Friday, 23 September 2011

E-publishing - or not?

Waterstone's have announced their own e-reader, to go on sale next year. Whether it will be any challenge to the dominance of the Amazon Kindle remains to be seen.

For a writer, the advantages of e-publishing are clear. It's possible to make one's work available directly to readers without going through the time consuming process of repeated submission and rejection, or taking the financial risk of self-publishing in traditional format.

Because there need be no time-lag between completion of a book and its e-publication, it's much easier for a writer to jump into the latest trend in fiction, whether it's vampires or Tudor queens or medieval crime.

Conversely, a writer who e-publishes can experiment with themes and genres currently considered unpopular by traditional publishers and agents.

A traditionally published novel is normally between 75,000 and 120,000 words. Anything shorter or longer isn't commercially viable. An e-book can be any length. Short stories, for which the traditional market is shrinking, are well suited to e-book publication.

When publishing with Kindle, the author sets the price of his or her own book, and keeps a higher percentage than when traditionally published. (E-publishing of course does not have the overheads that have to be covered by traditional publishers.)  With paperback prices now not far off £10, an e-book at £2.99 is very attractive.  Some of the most successful e-publishing authors have set their prices as low as 99p. And e-books do not go out of print; they remain available unless or until the author or publisher decides to withdraw them.

So what, if any, are the disadvantages to the writer of e-publishing?

E-publishing isn't suitable for any kind of non-fiction where illustrations, maps, charts or tables need to be displayed. The screen of an e-reader is not big enough.

So many e-books are now being published directly by their authors that a book by a new or less well known author is likely to sink without trace. Books that are not published by a known and reputable publisher will not be reviewed in newspapers or magazines. It is much more difficult to browse a list of e-books on a screen than a shelf of books in a shop or library; chance discovery by readers looking for something new is less likely, especially given the sheer quantity of books available.

We hear a lot about the reduction in the amount of editing done by publishers. But it is still the case that a traditionally published book will have been read by at least one person other than the writer, and that person will be someone who is knowledgeable about the industry as a whole and the particular genre into which the book fits.

There are many freelance editors out there, of course, and an e-publishing writer could choose to use one. But unless an e-published book was extraordinarily successful it would be a long time before it earned back the cost of a thorough professional edit.

Then there is the sense of validation that comes with the knowledge that someone else, a professional in the industry, considers one's book good enough to publish, and the satisfaction of holding the published book in one's hand, neither of which is possible with direct e-publishing.

Finally, what about posterity? A paper book may survive indefinitely. Any eighteenth century writer of Gothic romance, any early twentieth century writer of girls' books, may one day be rediscovered and republished. Their books are accessible in the copyright libraries to any student wanting to research a thesis on the history of the genre.

What will happen to e-books when the technology has moved on, the Kindles are thrown away, and there is no-one around to ensure that an author's books are available in the latest format?

And how will future researchers write the history of popular literature in the twenty-first century when so much of it will no longer be available to them?