Hugh Howey

Bestselling author of Wool and other books. Currently sailing around the world.

Why Publishers Fight Digital

I was reading the new Steve Jobs biography last week, and the author briefly touched on the roll-out of the iTunes store. Prior to the launch of the store, iTunes was just another place to organize songs, most of them no doubt stolen via Napster, which was terrorizing studios at the time.

Even with a promise to monetize digital albums, Apple had a tough go of getting all the major labels onboard. Were it not for the energetic push from one of the studio heads to corral the other five studios, it may not have happened. And were it not for charismatic Jobs behind the push, and Apple seen as a minor player, it might not have happened. It’s useful to remember that Apple had very little market share at the time; Windows was dominate. Jobs assured the studios that the iTunes store would not be made PC-compatible, which soothed the CEOs and bean-counters. The PC version would launch within the year, and within a few years, music stores would begin to shutter as listeners moved eagerly to digital.

The hesitation by studios to sign the iTunes agreement was largely due to the fear that they’d lose control of distribution, that they’d alienate existing retail partners, and that the then-existing model of selling entire albums just so fans could get the one or two tunes they wanted would wreck how music was produced and packaged. They were right to be worried, of course. These things came to pass. But they were wrong if they thought they could stop the change from happening.

Book publishers have been much more coordinated in their attempts to slow digital adoption, perhaps learning from music studios’ mistakes. The history of Amazon and Jeff Bezos getting publishers on board the Kindle store, and the subsequent pricing of ebooks at $9.99, similar to Jobs’ push to price songs at 99 cents, all have incredible parallels. Publishers eventually went to the enemy of the music studios for salvation, agreeing to a deal with Apple at the launch of the iPad to uniformly raise ebook prices and beat that $9.99 price point. But the fight against digital adoption had been going on long before that.

It started with a process called “windowing,” which meant delaying the ebook until after the hardback edition had its run. When readers revolted and peppered Amazon book pages with 1-star reviews on any release windowed like this, publishers gradually gave in on select titles. They next began protecting print editions with high prices on the ebooks, often higher than the eventual paperback edition. This, despite the paperback needing to be printed, shipped, warehoused, and often returned and pulped. The claim that ebooks cost just as much to produce as paperbacks always rang hollow, but the claim was debunked by publishers themselves with the release of these slides to investors.

Even though ebooks are more profitable than the venerable hardback, publishers have fought their adoption for many of the same reasons that music studios were reluctant to hasten the end of physical album sales. The number one service major publishers and major music studios offer their artists is retail distribution. That’s the absolute top incentive they offer. It’s all about distribution. Advances for new artists are too small to live off of, and editors and sound producers can be hired for a one-time fee. Writers and musicians alike have been producing their own quality offerings for generations. What they’ve had a hard time doing is reaching an audience of millions. This is what major publishers and studios offer. I’ve been pitched by dozens of publishers, and this is always the big promise: We can get you in front of a lot of readers.

The iTunes store and Amazon weaken this offer. When the album of the year can be a self-produced hit like Macklemore and Ryan’s debut, or the top of the charts can be reached by someone like me, then something has been disrupted. Make no mistake: Publishers are not primarily concerned with readers or writers. And rightly so. They should be concerned with their bottom line. In the short term, that might mean full steam ahead on ebooks, which are highly profitable, and which readers will hoard without cluttering their homes, which means lots of dollars spent on unread ebooks. But in the long term, publishers would have to relinquish what they know to be their prime offering to their clients: The ability to reach readers. For this reason, they’ve done all they can to stifle innovation and adoption during the most exciting era readers have experienced since Johan refined the printing press.

     Two Kinds of Love

There are those who love books, and there are those who love to read. Often, these are the same people, but not always. People who love to read almost inevitably become book lovers. If you have that many positive experiences with an object, you eventually have a warm and emotional reaction to any similar object. Book lovers might find this hard to believe, but the same is true of ereading devices. All it takes to feel the same sensual pleasure when lifting a Kindle is to read dozens or hundreds of amazing books on one. Soon, you feel naked without it. You carry your Kindle and hundreds of books with you everywhere you go. As avid readers, our love of books is a learned experience from all the pleasure derived from them. Those who only have this association with the physical book are aligned with publishers in their fervent hopes that digital adoption goes away. But there’s another reason for the strong feelings. Not all book lovers are avid readers.

There are also those who love books but rarely read. They might have dozens or hundreds of books in their homes, most of them unread or only partly read. These books are purchased and enjoyed as status symbols, and also like gym equipment. They are both a signal to others that this is a thoughtful, educated person. And they are also promises to ourselves to be the future person we hope to become. The gym equipment sits shamefully under the bed, but our books are on proud display. For book lovers, a move to digital reading is an absolute nightmare. Coffee will have to be enjoyed in a coffee shop rather than a neighborhood bookstore, where they pick up the latest must-read non-fiction work, like Capital in the Twenty-First Century, knowing they’ll never read it, but wishing they were the sort of person who might.

If this sounds harsh, it’s not meant to be. I’ve purchased plenty of books as a promise to myself, and then broke that promise. My house used to be loaded with books that I kept meaning to get to. Those unread books often prevented me from buying more, as I knew I had that shame-inducing pile at home beside the bed. Moving to digital reading, I not only read 2-3 times as much as before, I probably purchase 4-6 times as many books! There is no clutter warning me off. I’ve gone from being both a book lover and a reading lover to just a reading lover. I’m getting more reading done. Those who love books but not reading will see this as a sad affair. Those who read for the love of reading will probably know what I’m talking about.

    A Reversal

Imagine for a moment that the arrow of time was reversed. Let’s pretend that ereaders have been around since the time of Gutenberg. Books were always distributed electronically. The telegraph saw a flowering of adoption out West, and Dickens decried the drop in ebook prices in his day. And then a bookseller named Amazon came along, offering books printed on paper and for sale in their brick and mortar stores. The name of the company was meant to remind readers of the forests they were chopping down to fashion their stock. “No batteries,” they promised. “Disposable,” they said. “Only slightly more expensive,” they admitted. “Better smelling!”

Of course, trees for paper are grown like any other crop, planted, harvested, and then replanted. The idea that our forests are disappearing to supply paper has been outdated for decades. There are more trees in the United States today than there were 100 years ago. But the fact remains that 30 million trees are cut down each year for the book trade. 30 million! Each year! That’s a lot of trees. It’s easy to be a reading lover and be a tree-lover. I’m certainly one. Hard to be a book lover and a tree lover without some mental gymnastics. 30 million a year! That’s like 1,200 Central Parks every year.

Granted, plastics and electronics aren’t environmentally friendly themselves, but ereaders are the weird electronic devices that don’t demand to be upgraded. The pace of sales is often compared to other tablets, but this is a facile comparison. I know people who use their original Kindle and wouldn’t trade it for the world. (They feel the same way about the device that you might feel toward a leather bound tome). There is no question that ebooks are better for the environment than paperbacks. The shipping costs in fossil fuels alone make the case. And trees are cut down by diesel-guzzling machines and processed with loads more electrical power than used by the servers that supply the ebooks. And one ereading device might result in several hundred books being read, at a minimum.

    Books for the People

There’s another reason I love imagining a reversal of time’s arrow: Ebooks are for the people, while print books are for the corporations. Imagine a world where writers make 70% of the proceeds of their sales and thousands of writers enjoy a full-time living with their writing, with tens of thousands supplementing their incomes doing what they love. These writers also employ cover artists, editors, audiobook narrators, assistants, publicists, and agents who earn a full-time living helping these writers produce top-notch work and reach the broadest audience possible.

Now imagine that Amazon’s felled-tree print books take away market share from ebooks (which is the opposite of what’s happening). Bookstores pop up across the country. Publishers form large conglomerates in order to represent catalogs of new releases, which their sales reps present to book buyers. What is displayed in stores is soon determined by co-op dollars, rather than what readers want to read. Bookstores also purchase on a fully returnable basis, which means the wasteful ordering of double what they will eventually sell, which leads to unsold books being returned to publishers, where they are tossed in a furnace and burned.

Losing their ability to reach readers, the previously digital authors sign on with publishers out of desperation. It’s the only way to get in these newfangled bookstores, and the only way to affordably print hundreds of thousands of copies of these darned pulp books! Instead of making 70%, they are now making 12.5%. The rest is going to these large skyscrapers which are popping up across Manhattan and London, in the most expensive parts of town. The money readers were previously sending to artists and their helpers, allowing them to work from home and be with their kids and families, is now going to people in suits who take two-hour lunches, conspire with one another on prices and release dates, and pay that unbelievable corporate rent.

    This is Not the Side You Want to Be On.

What’s most amazing to me about the recent attempt to make ebooks and print books a cultural war is the absolute wrong side that some players have chosen to be on. You’d think the New York Times would be the place touting this liberating and disintermediating shift from corporate profits to the support of artists, but they are just as beholden to the staid old print days as publishers are (and they share some neighboring real estate).

You’d think socially progressive websites like Salon and Slate would cry for a hastening of the transition to digital books, which make reading more affordable, move reading into rural areas, saves 30 million trees a year, and puts power with the people rather than large, conspiring corporations. But the opposite has been true.

I really believe a lot of this comes from book lovers who aren’t reading lovers. It’s hard to make sense of it otherwise. I think it’s time for those of us who are addicted to reading to be a bit more vocal in our love of the best form of it possible: Digital books. Better for the environment. Larger type for the visually challenged. Text-to-speech for the blind. Lighter weight for the arthritic. Better access for the rural and the impoverished (ebooks can be read on existing devices, like phones. And even with a $49 e-reader, this is paid for in just a few purchases, or by going to

Ereading is simply superior for those of us who love to read. You finish a book, and you can purchase and start another in minutes. You can go on vacation stocked up with new reads. You won’t even feel guilty if you don’t finish them all. And the more you read digital, the more you’ll wind up reading self-published works, which means more money going to artists and their freelance helpers, and less going to wasteful real estate in New York, to corporate suits, to lawyers, all of which leaves a pittance for the people whose works you enjoy.

This is why publishers need to rage against digital adoption. It’s why they need the support of those who equate a dated medium with the beautiful words that medium holds. Their lives depend on it. Their lives depend on the destruction of 30 million trees a year. But our reading habits don’t.

If you are an avid reader, I humbly suggest that you do yourself a favor and try an ereader. Check out the thousands of classics at that you can download and enjoy for free. Legally! These books are in the public domain. You could read classics for the rest of your life if you want. Or you can start checking out the many diverse voices that don’t make it into bookstores. Minority voices. Gay voices. Female science fiction authors and male romance writers. And all those who write in genres that readers love but that publishers think have been played out.

If you have a reader in your life, get them a Kindle. They start at a mere $69. It will change their lives. I’ve given most of the readers in my family Kindles over the last few Christmases. But it doesn’t have to be a special occasion. The challenge is to read a few great ebooks so that the same thrill we feel when we pick up a paperback is felt when we pick up our e-readers. It does happen, whether you believe it or not. It’s the stories we love. It’s the non-fiction we learn from. It’s the authors, not the imprints. Support them. Save the environment. Increase the amount you read, rather than the amount of books you display.

Publishers will fight this transition, but the rest of us should take a stand. And we should be honest, as authors, about why we are doing it. It’s not just good for readers, and good for the environment, and more democratic, with more diverse voices . . . it supports the lives of authors. And editors. And cover artists. And so many more. That 12.5% pittance becomes a 70% liveable wage. That difference has changed thousands of lives. It will keep changing lives, and changing the way we read, and we can help hasten that. We shouldn’t want to go backwards. And every indication is that we won’t.

More on that, and some very shocking results in the next AuthorEarnings report, due out soon. You’ll see what avid readers are doing to change lives. Until then, keep it up. Be proud. Brag about reading. Write reviews. Recommend ebooks to friends and family. Make a tree happy today.



63 replies to “Why Publishers Fight Digital”

I was literally having a PM conversation with a mom when this post popped up in my feed – she was concerned because she’d won one of my paperbacks in a contest and her son (13yo) was in love with it, but she didn’t know if she could afford to buy him the second book (which isn’t even out yet!). I asked if he had a phone – she said, “Oh, he won a mini ipad last summer.” I’m like PROBLEM SOLVED… get the kindle app, and now you have all the books you can want, and if you have to buy some, they’re pretty dang cheap.

She’s very excited, because her son wasn’t much of a reader (before this).

I love it when this happens – bringing new readers into the fold, young and old.

Brilliant. When you discover this means of reading, entire worlds open up for you. Literally.

What really moves me is the boon to rural readers. I grew up in farm country. Getting to the library or a bookstore was an endeavor. I can’t imagine what my life would’ve been like in high school if I had a Kindle. I always had a paperback with me, but when I finished it, I’d be stuck for what felt like forever.

One of the may points completely overlooked (or never even considered) when legacy mouthpieces are crying about important culture and precious eco-systems; the new democratized age of available reading made possible by digital. Even if it’s on the cheapest no-contract smart-phone, unlimited books are available for free to cheap to those in both rural and poor areas alike. I live up in the congested NE and even here book stores are rare, limited almost entirely to downtown metros or the biggest mall areas. If I’m working two jobs to support a family or if I’m a single mom I doubt I have the time, or inclination to spend gas/bus money, to trek on over to one of the few remaining B&N’s for ludicrously priced print books. Amazon and the like are only a click away though.

I also loved how you touched on the latent hypocrisy of supposed lib-progressive stalwarts like the NYT and Salon when it comes to publishing. A perusal of their regular articles and op-eds leaves you with a dizzying sense of “fight the corrupt system” and “power to the people” ideology. Unless it has to do with the legacy publishing establishment, however. Anything that threatens that particular old guard has automatically been labeled as evil and destructive. We can list the apparent reasons why that is but it’s been done to death. What’s funny is that they seem to think that no none would have ever noticed.

I really enjoyed this post. As usual, Hugh, you hit the nail right on the head. I was a trad published author, with four books published in Ireland, when I (in 2010) decided to leave my publisher and agent behind. I have to add, that my agent, even then, understood what was happening in the publishing world, and actually urged me to fire him and go out on my own.I can’t thank him enough.

It was scary in the beginning, especially the first two years when I was constantly making mistakes and learning from them. A steep learning curve. But now, five years later, I’m looking at a production of fifteen novels, and a readership that is constantly growing. Plus, of course, the not unimportant consideration of excellent royalties.

But the most important point you made, was the one about readers versus book lovers. I’m reader and always have been. When the e-book market started up, it was to me, something that not only solved my book hoarding, but also made me read maybe twice as much as before, all without having the problem of an ever-growing pile of books in my house.

Many thanks again for your interesting posts.

The ebook revolution has changed my life. I make my living as a novelist, mostly read on my iPhone, iPad, or Kindle, and find just as much enjoyment as I did with paper books.

And you know what?

I still sometimes buy print books, too. Used bookstores are fun to go to and though I prefer to read an ebook, an old paperback has it’s own joys.

Choosing to read more books and mostly in ebook format doesn’t in any way diminish my love of books or prevent me from buying a print book. In fact, I think I may go to the half-price bookstore now and treat myself to purchase or two.

There isn’t any reason to fear the ebook revloution. It’s for the best all around and there are still plenty of print books out there, too.

I bought my dad a Kindle but now I’m kicking myself because I found out he doesn’t have wireless internet. (lol, oops) Still trying to figure out the best way to let him actually download new books. Hopefully I figure something out because I think what you said would apply to him, that it would change his life. :)

He can use the USB cable to transfer files from his computer. Or he can go have lunch at Panera and use their WiFi, stock up, and then read at home. :)

Even better: Get him one of the cellular 3G Kindles and take the WiFi model back for yourself.

I second the 3G Kindle or wifi at your local coffee shop.

Other options: if he has internet at all, buy him a wifi router; they’re cheap. If he has a smartphone, tether the kindle to the phone.

I looked at the 3G after I found out, but it was pretty pricey. I’d forgotten about the USB cable though, so THANK YOU. He comes to visit in a couple weeks so I plan on loading tons of books for him for when I finally hand it over. :D

I’ve noticed some arguing going on in science fiction circles about which publisher is the best, yada, yada and I had to point out at that very moment, of the top ten authors in sales in science fiction on Amazon, eight were indies, one was 47North and one was Thomas & Mercer. Not a single traditionally published science fiction author.

I find the lack of forward thinking among many in the traditional science fiction community rather astounding. You think they would have been the first to embrace digital, but it was actually the romance writers who are leading the way.

Science fiction writing organizations have been shockingly slow to adapt, for a group of people who write about the future. The last time I was at WorldCon, a few of us authors commented on the lack of new blood at the con. Young writers and readers were going to DragonCon instead, which usually falls on the same weekend. And the dearth of self-publishing panels at both of these cons was really sad.

I’ve thought on this issue a lot, trying to figure out where the lack of progress is coming from, and I have a few theories. Feel free to shoot them down for me or point me in the right direction.

1) The answer could be in your observation of the bestseller lists. It could be that science fiction authors are among the MOST progressive in adopting self-publishing. And those that are left are then pre-sorted as the ones behind the times. So science fiction organizations, like SFWA and WorldCon are being left behind simply because the new talent is leaving them behind.

2) It could be that older science fiction authors, while looking ahead in their fiction, are inherently conservative in their political and social leanings. That conservatism could be why WorldCon and SFWA feel stuck in the past. This could be compounded by (1), with the two feeding into one another. For a solution, we will need a new SF organization to arise from the indie movement, but I’m afraid these authors are too busy writing novels and making bank.

3) My theory on why romance authors were the quickest to adapt to the indie era are that they have long suffered from the stigma of their genre. As I said at a con last year, romance writers, when faced with the stigma of self-publishing, looked at each other and said, “We eat stigma for breakfast.” They were beyond the forces of peer-pressure and free to serve their readers rather than worry what anyone thought of them. SF/F authors also suffer from genre stigma, but not to the same degree. There’s still the hope of being treated the same as “literary authors,” with Cormac McCarthy and Margaret Atwood and others as enticing examples. Falling prey to this allure, and still craving praise from the “cool kids,” SF/F authors sacrifice their careers for the hope of muted applause. In all of these ways, the romance authors are more mature and well-rewarded for getting through the stigma to the bank deposit teller on the other side.

Hugh, this was wonderful – and I was at that con where you said that about romance writers. As a romance writer, it’s one of the best things I ever heard anyone say about us as a group, so thank you for that. We never get recognized for our courage. For me, your quote was right up there with Nora Roberts’ famous line: “I can’t fix a blank page.”
Happy writing,
PS–Hi Bob!

It’ll be interesting to see what happens with SFWA now that indie writers are accepted as members (and since March, at least 70 have joined the org). If SFWA is going to continue to move forward, it’ll be on the backs of indie/hybrid writers.

Baen has been publishing ebooks for years. They were multi-format and drm-free and until Jim died they were uniformly pretty cheap ($4-$6). They still have their Free Library as part of their website, which has free ebook copies of many of the firsts in their series. They have a system that bundles most if not all of each month’s releases partially available before the official release date. And many important hard cover releases came with cds bound in that had ebooks from the rest of the series or other books the author had published.

Their pricing isn’t as reader friendly as it used to be and their bundles are no longer available once the release date comes, mostly I think because of Amazon’s ‘no less than ours’ pricing policy. They host a couple other small presses thru their website store and frequently tried to get Tor to join up.

So the whole community isn’t moles and trolls. I think that their Mundanes in accounting have more to do with the corporate level fear-mongering. SFWA is now recognizing self-publishers.

Your experience mirrors mine, Hugh. I now buy about 10 books a week, whereas in the past I was always worried about all the books I had stacked up. I’m much happier because I can support so many authors and because no matter what mood I’m in, there is always something to read. I’d add one more layer to this–audio books. I can fit them into my schedule at times when I’m doing something boring and want to entertain myself. It allows me to read a lot more books. Sometimes as many as two a week.

My oldest child has had his own kindle since he was old enough to start reading. It just plain makes sense.

Amber has been hooked on audiobooks for the past few years. She does almost all of her reading this way. I’m constantly amazed at how many books she’s read that I didn’t know she’d even heard about. She must go through 2-3 books a week. Constantly. She swears by Audible and probably feels the same browsing that site that I used to feel walking through bookstores.

And, of course, if you have a Kindle, you can sync the audiobook version with the Kindle version. Read at home, listen in the car as you drive or while walking, pick up the book again when you get home. Your position will stay current. :) Just sayin’. Can’t do that with a paper book.

“Te challenge is to read a few great ebooks so that the same thrill we feel when we pick up a paperback is felt when we pick up our e-readers”

Don’t wanna get all gushy here but that was WOOL for me. Now my kindle is becoming a part of me. Thanks for that.

Keep being awesome…

I am finally being a kindle this month. I’ve been wanting one for years but couldn’t afford it. But now I’m getting one and I’m really looking forward to it. Reading in my phone isn’t that great for my eyes.

But as much as I love ebooks (I do own thousands of them) I still love some dead tree books as well. I try to keep the dead tree books down to books I really love, and that mean something to me. Signed editions. Books that were written and published half a century ago. Beautiful books like The Winderbook that have incredible art that must be on paper to truly appreciate.

I think in the future shelves will be filled with only those books we really REALLY love, and everything else will be ebook.

Over the past couple of weeks, people in two different writers groups have mentioned their determination to pursue traditional publication with an agent, publisher, and of course, physical books.

Their reasoning: the self-published ebooks they’ve tried are not up to snuff. They found them to be poorly written and poorly edited. They don’t trust reviews at Amazon. When they go into a bookstore, they know that the books inside have “passed muster.” When they open their ereaders, that confidence is missing. (And as writers, they and they want their books to pass the gate.)

The traditional gatekeepers were too restrictive. They targeted mass audiences while ignoring and under-serving many niches. But with ebooks and self-publishing, there are no gates at all and it can be hard to find quality.

How can the ebooks provide better filtration? I think this is still a hurdle for a lot of people.

Better monitoring of reviews?
Tracking and reporting of completion rates?
De-listing of books with confirmed errors?
Something else?

On the other hand I’ve read a few traditionally published book that I thought were terrible, and not well edited. Some of the smaller presses give their authors terrible covers. A number of larger publishers seem to just photoshop something “meh” on a cover and slap it on.

There are good and bad books on both sides of the Isle, in other words.

It starts with those same serious writers self-publishing the highest quality material they can produce, professionally edited, with quality cover art.

Thank you! Thank you for explaining the joy that picking up my Kindle and turning it on gives me. Knowing that I have a bookstore in my handbag is a wonderful thing. I agree that for those that love reading, an e-reader is a great gift. My dad was so happy to be able to access the work of his favourite authors whose books are no longer being stocked in the book stores.

Excellent article!

I love books and I love reading. Eventually my love for reading became stronger than my love of books. Sure, in the beginning, there was some debating. That did not last long. There is simply too much to gain and not enough to lose. I’ve never regretted it.

Yes, I purchase more eBooks than I can possibly keep up with! LOL

And, yes, I am still using the first Kindle eReader I ever purchased, which is long since out of production, and still works perfectly.

Power to the eBooks and eReaders! :D

A thought-provoking post, Hugh. I didn’t realize there were folks who just liked to have physical books on their shelves but not necessarily read them.

I had an interesting conversation yesterday with someone I met for the first time (friend of a friend). After telling her I was an author, the first question she had (a typical one I get a lot) was whether she’d find my books in the bookstore (short answer: no). I responded under the operating assumption that she really wanted to know how to go about getting my books through a bookstore; now, after the fact, I realize her question may have been a way for her to decide whether my books were “legitimate.” I think in the future I should ask the person how s/he actually goes about buying books: online, library, bookstore? Ebooks, paperbacks? I think I missed an opportunity this time. Ah well, live and learn. I’ll do better next time!

Excellent post, Hugh! My son went through a very difficult period due to illness when he was young and it was books like Harry Potter and Eragon and others that got him through. As a result, he is both a book lover and an avid reader. He cherishes his print books and has several editions of each, trade paperback, hardcover, etc. He loves the smell and feel of books and has a bookshelf filled with his favourite books. They are treasures to him. Then I got him a Kindle Paperwhite and he adores it. He took it on our vacation and it was filled with books for him to read. Now, instead of buying him print books, we buy him gift cards for Amazon and he buys eBooks. He loves eBooks, and his Paperwhite but he still wants print books and he buys them with birthday money and earnings from odd jobs, etc. He also reads on his iPhone and on his Macbook using the Kindle app. The conversion of my son from a print-only to a digital reader signifies that digital is here to stay. Books may become collector’s items, purchased by the few like vinyl.

You make an interesting point about Dragon Con. It’s one of my favorite Cons but I’ve been disappointed in the Writer’s Track. They usually have an amazing list of guests (I was really excited to see you there last year – the book to film panel was both fantastic and hilarious) but they are seriously behind on discussion of self-publishing. I took some of the workshops and I was very disappointed in the dismissive manner in which they referred to indie publishing. It wasn’t bad information overall, but to my way of thinking, short-sighted and incomplete. Which is a disservice to new authors. I nearly fell out of my seat (but refrained as I was in the front row and in costume so wouldn’t be able to hide it) when the main presenter waxed on about ‘Say you get published and they offer you 8% of cover price, which wouldn’t ever happen but let’s make this easy’…and he is a successful writer with a good career.

How is that good for those of us starting out? I am requesting better than that from the Track director. We deserve more information on a wider range of options. They certainly invite the depth of guests to offer it.

I digress. I constantly amazed at the publisher setting what I consider to be very high prices for ebooks. I won’t purchase them. I find it insulting. To me as a reader and in how they (the publisher) view the writer. I have cut my physical book consumption way back and I’ll go to a used book store to get the copy. I’ve given kindles to all of my family members. My kids love theirs. Everyone is reading more. We purchase more.

If the publisher doesn’t see that lowering their price allows to buy more units of their product, and support them across a wider range, then that is their short-sighted mistake. I find myself seeing an ebook for $9.99 plus, and I move on.

The crazy thing is, they have dug their heels in. Violently. Even after the success that indie authors with a predominantly digital platform enjoy, even after seeing readers snap up lower priced ebooks. My consumption of books has vastly increased because I’m able to try out more authors new to me.

Sure. There are those who do not put out a commercial quality product. But it’s not just indies who are guilty.

This is a great post. It showcases so many of the reasons why I chose to go indie. Thanks, Hugh. You keep saying it. It will sink in one day. Probably not to publishers – but hopefully to writers who will stand up and take back control of their creation, their product.

You won’t get it from the current track director they use. It’s a small press that is violently opposed to self-publishing. The reason for the lack of panels on indie publishing is deliberate, and that small press pays a lot of money to be the official sponsor so they can highlight their own authors and screw over con attendees.

I saw enough in my first year attending to never go back, not until they change track directors.

Yeah, one of the people in charge, Deborah Smith, is militant in her loathing of self-publishing in general and me in particular. I was invited to DragonCon to be on a storytelling panel, with a mixed group of actors and what-not. When I saw the publishing programming, I was aghast. Especially for a con that celebrates fan-generated content, like costuming.

If I had the time or energy, and wasn’t so spread out, I would’ve made it a bit of a mission to turn that programming around by letting the higher-ups at the con understand what sort of background politics are at play, damaging the quality of the con for the writers and readers.

Hugh, when we spoke at BEA last year, I have to say I was taken aback by the level of your grasp of every aspect of the publishing business, and your ideas for how they could not only remain relevant for the long term, but reassert their dominance over Amazon. Not to lay it on too thick, but these kinds of jewels just never stop, and never cease to inspire a “Jesus, this friggin guy could be the next Steve Jobs.” Probably tough to pull off from a boat, and you’ve got books to write, but if your vagabondish ADD ways continue their pattern, perhaps you’ll decide to try out starting that next Apple, Google, Microsoft…
This, btw, is so perfect:
“This is why publishers need to rage against digital adoption. It’s why they need the support of those who equate a dated medium with the beautiful words that medium holds.”

Hey Hugh. Hello from Charleston.

Great insight. And like most readers, I had no idea of how much more money publishers were taking from authors for e-book sales. One would think it would be exactly the opposite. I hope other writers will join you in decrying this practice. It’s got to change eventually – or else publishers will continue to drive authors towards a more independent route of success. Of course maybe, ultimately, that will be the way of the writing world. It certainly worked for you.

“Not for nothin’,” as a buddy from NYC would say, but I think one small reason for the reticence of some people to switch to e-books is the fact that they can’t share. I know that was the case with my father. He had an iPad and was perfectly capable of reading e-books, but didn’t do it because when he finished reading a book he really enjoyed, he liked to pass it on to me or one of his buddies. He has never been one to hold on to books after he finished reading them or to reread a book. Of course, sharing like that amounts to a loss of a sale for an author. But it also helps bring a new fan that an author might not have otherwise had, hopefully leading to more sales in the future.

Likewise, I’ve got a group of friends who used to pass books around. Again, a seeming sales loss, but this sharing method is how I was introduced to writers like F Paul Wilson and Lee Child and I went on to buy everything they have ever written. The most voracious readers of the group have switched to digital (including me, several years ago) so this way of sampling new authors is also gone.

That said, there’s a good epilogue to this personal story. My dad finally went digital. While we can’t share books as we once did, and his reviews of what he has read don’t always prompt me to buy on his recommendation, his repeated praise of Wool introduced me to one of my new favorite authors. I loved the series and look forward to your other works.

… I just wish I could assure every penny of future HH books I buy will go to you. Keep up the great work.

Not sure about other platforms, but you can do this with many Kindle ebooks. As long as the author/publisher enables the feature, which most indies do.

Even better, you can link accounts with one other person, so you each have access to the other’s entire library. This is a godsend.

I sent a detailed request to the track director. I’ll be interested to see what she says in reply. Perhaps I’m a little cynical, but I am not 100% on getting a reply at all.


I think you make some good points, but I think you are off on some others….

1) You fail to address the issue of ownership….when I “buy” a Kindle book, I am not really buying the book….I am buying the right to read the book from on my Kindle. However, I do not get any of the traditional ownership rights, such as the right to lend or re-sell the book, and Amazon can take the right away from me any time it chooses.

2) You fail to address the issue of technological obsolescence….it is highly likely that in the future, a new technology will emerge that will render Kindle’s and e-books obsolete…much like record players, typewriters, VHS tapes, and now DVD’s. What happens to all your Kindle books then? What happens to them if Amazon runs into financial trouble and decides that it can no longer afford to store books for you in the cloud free of charge? I know my physical copy of a book will still exist in 100 years if I take good care of it….I can’t say the same thing for e-books.

3) You also don’t really discuss pricing. The biggest effect of e-books has been to enable self-publishing, which previously was not really possible. However, this has increased the supply of books at a time when demand for books is dropping. Economics 101 says that this will lead to a decrease in prices. Yet publishing houses (and many authors) seem to ignore this fact, and continue to price their e-books too high. I’m a voracious reader (I read 70-80 books a year), but I refuse to buy anything on my Kindle priced higher than $5 unless there is no print version available. Instead I check books out from my library. For example, I have spent less than $10 on Kindle books over the last three months. but currently have 13 books checked out from my library (for me and my wife).

Anyway, e-books are great in some ways, but they are not the be all and end all of reading…

1) You can offload every ebook you purchase and save the backup, convert to other file formats, print the thing out, do whatever you like with it. Is this legal? No one has tested it, but I’d be amazed to see a retailer come after someone for converting a file after fair use. Especially since film and audio lawsuits over similar rights were found in favor of the customer. So this is a bit of a zombie meme that has been put down several times, but is still trotted out to scare people off of ebooks. Just the sort of thing this blog post is attempting to defuse. Because it serves the corporations and hurts the artists to do this.

2) See above. Convert them to epubs. Or PDFs. Or .docs. Or print them out. Whatever you like. As for “losing your ebooks,” where are all the thousands of print books I’ve bought over the years? How am I supposed to keep up with them? I loan them to people, and they’re gone for good. I leave them behind, and there’s no backup. I mourn the fact that all the print books I’ve bought over the years weren’t ebooks instead. I’d have dozens of backups of my library all over the place, on DVDs, thumb drives, in the cloud. Another zombie meme that makes no sense. Ebooks are clearly superior in this regard. Again, this serves greedy corporations and scares authors into taking 12.5% instead of 70%. This sort of fear mongering and misinformation is exactly what we need to combat whenever we see it.

3) I don’t understand this point at all. The lower price of indie ebooks is what it’s all about. And yes, ebooks are the end all and be all of reading. At least for now. Something better may come along in the future. It won’t be dead trees.


With regards to you replies to my points #1 and #2, you are assuming a level of technological capability that many readers don’t have. I’m sure many young people know how to convert e-books to other file formats, but many older readers do not.

Never mind that converting e-books to other file formats is a moderately time consuming process even if you do know how to do it, especially if you are converting your entire electronic library.

As to your response to my point #3, if you don’t understand that checking out a book from the library is cheaper than buying an e-book, or that people do want to read books published by tradpub (which are priced much higher than indies), then you need to step back a little and get out of the “indie e-book” bubble.

Indie’s, even now, make up a relatively small portion of the overall book universe, especially outside of the genre’s of science fiction and fantasy. Non-fiction, for example, is not only a very popular genre, but also almost exclusively tradpub. Historical fiction, mysteries, and thrillers all have some indie presence, but are still mostly tradpub. So if you think “ebooks are the end all and be all of reading”, then you need to broaden your horizon a bit. There are plenty of genres where ebooks simply are not price-competitive.

I recently gifted a Kindle to a good friend that didn’t have one, because she was a huge fan of my Justice Security stories, but the only way to read “The Night Chicago Died – A Jack Daniels/Justice Security Novel” in J. A. Konrath’s Kindle World was with a Kindle. She and her husband were fighting money problems at the time, so I just bought it and had Amazon sent it to her. Problem solved!

On a personal note, I love my Kindle and my Kindle Fire, but there’s one area that I can’t see comfortably going digital…at least for my tastes. Comic books for me just don’t transfer well to digital. They aren’t large enough to read, even with the “zoom in” activated. I can’t see detail as well as I can with a printed comic. I’ve tried, and I have several early comics that the price on the print editions will forever be out of my price range, and I’m grateful for that…but that just isn’t the same as holding the book, and taking in all of the art at once.

Yeah, yeah, I know – it’s gonna happen. But, for comic books, I don’t have to like it! LOL

Let’s see, from a legacy publisher’s perspective:

– Ebooks are far more profitable than paper books
– Ebooks eliminate all printing, shipping, and warehousing costs
– Ebooks eliminate the wasteful 30% of returns that are printed, shipped twice, and then shredded
– Ebooks do far less harm to the environment
– The dumbest writers have already been conned into taking a far smaller share of publisher ebook profits than from paper books
– Ebooks have already been responsible for record publisher profits
– Ebooks now make publishers unnecessary

It seems that last point’s become a bit of an issue for them… ;)

“Ebooks are for the people, while print books are for the corporations.”

Too bad for me that I prefer to read print books. While I understand that e-books are economically better for authors (and I am one, so I know; I’m also an editor, and spend my days reading on-screen). As a recreational reader, though, I can’t stand reading on a screen, so I will stick with print and go down kicking and screaming as it gets torn away from my clutches.

Try and e-reader with an e-ink screen. It’s not like reading on a screen at all. It really is ink you’re looking at, little balls of ink that are black on one side and white on the other. Electrical current spins the balls so the ink is visible or invisible. No strain on the eyes, less strain on the hands.

I was a doubter as well. I know lots of people who said the same thing about their print books. If you give it a try, and really open yourself to the experience, the many other advantages might win you over.

EYES! I’ve always had bad eyesight and had to wear glasses since childhood. I was beginning to wonder if the difficulty I found reading meant my eyesight was deteriorating even faster than passing years would account for.

Not so. Take a magnifying glass to your average paperback (at least in the UK) and you’ll see the type ‘bleeds’ into the cheap, nasty paper. And, even if you don’t notice it with the naked eye, your brain is having to work harder reading the type.

I don’t have to increase the print size on my Kindle; it’s a sharp clear image that’s easy on eye and brain cells.

However, I still prefer to read most non-fic in print, and then I often fork out for a hardback—even though the quality of typography and paper there isn’t getting any better, as publishers cut costs wherever they can. (They call it being businesslike; I call it cheating the reader.)

Keep up the good work, Hugh. As readers and authors, we all owe you a debt of gratitude.

Hugh, great post, as usual! Although I’m a self-published author, mainly through KDP, I’ve bought my Kindle last Christmas. At first, I was hesitant about it, being a lover of physical books, but now, I just can’t go anywhere without it! My wife doesn’t get the appeal, so perhaps she will get one for Mother’s Day…

My father is 74 years old and won a Kindle a year ago for some charity work he had done. He always enjoyed books, but he lives in a rural area with no book stores whatsoever. The grocery store is a 20 minute drive, one way.

But he does have a (somewhat fickle) Internet connection. Since getting the Kindle, he has downloaded and read more than 100 books (thankfully, they are usually small). He simply tears through them, always getting more. He’s tried genres he would never touch if he was in a bookstore. He’s discovered new favorite authors via free promotions and sales. And he’s blasted through entire series that before he may never have found on a random store book shelf.

My dad is not a technology guy. He can barely turn on a computer. But Kindle has revolutionized reading for him.


PS I’m 30 years younger than him, but my vision is much worse. I would have mostly lost my ability to read books a year or two ago if it weren’t for ebooks and their adjustable fonts. Paper books are great to grab a hold of, but they’re mostly just souvenirs for me now. Even the ones I write.

Great post, thank you Hugh. I just wanted to say that I believe a similar breed to the folks you mentioned – those who love books but not to read – also populates the ereader world. In the past, whenever I did free ebook promos for any of my novels, there would be a huge spike in downloads, but not a scratch of an uptick in reviews. I then read somewhere that there exists an entire army of people who love to grab free stuff, no matter what it is. It’s for this reason that I no longer offer free books. Only those who pay for a book, even a mere .99 cents for an ebook, are more likely to write a review.

Hey Hugh,

I was reading your blog post on The Passive Guy agree with you, as I usually do. Print books can be beautiful, some of them have special memories attached to them, and are worth keeping, simply for that reason. For example, I still have my copy of Salem’s Lot that I got from The Book Club (you know the ones, six books for a penny and then, after that, they own your soul!), and can’t bear to part with it. Vampires! In Maine! It was such a riveting idea.

Ebooks are good for so many reasons, but here’s the thing. You always recommend a Kindle, and it’s easy to see why. When you use a Kindle you get direct downloads from Amazon, and an excellent price. But there are other ebook readers out there, yes?

I own a Kobo Aura, which has the same functionality as the Kindle, though the mid-range Kobo is more expensive than the mid-range Kindle. I did have a Sony reader, but it gave up the ghost just about the time that Sony pulled out of the ebook reader biz. I did look at the Kindle, which has all the right features, but the thought of having to convert all my .epubs to .mobi felt like a nightmare, so I went with the Kobo, which has terrific ratings and is a pleasure to use.

Anyway, that’s my two cents. Thank you, as always, for the blog posts that you write; they remind me how much more fun it is to be an Indie Author than going through The Terrible Gatekeepers in New York.



I loved your article and you make some incredible points, but I’m one who loves and adores what I call ‘real books’. I’m an author, like you. To read a book on a screen is sterile, It has no personality, no smell, no touch. Some of my most beloved posessions are old books with suede covers, or gold embossing on the paper’s edge. Books that have been signed by the author. I have a leather pocket Bible from the mid 1800s (my husband found it in a box of discarded “junk”) – the publisher isn’t in business anymore – and inside are notes from a 16-year-old girl who journeyed from Ireland to the United States. Pressed between it’s pages are locks of hair, feathers, a four-leaf clover. An ebook can’t provide these sentiments. I had the Bible appraised. It’s worth more than $1000.00, not that I would ever sell it, but it has monetary value as well as sentimental value, even though the former owner is not part of my family.

A real book doesn’t require a battery. It doesn’t overheat (I’ve had a Kindle that did that). You can trade them, give them away, re-sell them, donate them, touch them, hold them close to your heart, cry on the pages. To me, reading isn’t just about reading. It’s the entire experience of what a book is and means. When I hold a book in my hand, I hold hours, weeks, months and years of blood, sweat and tears. The pages are hallowed places to visit, to touch. The words are more than words. The book is eternal. It’s tangible. An ereader is a piece of plastic with unsharable words (unless designated by the publisher to be ‘sharable”) glaring back at me, black words on a computer screen. It is impersonal, cold, stark. Though the words on an ereader are the same as in a print book, the book on an ereader doesn’t touch my soul. I can turn it off, or plug it in and recharge (don’t have to do that with a real book), and be done with it. I just have that feeling like Eh, the book was alright.” I can’t caress it. I can’t yell at it. “I can’t throw it in the lap of a friend and say, You have GOT to read this.” If I do that with an ebook, I give them my ereader. Now what do I have to read?

.Do I love trees? Yes, I do, and it is the one thing I hate about the ‘real’ book’ love that I have. I wish we could make something that felt like paper and acted like paper that we could use to make books. But I also have to look at all the notebook paper, all the legal pads, all the journals, diaries, everything that is made out of paper that we hold near and dear to us. Can you see telling businesses that they could no longer have printers or paper? If we get rid of all paper, people will no longer need to learn the art of penmenship, calligraphy, simply writing in general. And what about all the authors who don’t write on a computer. They MUST have legal pads. I’d say probably 50% of the authors I know have to write on paper. They can’t do it on a computer. Do we tell them they now have to write on a screen that depletes their energy, their imagination, their spark?

We have to have paper in our lives. Maybe I’m old-fashioned but I’ll take a tangible, well-loved book over an e-book any day. There is something romantic about the smell of a musty book, touching its yellowed pages, holding something in your hand that’s over 100 years old. A kindle won’t be around for 100 years, so what good are the books stored within them if you can’t access them? A real book can last hundreds, if not thousands of years, with the right care. I’d rather have a future generation find my book buried 200 years from now and still be able to read the words, than find a piece of plastic with no way to access what’s inside. My imagination lights up when I open the cover of a book, not when I turn on a device. I get the whole ebook thing, but this avid reader and writer will cherish real books until the day she dies. I’m still trying to figure out how to take a few with me into the next life. :-)

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