worked out.  I got a massive uptick in traffic to this blog, I added a number of Twitter followers who actually stuck around and, ultimately, I sold what I consider to be a fair number of both of my books. 

Now, don’t get me wrong, the actual numbers behind any of this are miniscule.  I’m not making a fortune, I didn’t sell 50,000 copies, I didn’t add 25,000 followers on Twitter.  What I did do was illustrate to myself how some of this could conceivably work over the long haul.  And I made a few bucks to help pay the bills.  Sounds like a success to me.

I’ve noticed a few things of late that are steering me toward future choices.  The first is the impact a second book has had on generating sales for the first one.  That is, while I’ve sold copies of the new book, I’ve noticed a nice little bump in sales of the old one, too.  As much time and effort as I’ve put into trying to figure this stuff out over the past couple years, it startled me a bit to realize that I was still a victim of old school thinking. 

I was looking forward, focusing on the new book, almost subconsciously determining that the old one was played out.  It really never dawned on me that “played out” doesn’t even begin to apply to any of this any longer.  Ebooks are a relatively small percentage of the overall book market right now, but even the most pessimistic observers admit that they will soon come to dominate the market.  Tablets are getting cheaper and more diverse, meaning their penetration into the mainstream of life has the potential of what the VCR or DVD player or cable television did in the past, as in sooner than later, more people will have one than not.  How can a book that never goes out of stock, and never leaves the marketplace be played out when the market itself could be 200-300% bigger in the next few years alone?

I believe the mistake I made, and the mistake a lot of other, smarter people than me are making right now, is considering ebooks a segment of the overall book market.  It’s not.  Ebooks are an entirely different market altogether.  Even though you have the same material overlapping between print and digital, that’s really the only similarity.  Digital revenue won’t overtake print revenue in total dollars historically anytime soon, or even compensate for print’s losses in any effective way because the economics are different.  As much as big publishers want to tell themselves that people will pay $13, $15, $17 for ebooks, that’s a pricing structure doomed to failure.  So to look at ebook sales in the context of a percentage of total book sales misses the point, and totally underestimates the potential upside.

Ebooks are a market that, barring another economic catastrophe, is poised to enter a period of enourmous growth and expansion.  That expansion is predicated on a vastly different sales model than what has existed seemingly forever in print.  There is no longer any such concept as “played out.”  In fact, it appears that, as the networked infrastructures within ebook sales continue to grow and be populated by more and more readers, that each new entrant into the market under an author’s name has the potential to generate just as many sales for a book published two years ago as it does for a new release. 

That just seems counterintuitive to anyone who’s worked extensively in print publishing where everything, no matter how popular and successful, has a distinct life cycle.  It may be that ebooks hold the possibility of not simply extending that life cycle, but making it near infinite.  While things have existed in such a way for the most popular of writers, albeit to a lesser extent, this infinite life cycle in ebooks isn’t limited to the top of the top, it’s available for all writers at all levels of the book food chain.  That is a massive departure from the past, a total game-changer, if you will.

And it never really occurred to me even though it was staring me right in the face.  But I get it now.  After two years of wrapping my head around this stuff, trying to find something that makes sense economically–meaning an earning potential that equates the effort necessary to produce the product–ebooks are by far the most promising development I’ve seen.  There really hasn’t, with limited exceptions, been a model that makes a compelling case for selling digital content as a writer.  The ones that do tended to pull the majority of revenue to the institutions operating the platform.  Newspaper paywalls, for instance, generate revenue mostly for the newspaper and the corporation that owns it, and the writer is left with a miniscule share of that, if any.  Content farms pay peanuts for material, yet exploit that for their own, much larger share.  Ad supported sites are stuck in a volume business because the unlimited structure of the internet has been, and will continue to, drive a race to the bottom on ad rates.  And again, the writer gets a tiny, insignificant slice while the institution gets the lion’s share. 

Even book publishers, who have operated on that premise forever, are trying to squeeze that form into ebooks.  What does it say about a system where I can sell a book for a third or a quarter of the price of a Big 6, agency priced ebook yet I make more per copy than their author, no matter how big their name?  Ebooks have a clear potential to break this cycle, and produce significant financial gains for writers, putting us into a position, perhaps for the first time, to reap the majority of the proceeds generated from our work. 

While I’ve had conflicting issues with previous developments for writers online–most of which seemed based on a devaluing of our work, further mitigating our place in the content ecosystem–ebooks look to be just the opposite.  And we’re right at the ground floor of what is possibly a booming growth industry over the next decade.  When I look at ebooks, I see optimism, I see large growth possibilities, I see earnings potential that at least meets the efforts required to enter the market, and quite possibly far exceeds it.  For the first time in years, I can look at the disruption the internet has wrought on publishing and see an opportunity created for writers rather than one taken away.  Can it be that I’ve actually found what I’ve been looking for?

Anyway, enough pontificating.  I liked the 13 Days of Halloween stuff I did here so much, I decided to collect it up and make it an ebook all its own.  I unleashed it a few days ago.  You can click here to check it out.  I did slap a modest little price on it, as it’s a cleaned up, better organized and polished version of what’s still on the site, so I don’t believe that’s unreasonable. If you simply must read it for free, well, just scroll on down and have at it.

After wrapping that up, I dove right into something I’ve considered for a while but haven’t acted on, I kicked off a series of individual short stories in ebook form, each available for 99 cents.  I started off with three stories, and am listing them under the banner “Watershed Tales.”  Click here to check them out and see where you can buy copies.

It’s been a busy few weeks.  And there’s much more to come.  It’s interesting how encouraging it is to finally see a direction that doesn’t look like a dead end.  I’ve had a lot of pent-up creativity the past few years, mainly because I couldn’t find an outlet that made sense.  Now, however, without even truly realizing it, I’m overloading with ideas and possibilities.  For the first time in a long time, they actually seem attainable.  It’s about damn time!

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