I recently wrote to Jane LIndskold to let her know I’d announced the free ebook version of her novel the The Buried Pyramid on this site. She wrote back with a couple of ebook-related questions and since I was lacking anything remotely resembling hard data I thought I’d share my opinions instead. Her questions were roughly -
- Is someone who enjoys reading an author in ebook format likely to go on and read their published print works?
- Are there companies around that can make my published books available as paying downloads?
The ebook market is in a transitional phase today. The majority of people still read print and will continue to do so for a while to come. However there are a growing number of early adopters who are reading ebooks. Most continue to read a mix of both print and digital formats. The main advantage of ebooks at the moment is distribution – both in terms of speed and cost. However the reading experience is still poor compared to print, unless you have an e-reader with a new e-ink display. These are relatively rare but becoming more and more popular all the time (Amazon’s Kindle is the most well-known). The fact that people read ebooks without such a display is a clear sign that ebooks have a very strong future.
For those that do have an e-ink display the story is somewhat different. These readers offer ultimate portability without compromising readability. Many owners now only read ebooks. I’m sure this is partly driven by the desire to recoup their not insignificant investment in their device as soon as possible. However I also suspect that it’s incredibly convenient to be able to carry your whole library around on a single device.
It’s important to take a quick look at where e-reader technology currently stands. The current devices are definitely generation one. I classify any reader without an e-ink display as either a proof of concept device or a device that has a secondary role as an e-reader (e.g. laptops, iPhones, PDAs).
The current range of ebook readers remind me of the early days of digital photography. Everyone could see the benefits of the digital camera but the quality was either noticeably inferior to film or they were prohibitively expensive. However each year they got better. Being something of an enthusiast, I held onto my SLR longer than most, waiting until Canon introduced the EOS300D. This was one of the first consumer priced digital SLRs. When it arrived I could finally enjoy the benefits of digital photography without any practical compromise on picture quality. Since then Canon have continued to release new and improved models each year. However no advance since then has been significant enough that felt I must upgrade. The limiting factor on taking great pictures is no longer the technology but my skill as a photographer.
I’m sure we’ll look back on the current generation of e-readers in a couple of years and laugh at their clunky design and high cost. Next generation e-readers need a healthy dose of Apple inspired design. They need to lose the keyboards, the multitudes of buttons, the wasted space, hard edges and superfluous features like MP3 playback. Instead give me an e-reader that’s all screen, has the slim, rounded profile of an iPhone and is as simple to operate as a paperback. Then make it cheap and rugged.
In the meantime, authors need to prepare for the inevitable day when ebook sales outnumber print. Here are a few observations I’ve gleaned from authors who are already embracing this future.
- If you’re a published author you have nothing to lose in giving away at least one of your novels in ebook format. The positive PR and word of mouth is likely to far outweigh any lost print sales. This especially holds true if you’ve written a series. Give the first away as a free ebook, hook the reader and they’ll buy the rest of the series in print.
Cory Doctorow takes this to the extreme by simultaneously giving away the ebook version of all new books he writes. If the reader enjoys his novel he encourages them to buy a print copy and give it to a local school, library or friend.
- If you want to charge for your ebook (i.e. this is the only format you’re going to publish in) then you have to set a realistic price. Readers expect to pay significantly less for an ebook as they rightly reason that there are no printing or distribution costs. In my mind, under $5 seems right for a novel and under $25 for non-fiction.
As ebook sales account for an ever increasing proportion of the market, more and more authors will need to charge for their ebooks.
- Whether you publish in print, ebook or both formats, you have a great opportunity to give away a free sample online. Forget the two page except. There is no reason why you shouldn’t give away a 1/3 or even 1/2 your novel.
Downloadable software publishers have been doing the equivalent of this for years by offering a free 30-day trial. Users can try before they buy.
- Don’t use DRM to try and stop your ebook being copied. No matter what people tell you, DRM doesn’t work. Pirates will crack it immediately and all you’ll end up doing is pissing off your honest readers.
- Don’t pay a big percentage to an online publisher to publish your ebook online. Making your ebook available online and collecting payments is not hard at all. If you don’t feel comfortable setting up your own website or paying someone to do this for you, use a publisher like Smashwords. They will publish your ebook in a multitude of DRM-free formats and only take a 15% cut.
Finally, remember that promotion and marketing of your ebook is the hard part. I plan to do an interview with an author and marketing guru who can hopefully offer some advice on this subject in the near future.