Thursday, 26 September 2013

Independence In A Digital Market

There's no mistaking the signs. Electronic books are more than a passing fad. They've established themselves in popularity as not simply a supplement to traditional books, but as their potential replacement. Though reports show that ebook sales have levelled off in recent years, vendors such as Amazon UK are reporting record highs in ebook downloads, surpassing sales of both hardcover and paperback books.

This changing digital marketplace invites both accomplished authors and newcomers alike to offer their wares in an unrestricted, free market environment. Some readers are feeling the pressure of caveat emptor, as they shop for books from their favorite NY Times best-selling author, now ingloriously set alongside John Doe's latest treatise on "1001 Ways To Pluck Navel Lint." Others are viewing the changes optimistically as they discover exciting new titles from indie authors on sites like Goodreads. No matter how you feel about the digital revolution in literature, this is a trend that's only going to become more prominent as the technology evolves to support even more media-rich storytelling.

In this current, ungoverned marketplace, it's not surprising to find the same sorts of issues that you would find in any unregulated bazaar. Shoddy craftsmanship, price gouging, and questionable reviews are all issues that ebook readers must face on a regular basis when considering the best outlet for their entertainment dollars. To be safe, most readers will stick to familiar names. Some may even choose to purchase the ebook version of their favorite writer's latest works, despite its cost often exceeding that of the print version. Unfortunately, the concept of "getting what you pay for" is the rule of law for established authors in this new marketplace, where an appearance on a best-seller list serves as an open invitation for inflated prices.

The age of the 99¢ ebooks are on the decline. In a recent article in Publishers Weekly, Mark Lefebvre, Kobo's director of self-publishing and author relations, admitted that even the $1.99 price point is "dead." Royalty limitations instituted by the vendors themselves have forced many authors to embrace the $2.99 to $5.99 price range, falling back on the lesser price only when offering discounts. For newcomers to the table, struggling authors with only a small handful of books, this price point is an immediate detriment to their sales figures. Despite the author's best self-marketing efforts, most readers will always have second thoughts about spending that kind of money on an unfamiliar name.

The marketplace seems to be trending towards stabilization on behalf of readers. The increased price for books means that, barring an exceptional title or a phenomenal marketing effort, untested writers will be forced to prove their work belongs on the digital bookshelf, alongside those of established authors. The threat of a bad review forces independent authors to work twice as hard as established ones, to provide a more compelling, original story, complete with professional editing and artwork. The added cost for these services means they either increase their own price tag and risk driving off potential readers, or absorb the loss. Either way, the situation places a first-time author at an immediate disadvantage.

Yet as the mantra for the indie author goes, "Book sales are not a sprint, but a marathon." 

There will always be as many poorly written, badly edited books dumped on the market as there are people seeing digital publishing as a get-rich-quick scheme. Bad reviews and a unfamiliarity with the author usually cause such titles to languish on the digital bookshelf until they fade into obscurity. 

The independent authors to stand the test of time will be the ones who persevere, who make the effort to provide a quality title again and again. Whereas traditional authors had to simply contend with rejection from publishers, this new generation of authors also faces a substantial financial hit, until such time as their accumulated works receive their much-deserved recognition from readers. Though unfortunate, it's a fact of life for serious independent authors in our new age of digital publishing. As any traditional author will be quick enough to declare, a real writer needs to pay their dues. Burgeoning authors in the evolving ebook market are paying every day in lost sales and the increasingly higher cost (both in time and money) of publishing and marketing their books. It's a paradigm that most established authors don't even fully understand.

Over time, independent authors will establish themselves in the eyes of a new generation of readers, in much the same way as the Internet fundamentally opened the doors to a world of previously unknown independent artists in the music and film industry. When that happy day comes, there will be no more discrimination between traditional authors and indies in the eyes of the readers. There will only be good authors and bad authors.

Unfortunately, I don't personally see the price of ebooks dropping in the near future. The increasing cost of marketing online, coupled with piracy concerns, means there will always be a hefty price tag for digital editions. The same factors that have driven up the price of video games over the years also play a role here. 

Examining that parallel market further leads us to realize that independent game designers provide a substantial savings in their products, compared to established gaming studios. Though (in general) their work may not have the polish of the titles released by industry-recognized giants, that doesn't make them any less enjoyable. Independent titles, whether in music, gaming, or film, fills a niche market as a viable alternative to potentially derivative work delivered by established entities who've lost touch with their customer's desires. Sometimes, the quality can even amaze.

There's a similar need for independent authors in today's marketplace. More readers are discovering this fact daily. Whether these writers choose to retain a lower pricing structure for their work, or emulate those of their traditionally published peers is entirely up to them. Having the freedom to establish their asking price is one of the few perks of self-publishing. Having the freedom of choice to buy their books is the readers'.