Thoughts About eBooks

I have been spending the last few weeks wrestling with changes to a free eBook I posted to Smashwords, since I think any reader who enjoyed the book enough to offer some proofing feedback deserves to be taken seriously. I’ve written previously that some of the suggestions were more obvious than others, and noted even the simplest ones end up absorbing a lot of time. As a writer, you tend to have a structure to your writing and process that is inevitably time-consuming, because if you actually write you tend to care enough to bother, and caring is a groin-kick of an experience. Still, many of the suggestions were spot-on, and this experience is an indirect trigger for the topic of this post…the effects of freeness. (I only just discovered “freeness” is considered a real word!)

A writer who publishes traditionally has a technical support system, and while never what one would call a well-paid profession (the Stephen Kings of the world are exceptions to the rule), the support model provides some compensation for the enormous expenditure of time it takes to construct even a bad book, short story, or article. The cost of producing a title in the traditional model is so high that publishers have no incentive to take a risks. So, we have shelves lined with genre pieces, most of them utter crap, to pay for the few gems – many of those gems selling almost nothing compared to the fast-reads that genre pieces supply. But regardless of quality (recently, I discovered 107 obvious typographical spelling errors in a 348 page book by a well-known and decent author!), those support systems offer some offset for the time, and make it possible to earn a reasonable living writing once you can crack the entrance to that world.

Freeness changes all the rules, and my experience with the eBook I’m tweaking is an example of it. While I make decent money doing my real job, it also requires time – and I have a 3-year-old who requires even more time – and I have a wife who gets shorted time regularly. (I have given up having much time for myself, as in the near-term it seems a pointlessly depressing pursuit.) The same time-consumption exists to write a book, as always, and the more you give a shit the more time that amounts to; but because your publication is unlikely to generate cash, it creates a pure cost scenario that, frankly, makes writing almost impossible unless you can afford to spend the time without any hope of recovery. In itself that isn’t a bad thing, because most writers are obsessive narcissists, and we love nothing more than to express ourselves. What it means though is the lack of traditional systems can turn the working process into something far more time-critical.

Freeness also means the following:

  • You will never perfect the manuscript for grammar, because no writer can revisit the same text often enough to either explain their cleverness or excise the side-effects. It’s a depressing reality, because while most of us would gladly pay a professional to proof a book, the cost is too high to excuse when you will make nothing from the work. If there was even a way to guarantee enough return on the investment to bring the net cost to zero, it would be a standard approach – but it amounts to layering pure financial cost onto pure time cost, and taking a loss that is impossible for most writers to bear for long.
  • You will have to publish much more slowly to avoid a glut of complaints. People make no allowances for freeness, expecting some quality level that meets their personal standards (often exceeding them, in fact), without really honestly asking how this is to be achieved when the producer is handing the entertainment away for free. We all do it, and that is human nature, but from a publication perspective it is difficult when you are the writer, because you are conscious of the quality deficit and often torn between publishing as-is, or maybe never having the time to revisit the manuscript at all. Do you let the piece go to be enjoyed somewhat, or seek some level of perfection and never release? (And once pinned, do you do what I decided to do and invest further time, or flip the readers a bird and chuckle? We all want to do the former, but the cost of it is extraordinary.)

The real crux of this, of course, is that freeness is an expectation on the Internet. It is an issue of economics. When faced by the choice to pay to read the last 50% of a book you like versus reading a free one you also like, we all know the choice that will be made. (Statics I have support the contention, and numbers also support that even a decent selling eBook earns nothing near enough to pay for professional support like proofing.)

The public at large just will not pay for unknown authors, for the most part, because they perceive the value proposition differently. Buy a hardcover and you get a physical product to wrap the intellectual one; it is not the case when you read an eBook. You get nothing physical, and the so the economic view is different. People simply never think about the enormous investment in time a writer made to shape the book, and this is doubly true if the book is enjoyable and you lose yourself in it.

Will eBooks be successful in the long-term? Yes, they will. Will there be stars of the eBook world? Certainly. But will they ascend in quality or descend over time? The latter, I expect, since the compensation model is different; and that represents a cultural challenge.

eBooks are likely to destroy the publishing industry as we know it today, not because of content issues, but purely because reading is a personal experience. There will come a tipping point where the majority of casual readers reject paying for material, and exclusively consume free works. Since there will never be an end to free works, it will reshape the concept of a book (probably lowering quality over time, since most writers will be working gratis).

Will I stop publishing? No. Will I decelerate the process? Yes, because I care about the quality enough to realise I have no option but to do it. I don’t have the spare time to continue to write new works, act as an editor, etc. So, I will end up with far fewer publications, possibly of slightly better quality, and certainly with a much more hardened attitude toward the process. Maybe some day, I will also be proved wrong, and sales of eBooks will reach a level where decent writers can afford to engage a support system to improve the broader cultural landscape. I won’t hold my breath though, as I doubt anyone can hold it quite that many decades.