Thursday, July 7, 2011

Roots of Revolution, Part 2: The Day The World Changed

Americans love fixed dates for any important event. Thus, we celebrate the 4th of July to mark American independence and we mourn Sept. 11 as the beginning of the war on terror.

Of course most such dates don't mark when the real event happened. Both the American Revolution and the War on Terror started considerably before those dates, but we like the comfort of having a nice solid date we can quote like a mantra.

The change that's taking place in publishing has a special date as well. January 20, 2010. Like the others, the tidal wave didn't start then, but it is significant. In future years I wouldn't be surprised if authors get together to raise their glasses and party on that day.

(Not so much because most authors will remember the date, but because authors love an excuse to slack off and party.)

What's so special about January 20, 2010? That's the day that Amazon kickstarted the epublishing revolution by announcing they would be raising the royalties on their ebooks to 70 percent of list prices. (Amazon actually raised rates on Jun 30, so you can celebrate that date too.) That makes it a convenient date to mark as the day the Revolution began.

The higher royalties were actually the second step in the events starting the revolution. The first one was the ebook readers took off. Today something like 12-15 percent of all American readers own an ebook reader and Amazon sells more ebooks than it does conventional books. Between them, those facts set off the explosion in publishing.

There is a third factor leading to the revolution as well. Ebook publishers do an absolute minimum of gatekeeping. If you write an ebook, Amazon or Smashwords or whoever is just about sure to publish it, no matter what the subject. (I will admit I've had a little trouble selling the concepts for The Serial Killers' Handbook and The Official Hannibal Lechter Fan Club Guide And Recipe Book, but those are about the only limits.)

So, anyone gets to publish anything they want, charge between $2.99 and $9.99 for it and collect a royalty of 70 percent of the price. That's a minimum of $2.10 per book.

Both buyers and sellers were energized by the changes. Buyers responded by buying more ebooks readers than even the most sanguine marketers imagined -- and they're still buying them. Sellers started cranking out books so the buyers would have a large choice of reading material at very low prices. The cycle rapidly became self-perpetuating and it shows no sign of slowing down.

We'll leave the quality of the new books for another post. Here we'll simply observe that there is a huge amount of dreck being published. Illiterate dreck, mostly. However there are also some gems that rival the best printed books being published (never mind the stuff that makes the best seller lists)

So the next time January 20 rolls around, buy a writer a drink and raise your glasses to the Revolution.

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