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The electronic library. April 21, 2011

Posted by ourfriendben in wit and wisdom.
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Our friend Ben’s head is still spinning from a pair of articles in this morning’s Wall Street Journal about electronic publishing. Taken together, they had all the makings of a blockbuster: ambition, success, greed, hope, and despair. (Not to mention murder, but that was in the plots of the e-books, not the articles.)

The first, “Cheapest E-Books Upend the Charts,” discusses how, among other things, writers can sell self-published e-books for 99 cents (of which they receive 35 cents per download) and still make a comparative fortune. The example they gave was of a mystery writer who made $126,000 from Amazon alone in March, thanks to 369,000 downloads of his 99-cent books, and received additional income from e-sales via Barnes & Noble, Kobo Inc., and Apple.

Lest you think I’m talking about Stephen King, the hero of this rags-to-riches tale is one John Locke, Louisville (KY) businessman by day, thriller writer by night, “who published his first paperback two years ago at age 58.” He’s only been self-publishing e-books since March 2010, so it took him exactly a year to reach that $126,000-plus monthly total. During that year he’s also kept the product coming: Seven of his e-books are now on Amazon’s top 50 digital bestseller list.

For a writer like our friend Ben, this success story is the ultimate fantasy, almost better than winning the lottery. Too good to be true? Yes and no. Yes, because Mr. Locke did everything right. First, he’s a businessman, not your average English major hawking fries at McDonald’s. He researched the market, settled on a format and price for his books, cranked them out to maximize exposure, put them up for sale on every e-book venue for the same reason, and did all the other things you have to do to create a successful sales platform: blog about the books, hire a freelance designer and editor, collect followers on Twitter (he currently has more than 20,000), answer hundreds of fan e-mails every day, get an agent to market the foreign and movie rights.

Mr. Locke sums up the reasons behind his books’ success succintly: “It’s all about marketing, but they have to like your stuff.” It’s also all about hard work and a major time investment, writing and tweeting and blogging and e-mailing and selling. Mr. Locke put all that in, and now he’s getting it out. If you or our friend Ben were to self-publish an e-book, be it never so wonderful, and not put that kind of push behind it, it would doubtless languish on the virtual shelves and we’d be lucky to make, well, 99 cents.

But in one sense, it’s not too good to be true, and that is that you no longer have to be Tom Clancy or Nora Roberts or one of the 12 other people whose books regularly flood the market to become a successful published author. But you do have to do the research, do the work, get it out there, and hope that enough people “like your stuff.”

 The other article that knocked our friend Ben for a loop was also about e-books, “Amazon’s Kindle Will Offer E-Books From [sic] Libraries.” Apparently, Barnes & Noble’s Nook other e-readers have offered purchasers the opportunity to download library books for free for quite some time. Now Kindle will join them in providing this service “later this year.”

Our friend Ben approves. I’m not an e-book reader; I spend my days in front of the computer writing, editing, and researching, and when I want to read for pleasure, I want a real book, not a virtual one. I also enjoy going to the library and looking around at the new books shelves and the stacks. But for those who do their reading on a Kindle, Nook, Sony Reader, or what have you, having access to free library e-books, even if it’s just for the library’s normal lending period of 14 to 21 days, seems like a great feature.

But wait. Why on earth would you have to “return” a virtual library book? As our friend Ben continued reading the article, I became even more confused. “Only one person can check out each digital copy at a time,” it continued. Exactly as if the e-version was a physical book.

Say what, now?! What’s the point of making the books available digitally if everyone who wants to read them can’t do so simultaneously? Isn’t that, ultimately, the virtual advantage? Rather like the difference between streaming a movie from Netflix versus having them mail you a DVD. Imagine what an uproar there would be if Netflix only allowed one person to stream a movie at a time!

Clearly, our friend Ben wasn’t following here. It turns out I wasn’t just clueless but naive. The reason only one person can check out a virtual copy of a library book is that the library itself must buy each copy from the publisher, and since e-books don’t wear out, the library need never replace it, unlike hardcover and paperback books. Publishers aren’t at all happy about the resulting loss of revenue, and have been trying to approach the whole digital books-in-libraries dilemma and come up with a profitable business model; limiting each digital book to the one-at-a time checkout, so each library must buy multiple copies of popular books, is one strategy.

So far, the profitable business model has proved elusive. Two major publishers, Simon & Schuster and Macmillan, won’t sell digital books to libraries at all. Another publishing giant, HarperCollins, insists that libraries must repurchase their digital titles after 26 checkouts. Our friend Ben would think that publishers might view libraries as marketing tools—you read it, you love it, you buy it for yourself or as a gift—but I guess not.

Turning a profit in the virtual world has always been a publishing challenge. But now, thanks to e-readers and entrepreneurial writers like John Locke, that may be changing. I just hope that Mr. Locke gives copies of his books to libraries for free.

To find out more, go to www.wsj.com. And now, if you’ll excuse me, I have some writing to do…



1. deb - April 22, 2011

It will be interesting to see how all of this will finally play out. We don’t have downloadable Ebooks at our library yet. I can use my husband’s card at Dallas Public to download five ebooks in a 21 day period, which is their normal circulation limit. The titles are limited. One more option and it can be done from our home computer. Love the convenience.

Wow, five books in 21 days! That’ll keep you busy! (Though admittedly, I can get through a page-turner in a night if I’m willing to stay up ’til 2…)

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