walkitout (walkitout) wrote,

The Story So Far: Publishing Transitions to eBooks

I do not immediately recall what I was thinking when I decided to surf through ebook coverage recently. I remember being pretty amazed by the AAP numbers for February, and really surprised at how little was being made of it online. I was sort of curious about what Konrath was up to, and I was also interested in how the transition from publishing paper books was going for what Eisler terms "legacy publishers".

This turned into an effort to answer a couple questions.

(1) Are the Big 6 and other smaller publishers making a concerted effort to put their books out in ebook form?
(2) Have self and/or small e-pubbers been able to gain/maintain a foothold on the kindle?

For a lot longer than the kindle has existed, there have been genre authors pushing hard to legitimize self-publishing. Genre authors have a different find-the-audience experience than many other categories of general books. Genres have a dedicated fan based small in number but which buys a lot of books. A genre often has significant events associated with the media not organized by publishers (conventions and so forth). It makes a lot of sense to self publish in this situation: you can find your audience much better than a big publishing house can. The real bummer has been the cost associated to produce limited run books; e-publishing has eliminated that issue. Genre fiction authors also often produce long running series which have a highly committed audience; they're a really recognizable brand. This has some great aspects (simplifies marketing) and some downer aspects (if someone else controls the rights to early books in the series, life can really suck when you switch, whether to selfpub or a different publisher).

I really would not have been shocked to see a kindle bestseller list full of selfpublished genre fiction. That is absolutely not the case, however. The only genre heavily represented by selfpublishers in the top 60ish is horror/thriller. Either Konrath or one of his recent guest bloggers wrote something which helps explain this in part. If you've selfpublished on kindle, you need to get a ways up the list in order to vault up to the top tiers. The easiest way to do this is to crack one of the genre lists. And the easiest genre list to crack is the horror list. Authors who think of what they are writing as "thriller" are encourage to self-categorize as "horror" as well, because this is so much easier to break into. Once onto a sublist, it's vastly easier to make it up further (apparently).

If you look at the Horror list, the only NON self-published and/or primarily epublished cheap titles seem to be written by Stephen King (that's not entirely true: _World War Z_ is there also, and the Harris/Stackhouse books are a little lower down, and after that there's Moning and so forth.).

What does this mean? On the one hand, fuck if I know. I generally hate horror, altho I like the Stackhouse series, I don't tend to think of it as horror. On the other hand, this is too weird a phenomenon to completely ignore.

(1) Are publishers underserving horror fans? This seems like a real possibility. If you compare the Horror list to the Romance list, there are a lot more primarily-paper books listed in the kindle bestsellers Romance list than on the horror side. But that could also mean:

(2) Perhaps horror fans are even broker than romance fans? Or:

(3) Perhaps horror fans are more willing to adopt a new author than romance fans? Or:

(4) Maybe romance presses and horror presses were serving their fans about equally well, but the romance publishers did a better job adopting digital in sync with their readers than the horror presses did. Or:

(5) Maybe there are just a whole helluva lot more people buying romance than horror, making it tougher to game the system.

My first instinct, honestly, is #5. Harlequin in particular adopted an effective digital strategy before most of their fans were mad at them for not adopting an effective digital strategy (good timing).

Despite extensive presence of selfpublished and/or primarily e-published books on _many_ (Horror is just a really extreme example) genre sublists and, occasionally, lists, self/epubbers have not been able to convert this into a similar dominance of the top of the general bestseller list for kindle.

And I don't think that's going to change.

A wide variety of people online have complained vigorously about the agency model and price points for ebooks above $9.99. Yet it's abundantly clear that people are perfectly happy to pay more than $9.99 for ebooks published by "legacy publishers", at least when that book is very recently released. The composition of the kindle general list and the "books" general list has enough overlap to suggest publishers can probably keep doing what they are doing with some confidence that people will continue to buy what they are selling.

The big differences between the general list and the kindle list can probably be chalked up to where we are in the adoption curve in conjunction with books-the-kindle-handles-poorly. There are, for example, an awful lot of diet books in the top 60ish on the paper side (more than on the kindle side). There are also more books that I would characterize as _really_ conservative on the general side, vs. the kindle list (Corsi's book is on the general side, as is Ron Paul's book, and the bio of Bonhoeffer -- they are all available for kindle, but much lower down on the kindle list). There are a couple obvious ways to organize these differences. (1) Conservative people are conservative: they change a little slower, so they aren't over on the kindle side (yet). (2) Diet books and political books are the kinds of books bought by people who buy a small number of books a year; the kindle list reflects the purchasing habits of people who buy a larger number of books a year.

The answer to my two questions are thus: (1) Yes. and (2) Not a very big one, and it's a bit precarious.

It's late enough that I'm taking a break for now, but I hope to come back to this tomorrow and do some research in support of another question I have. So far, the assumption has been that "legacy publishers" will come out on the other side of this transition to digital with a different cost structure/thinner profit margins. Is this assumption true and, if it is, what changes does that imply for publishers? If that assumption isn't true, there are likely to be some changes anyway, as the number of retail bookstores inevitably continues to shrink over the coming months and years. What does that imply for the way publishers do things?

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