The Evolving Face of E-books

In Thoughts on Publishing on March 1, 2011 at 6:49 pm

One of the most rigorous objections I hear from my friends when it comes to switching from print books to e-books (apart from the sensual departures of smell, sound, touch, and long familiarity) is the concept of ownership. A digital book is not a material book. You never truly own it. You cannot trade it or sell it. You cannot burn it in a fire. You cannot display it on a bookshelf. You can only own the reading device, but not the aggregation of words, or the binding, or the art inside.

That is all true. A digital book is not physical material. So how does that affect some of the current perspectives in electronic publishing? Let’s consider a couple of the arguments.

E-books should not cost the same as a print book, since the amount of physical labor involved in production is not the same.


Consider this: The price to have a book converted from a Microsoft Word document (which is still the de-facto standard for writers when putting together their manuscripts) to a version that will be accepted by a print on demand (or POD) printer is negligible, and can be done by the author him- or herself. From there, physical proof copies can be ordered electronically for review, and printed by large machinery with next to no human involvement. Once the final version is approved, the copies are printed when needed.

Certainly the machinery requires upkeep and maintenance. Certainly the materials used in printing must be considered. But the cost of human labor has been nearly eliminated from the process.

On the other hand, consider the labor involved before the decision between e-book and print is ever made. From a beta review (during which a specially qualified editor reads through the manuscript for plot weaknesses, character hiccups, and inconsistencies that the writer misses) to a line edit (an intense read that brings the manuscript up to proper spelling, grammar, and punctuation code) to illustration and cover design—all of these duties must be performed, whether the book is digital or print. The same people have to be considered for compensation or appreciation, no matter the form.

The cost difference, then, seems to be in the upkeep of machinery and the cost of paper, binding, and color covers for print books. Once that’s factored down to a per-copy basis, the difference in cost becomes negligible. The bulk of cost in producing a book is nearly the same, whether the book is print or digital.

An e-book has no pages, and therefore cannot be signed by the author or loaned out by a library or friend.


According to a recent blog written by Michelle Halket at ireadiwrite publishing, authors now have the option and ability to sign copies of e-books. I do not mean they will affix their Sharpie signature to an e-book reader. I mean that they can request a personalized copy of an e-book for a reader, be they contest winner, personal acquaintance, or colleague. I think that, once this process is streamlined, it’s not inconceivable to meet an author in person during a virtual signing event and receive your personalized e-book within hours of the event.

As for not being able to loan out the book, that argument is losing steam, and fast. In fact, it appears that Harper Collins, one of the largest publishers in the world, is about to be slapped with a boycott of its titles for putting a limit on the number of times a book can be loaned out. Further, we already know that the Barnes and Noble nook has the capability for e-book lending between friends with the same device, and the Kindle is working on the same functionality.

E-books are still a niche market; a writer can’t expect to make any serious money on them. Also, a writer should be careful, because e-books lead to piracy, which cuts even deeper into the money the artist deserves.


I recently expressed my unhappiness with JK Rowling, the insanely successful author of the Harry Potter books. She decided that she would not make her books available via digital methods, not by e-book distribution nor by Audible download. Her reason? She was concerned with piracy of her titles.

Now, Ms. Rowling does not need my money. She has every right to determine the methods by which her work will reach her readers. I only complained that her decision represented a disadvantage for me, who has converted to virtually exclusive digital reading. However, I wonder if she truly understands the risk of piracy in the current environment. E-books have the ability to bear digital rights management (or DRM) restrictions, which makes the book all but impossible to read if someone attempts to hijack it or transmit it. This is at the discretion of the publisher, of course. Further, a print book can be loaned out, resold, or given away any number of times, but the author only sees one royalty on that book, and that was from the original sale.

As for e-book profitability, I humbly submit the following for your review: 27 Year Old Making Millions Self-Publishing on the Kindle. Furthermore, consider that thousands of writers who, through traditional methods, may never have gotten a book deal now can find an audience through this new technology, and you’ve got an incredibly liberating new paradigm.

Yes, it is true that not every e-book author will see results like Amanda Hocking has seen. It’s true that hundreds, if not thousands, of self-published e-books are not ready for mass consumption due to underdevelopment or total lack of competent editing. But the public will find the winners, as they always do. This time, they will do it without, or even in spite of, the recommendations of the big publishers.

MJ Heiser

  1. LOVE this post! …especially the part about creating personalized e-book versions. LOVE that idea!

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