When Distribution = Promotion (The New Writer’s Dilemma)
…once ebook sales hit 20-25% of book sales, print run numbers will fall to a point where the current consignment system for sales will break down. Under the current system, most books can be returned for credit, so for every book sold, two are printed. Those “returned” books have the covers torn off, and the guts discarded, so they cannot be put out into the market again. Ebook sales will create smaller print runs, driving up the unit cost, forcing higher prices which, in turn, will kill sales. Game over.
Note that he’s not predicting that books will go away — but that the publishing industry is going to have to make some serious changes to cope with the new reality of ebooks. Having already been through this story with comics -> webcomics, my view is that he’s absolutely right. Mr. Stackpole has long advocated that writers embrace electronic publishing as a means of controlling their own fate, and it’s true that with the ebook, it’s easier than it’s ever been.
However, there’s an important aspect of the writer/publisher relationship that self-publishing leaves as a big hole, to wit, getting your name out there to the public. While I have only myself as a poll sample, I know that I discover most of my new authors by browsing in a bookstore, and I suspect I’m not the only one. For somebody like Rowling or King, it may be that self-publishing is practically printing money from your computer. But what about somebody who’s more obscure, say a person who has a couple of mid-tier webcomics and a few decades-old RPG credits to his name? (Just to pick an unlikely profile at random.) If I were to jump right into the ebook arena, who would notice?
As much as writers chafe at their editorial overlords, publishers do provide something that a beginning writer can’t provide for themselves: a marketing machine. That a fledgling writer will get only the barest attention of that machine is undoubtedly true — but even that much is infinitely more than one can provide themselves when they work all day, write all night, and recover on the weekend. Fortunately, Mr. Stackpole is aware of the problem and provides some suggestions.
On the other hand, there’s one final aspect of the issue that ebooks simply cannot address, which is that part of “the dream” of being a writer is seeing one’s own work actually in a bookstore. For those of us who, despite the business’s sordidness, still love to go into a brick-and-mortar building stacked from floor to ceiling with books and long to see their own name enshrined on a tablet in that temple, ebooks will always be somewhat unsatisfying.