Hocking sell out. Eisler sells in. Or is it quite that simple?

Amanda Hocking has pretty much captured the headlines this past week with her decision to sign up with a major publishing house and finally see her books in real print.

For those of you living on another planet this past year or two, Amanda became the first writer to become a millionaire never having had a book published on paper. She achieved fame and fortune purely by selling her work on-line, and had become the icon of indie writers for her pains.

My co-author Saffi has blogged on this issue already, so here to address the other side of the coin: a major paper-published author who has just turned down a half million dollar book deal because he believes e-books are the future and he can do better without a big publishing house behind him.

Barry Eisler is the author in question, and he and fellow author Joe Konrath conducted a “live debate” on google docs discussing their experiences, hopes and fears for the future.

As they have kindly made it available for the purpose, I have selected a few salient points from their debate that address issues which are relevant to us, as new and aspiring writers, struggling to make sense of the huge changes taking place in the publishing world.

Eisler began by rehearsing an argument he first put forward a year previously: that digital was going to become more and more attractive relative to paper.

First, because the price of digital readers would continue to drop while the functionality would continue to increase; second, because more and more titles would become available for digital download at the same time more brick and mortar stores were closing.

In other words, everything about paper represented a static defense, while everything about digital represented a dynamic offense.

Not hard to predict how a battle like that is going to end.

Apple sold 15 million iPads in 2010, and the iPad2 just went on sale. And Amazon sold eight million Kindle books in 2010–more digital books, in fact, than paperbacks.

Meanwhile, Borders is shuttering 224 stores.

So I think it’s safe to say the trends I just mentioned are continuing. And the trends reinforce each other: the Borders in your neighborhood closes, so you try a low-priced digital reader, and you love the lower cost of digital books, the immediate delivery, the adjustable font, etc… and you never go back to paper.

The reverse isn’t happening: people aren’t leaving digital for paper. There’s a ratchet effect in favor of digital.

The figures for book-store closures are of course from the US, but we see similar trends in the UK and Europe, and the rise in popularity of e-reading devices and options is beyond dispute.

So is this the end for traditional publishing houses? Some people seem to think (or even hope) so but to me that seems unlikely just yet.

But what is certain is that the publishing world is being transformed, and there will be casualties along the way.

Back to Barry and Joe:

Barry: I can’t tell you how many people I’ve heard saying, “But paper isn’t going to disappear.”

That isn’t the point!

If you ask the wrong question, the right answer to that question isn’t going to help you.

So the question isn’t, “Will paper disappear?” Of course it won’t, but that’s not what matters.

What matters is that paper is being marginalized.

Did firearms eliminate the bow and arrow? No–some enthusiasts still hunt with a bow. Did the automobile eliminate the horse and buggy? No–I can still get a buggy ride around Central Park if I want.

Now, some new technologies really have completely displaced their forebears. For example, there’s no such thing as eight-track tape anymore. And yet some people still do listen to their music on vinyl, despite the advent of mp3 technology.

The question, then, is what advantages does the previous technology retain over the new technology? If the answer is “none,” then the previous technology will become extinct, like eight-track. If the answer is “some,” then the question is, how big a market will the old technology continue to command based on those advantages?

Joe: You’re talking about niche markets.

Barry: Exactly.

Joe: We’ve discussed this before. Paper won’t disappear, but that’s not the point. The point is, paper will become a niche while digital will become the norm.

Now it may well be that Amanda Hocking’s deal has helped delay that eventuality, and provided succour to those who like to pretend the e-publishing revolution is just another dot.com bubble waiting to burst.

But the truth is that while many more e-book-only writers will of course leap at the chance of reaching the real-book market currently beyond them, established paper-based brands like Barry Eisler will increasingly abandon the dead-tree sector because they have a choice.

They no longer need to be shackled by paper contracts, write only what the huge expense of paper-publishing can justify, and endure the ponderous speed of the dead-tree publishing process.

As my co-author Saffi observes on her own blog today, we are writers, not just genre writers

It may well be that Barry Eisler has no intention of diversifying his style and genre preferences, but at least he now has that freedom to experiment.

And as we shall examine in forthcoming blogs following more of Barry and Joe’s debate, that freedom is not just about style and genre. It’s about the freedom to choose your cover, your cover artist, the time and date of your book launch, and perhaps most critical of all, the price of your book.

Writers write to be read. Publishers publish to make money.

Nothing wrong with that, of course. But until recently the publishers entirely justifiable need to make money meant that writers wrote what publishers wanted.

It’s not an “us and them” issue, but the reality of the publishing world is changing before our eyes.

There’s never been a more exciting time to be a writer.

  1. Right now, if somebody offered me a half-million dollar advance (or even a 100k advance) on Wearing the Cape at the cost of it not coming out till 2012, I’d grab the offer with both hands. Give me a few years and a good income stream, and my answer would be different. I don’t think it’s either/or; writers will go where they can sell.

    • It’s something that Saffi and I increasingly ponder.

      Three months ago – even six weeks ago! – we would have jumped at the chance of a publishing contract, even if it meant handing over all control.

      After all, a publishing house can achieve far more than we ever could on our own, right?

      Fast forward to end of March and we’ve clocked up over 12000 sales in a month. And we’re STILL waiting to hear back from the agent who’s been holding the paper manuscript for over TWO months!

      Sure, 12000 a month is nothing compared to the top-selling paper-based authors, but they have huge publicity machines behind them and a loyal base of fans built up over years.

      In the event we could sustain our sales at current levels that’s 150,000 sales over a year, let aside our two new books due to be released in July and September, and which won’t face the same start-up struggle of completely unknown author with no reader-base.

      Of course we’d LOVE to see our books in the shops and available on paper to the many who do not have e-readers.

      But we wouldn’t sacrifice our independence now, having come so far on our own.

      Any contract now would need to re-assure us the publisher was fully committed at ALL levels to its promotion, and our book was not just going to become another anonymous spine gathering dust on a shelf.

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