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On Kindle Publishing: Credibility (1 of 2)

Last week I started this series on Kindle publishing with a look at some of its biggest players (Konrath, Hocking, and Eisler), and then spent a while discussing the technological changes that have made this publishing revolution possible.

But even with the technological shift well and firmly established, there’s another shift that has to happen before Kindle publishing goes mainstream. Writers, every bit as much as newspapermen and prime time anchors face a credibility gap.

The Publishers

Naturally, the harshest critics of the credibility of Kindle publishing are those who have the most to lose with it. Legacy publishers collectively provide a sneering disregard for the opportunities available to authors today. A recent Time magazine article on the topic of digital publishing quoted Michael Cader, founder and editor of trade e-newsletter Publishers Lunch,

“The trick is not that the digital isn’t profitable,” says Cader. “Digital at its current level makes few or none of the costs of running a print business go away.” That means big warehouses, broad sales forces and extensive systems. The hope, of course, is that in time, digital will be cheaper to produce, but currently, publishers face a big expense in converting to digital.

Cader’s comment is absurd on its face. Digital does makes the cost of running a print business go away from the point of view of the author, of the reader, and even of the digital publisher. It’s only established print publishers that have those costs.

It’s astonishing how much the legacy publishers equate their business methods with “the publishing industry.” The whole shakeup going on in publishing right now is happening because these are two different ways of getting books to readers, but the established players are quick to describe digital as just an aspect of their legacy process.

And the trade press is carrying the publishers’ spin. Konrath linked to an unflattering Publisher’s Weekly article about his self-publishing “schemes” that seemed deliberately and harshly slanted against him, manipulating and omitting key facts in order to position Konrath’s choice to self-publish as one of desperation.

That is precisely the message publishers like to spread: that self-publishing is the last resort of an inadequate author so desperate to see his unfit book in print that he’s unwilling to spend the time and effort honing his craft and learning the market to get a deal with a traditional publisher. As we discussed last earlier, there was some grain of truth to those accusations when the technology and cost of self-publishing made legacy publishing the most legitimate path for an author.

Legacy publishers also insist their business model is the best (and perhaps only, as Cader’s quote above implies) in terms of sales and income. When Barry Eisler announced his decision to turn down a lucrative print deal to self-publish through Amazon, Mike Shatzkin wrote on another industry blog analyzing the decision.

They didn’t do the math on what the loss of print sales and print merchandising might mean in dollars and cents and how to address it….

Even if the math Konrath and Eisler put forth showing that the author share of ebook sales can increase by three or four times through self-publishing; even if we ignore (as they did) the fact that the higher percentage will be on a lower retail price (they trumpet the lower retail price they can charge as a key motivation for the shift); and even if we forget about the costs in time and actual expense involved in self-publishing, the author who follows this formula has to take into account the loss of presence and revenue from the retail channel.

All of that seems perfectly reasonable. That’s the core of the legacy publishers’ argument. It’s also completely wrong. The “math Konrath and Eisler put forth” is founded on some of the very elements Shatzkin accuses them of ignoring. Yes, Kindle publishing offers a higher percentage on a lower retail price, but that’s only true of gross sales. For authors, there is no loss. The higher percentage is so much higher that it completely offsets the lower price, in terms of author income, and the lower price can generate far more sales.

That’s not to say Kindle publishing is guaranteed to earn an author more money, but the industry analysts consistently repeat arguments so deeply rooted in the perspective of legacy publishers’ business model that it has no connection to the real situation of authors — or of readers, which is to say, of their customers.

The Readers

Even as publishers have fought to maintain a credibility gap between self-published and legacy-published books, readers have largely ignored their message. Perhaps it’s because they so effectively controlled legitimacy during the print era, but legacy publishers have so completely owned the market that (unlike their counterparts in news media) they have done astonishingly little to establish themselves as popular brand names among readers.

By and large, readers ignore publishers. Readers tend to buy books by author, by genre, or by cover. Publishers efforts at branding have focused on those last two, running separate lines and imprints specialized in popular categories and stamping the spines of their book covers with imprint logos. But apart from Harlequin, few fiction publishers have ever managed to become household names among buyers.

As a result, readers’ credibility assessment of novels has less to do with the pedigree of the publishing company than with the professional appearance of the book. Until recent years that has been a fairly insignificant distinction, as expensive printing technology reserved that professional appearance only to the large publishing companies that could afford it, but as we saw before, that has all changed.

Authors can now hire freelance editors, cover designers, interior designers, and technical formatting to prepare digital books for small, one-time costs, and it’s a simple matter for a good cover designer to imitate and even duplicate the look and feel of popular legacy-published covers within a given genre.

It’s really no surprise that readers are willing to overlook the pedigree of a book’s publisher. For much of the last twenty years, the trend society-wide has been away from respect for legitimizing “gatekeepers” and toward a larger respect for group approval — not just in the publishing industry, but across all of mass communication.

That shift goes hand in hand with the rise of the digital era. As it gets easier and easier for authors to reach wide audiences without the need for broadcast intermediaries (legacy publishers), and as it gets easier and easier for readers to find books by individual authors or on specific topics, the value and significance of the gatekeeper’s approval rapidly diminishes.

And that shift is exactly what Amazon has facilitated. Through their Kindle and Kindle Direct Publishing they’ve made it possible to produce books at an extraordinarily low cost. And through their browsing categories, widespread bestseller lists, and personalized recommendations, they’ve made it possible for readers to find book even without the huge promotional backing of a major publisher.

The result is precisely what we saw in Eisler’s anecdote above. His daughter, a member of the digital native generation, easily and immediately considered self-publishing a legitimate (and, in fact, obvious) direction for her father’s career.

There are still plenty of entrenched beliefs, but with every day that passes the reading public gets more access to the liberating digital tools provided by Amazon and their competitors in the e-Book industry, and the market for digital publishing grows larger and larger.

Sadly, the last true holdouts of the self-publishing credibility gap are those who have the most to gain with Kindle publishing: the authors. Come back tomorrow and we’ll talk about their role.

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