Monday, January 11, 2010

Who is the Gatekeeper


And is there a Key Master? (For those who don't recognize the reference, check out Ghostbusters. Of course, if marshmallow men give you nightmares, you will want to avoid the Stay Puft marshamallow man who comes to destroy the earth at Gozer's bidding. ;-p )

No, I'm not going to review the movie, although I may go watch it again later today. The original question actually comes from some earlier discussions we've had here as well as an interesting discussion on the Kindle boards at Amazon.com earlier this week. Someone asked if readers' expectations on books are being lowered because of the influx of free books available online. They weren't referring to all the books available through Project Gutenburg. Instead, they meant all the "new" books available for free either through Amazon, Smashwords, and a myriad of other online resources, including author websites. The basic question boiled down to, is the e-reading public more concerned with lower cost, or no cost, for a book than it is in quality of craft?

As of this morning, there are 57 books (assuming I counted correctly) of the top 100 best sellers in the Kindle store that are free. Of those, 33 are from Project Gutenberg or similar sites. The majority of the rest come from either major publishing houses, such as Harlequin or Random House, or small press houses. Only one jumps to mind as a true self-published and that simply because the author has been very active on the Amazon boards promoting her book. A quick check of the Sony e-bookstore reveals that they list their top downloads a little differently from Amazon. Their bestsellers are books that have a sales price on them and doesn't include free downloads. However, when you navigate through their links -- not quite as easily done as at Amazon, imo -- you will see they have basically the same free books available as does Amazon. My hunch is, if you compiled downloads for free and not free books, the results would be very similar to Amazon's numbers.

The consensus seemed to be that most of those downloading the free or almost free books may have initially done so because of the low cost, but they were just as quick to delete the book from their kindle or other device if the book didn't entertain them. Moreover, many of the responders said that they only downloaded the book if the description appealed to them. So, while the majority of those responding admitted they looked at the book's description because it was free -- or next to it -- they didn't necessarily download it for that reason.

Which led me to think about what I've downloaded since getting my Kindle in September. I currently have 180, give or take, books on my Kindle. Of those, three are current works in progress that I'm revising. Two are books I've purchased from Fictionwise. There are half a dozen I've bought from Amazon. There are three I've purchased from webscriptions (for those not familiar with it, this is where you go to get your e-books from Baen). There are a dozen or so I've pulled from author websites for free. I also have two dozen books from Project Gutenberg. That's roughly 50 books, if my math is correct -- not guaranteed this early in the morning. So, what about the rest?

The rest are freebies either from Amazon or from Baen. From Amazon, I've downloaded approximately 50 free books. Of these, there are 40 on my Kindle right now. Three of the Amazon downloads have been permanently deleted from my library because they were either so bad, imo, that I couldn't get past the first couple of pages or they were attempts by the publisher to hook the readers into buying a book by giving us a sample instead of the entire book as originally advertised. Of those remaining, they run the gambit from romantic suspense to sf/f to non-fic white papers. And all of them are from reputable publishers, some major houses and some small press. The remainder of the books on my Kindle are from Baen -- some I've purchased prior to getting an e-reader, some from the CDs Baen occasionally puts into its books.

Back to the question: has access to free books, many of them "self-published" and listed on Amazon and other e-book sites without having gone through a traditional editorial review lowered my standards on what I expect from a book? In a word, no. I still want books that are well-written, well-edited, and with a decent format. (Something a lot of self-published e-books lack.) I want the story to entertain me if it's fiction, even if the plot is uncomfortable. There has to be a reason for me to turn the page, even if all I do is hit a button. For non-fiction, I want a book that is well-researched, well-reasoned and not the same old tired schtick I've read for the last umpteen years.

Am I more likely to look at the description of a book because it's free or relatively inexpensive? Sure. I'm human. But I do read the description. And look to see if there are any editorial reviews. And check to see who published it and if the author has any other books available. Most of all, I'm not afraid to hit the delete button and to later remove the book from the archive if I didn't like it.

What has happened is that these free books offered through Amazon and other sources have broadened my scope of authors I read. There are a few publishers out there who aren't completely clueless. They offer the first book in a series for free a month or so before the latest in the series comes out. Guess what, it increases the sales not only of the new book but of the other books in the series. It has also taught me not to hesitate if there is a free offering that sounds good because these same publishers can turn around and be absolutely clueless -- offering the freebie for less than a day. While that might get word of mouth going, it isn't necessarily the sort of PR you want. Instead of readers talking about how good the book is, they're dissing because the book was available for such a short period.

But there's been another side effect from downloading free or relatively inexpensive e-books. My purchases of dead tree books has also increased. There are books I've read that I want physical copies of. True, most have been from Baen, but there have been some from Amazon as well. Also, while some of the books I've downloaded haven't exactly been my cup of tea, they have been exactly what my mother or someone else I know would like and I've bought physical copies for them. So while the publisher might have gotten nothing from me for the e-book, they made a dead tree version sale...that's money in their pocket.

In answer to my original question -- Who is the gatekeeper? -- I am. And you are. Every reader is the ultimate gatekeeper with regards to both e-books and dead tree versions. Publishers might be the key master, but right now too many of them are having trouble finding the door their keys fit. That leaves it up to us to decide what we like and don't like and what standards of professionalism we're going to demand in our books.

Have you noticed any changes in your book purchasing habits? Do you buy and read e-books? How about downloading free e-books? What do you require from a book and how do you choose what book to get? And who do you think is the ultimate gatekeeper? Inquiring minds want to know.

14 comments:

matapam said...

Well, we've always had control of what we bought - so long as it was in print, and one of our bookstores had it in stock when we were there.

As e-books erode the control by publisher, distributor, and store buyer, the internet is taking care of the geographical and temporal problems of finding books in paper format.

Right now we're extending our control down through so many layers of bureaucracy the traditional middlemen have got to be in shock. In the end, the only limit will be the willingness of the creator to make it available to us, one way or another.

One stumbling block I can see is an internet repeat of the merging of the various e-distributors into something that will concentrate on the best sellers and once again make publishing almost impossible for the mid-list. So long as there are no restrictions on writers posting and collecting money for their own work, this won't get too bad.

But if there's an idiocy that is beyond the reach of government, it's also beyond the reach of my imagination.

Rowena Cory Daniells said...

Amanda,

I'm as lost as the next person. I think we're all waiting to see what's happened in the publishing world once the dust has settled.

Over here in Australia only the most dedicated techie has an E-book reader of some kind.

I'm keen on paperbacks because I work on screen all day. Having said that, I've just been through my book shelves and am going to get rid of over a thousand reference books, because I can do my reference searching on line. I'm only keeping 2 six foot bookshelves of books.

Brendan said...

Don't forget that with every "free" book you download onto your kindle and the ones you delete with a comment or rating, you are giving Amazon a clearer idea of what you like so they can better market to you. And if they can do a better job of "suggesting" books you will like, you will end up buying more.

No one truly gets nothing for nothing.

Chris McMahon said...

I'm still on the paper variety. I'm not sure I have actually even seen an e-reader (unless you count an ipod).

Who sells Kindles in Australia? Is the Kindle the winner at the moment? ( from memory I think there is the Sony reader and EE(?)). Not very savvy on this.

Sarah A. Hoyt said...

I thought that getting the kindle would cut down on the number of paper books I buy. I seem to be wrong.

But beyond that in the last... twenty five years, the "gatekeepers" and the public have differed markedly in what they wanted: Hence the magically shrinking circulation numbers. Maybe this will fix it.

Amanda Green said...

Matapam, the middleman isn't the only one reeling right now. So are those sitting at the top of the mountain, the publishers. But it is the brick and mortar seller who is really in shock and scrambling to survive. Unfortunately, as they scramble, the selection of what is offered, especially in dead tree version, dwindles more and more.

While some of the e-distributors may merge and push only the "best sellers", I think there are enough authors out there starting to realize they need to control their e-rights and not just sign off on them without excellent reversion rights. There are still too many publishers who believe that no book can go out of print as long as they have the e-rights and that mean they can hold onto the rights forever.

And, btw, I love and completely agree with your last comment

Amanda Green said...

Rowena, I know what you mean about not having a lot of e-readers in OZ. It's really very much the same here. But, when you think about how many smart phones, net books, iPods, etc., that have e-reader capability, it is amazing. More and more people are reading their books, magazines and newspapers on such devices. It will be a very long time before e-readers -- or their equivalent -- are predominant. Because of that, publishers have to take that segment of the buying public into account, something most aren't really doing just yet.

As for spending the day in front of the screen, I completely understand. That had been one of the reasons I'd hesitated about getting an e-reader. Getting one as a gift cut through my hesitation ;-) However, the e-ink technology the Kindle and others use is very different from a standard computer screen and much easier on the eyes, imo.

Not that it takes away from my love for a real book. There's something about being able to curl up with on. The feel, the smell, the touch. And, to be honest, I have bought more books since getting the Kindle. The preview capability you have on the Kindle to read the first chapter or so of a book has been part of the reason for that.

To me, I'm an e-book reader convert, but not to the exclusion of my dead tree books.

Amanda Green said...

Brendan, absolutely. But, if that data helps get more mid-list authors' books out there, I'm more than happy. They are the ones being hurt the most in the current market.

Amanda Green said...

Chris, the e-reader winner depends on who you ask. Sony has an e-reader as does Barnes and Noble. Kindle has an international version. You can order one from Amazon for OZ. If I remember correctly from a thread in the Kindle forum this morning, the OZ version comes with a usb cable that can be used to charge the Kindle and transfer books to it from your computer. As with other countries other than the US, there is a higher delivery fee, unless -- again, iirc -- you download the book to your computer and then drag and drop it onto your kindle via the usb.

The real selling point with me on the Kindle is that I can take books with me and not have to worry about weight, size, etc. More than that, I can load my current WIP onto it and annotate it, away from the distractions of the internet, instant messaging, etc.

Amanda Green said...

Sarah, I've found the same thing with regard to the number of physical books bought since getting the Kindle. And I really do think that the next few years are going to see a major upheaval in publishing that is going to have to take e-books, and public demand, into consideration. When authors can make a very good living publishing only e-books, a better living than they make with their dead tree books, then it is time for the public, the industry and, most of all, the authors to take notice and adapt.

RJ_CruzeJr said...

Sarah and Amanda: I think the reason for this is that reading (and the book-buying that goes hand-in-hand with it) has an inertia all its own -- the way it seems to work is that the more you read, the more you will read. And buying the books to read follows along the same pattern.

I think it's sort of a completionistic thing: first you get the e-book, well then you've gotta have the hardcover (at least to waft under your nose while using your preferred reader for that New Book Smell), and once you have the hardcover, well, it goes without saying that you just need to get that mass-market pb to round everything out.

And that's why I think Baen does so well at this whole e-book thing; they understand book-buying inertia. Hence, selling a $6 e-book can feed the sale of a $7.99 mm paperback, a $14 trade paperback, or a $25 hardcover. (And just imagine how many sales a FREE e-book can feed).

Amanda Green said...

Robert, you are right. But it goes one step further than that, at least with me. I do want dead tree versions of books I really love. But with e-books, I've been exposed to some authors I never would have looked at otherwise. Mid-list authors whose books aren't in the stores or are so buried in the stacks you'd never find them if you weren't looking specifically for that title.

RJ_CruzeJr said...

Oh absolutely, Amanda. Whenever I hear that Arnold has posted new Webscriptions months, as psyched as I am to see what the upcoming new releases are, I'm probably even more psyched to see what gems from the backlist have found their way in (on average, 2 out of 3 months will have at least one selection from the backlist in it) -- many of which are from mid-list authors. So, it gives me the chance to either:

* Get an e-edition of a book I already have to save wear and tear on a dog-eared coffee-stained favorite that, because it's long since gone out of print, I'd be hard-pressed to replace;

* Get an e-edition of a hard-to-find book I didn't have because I missed the boat on it and spent the next several years kicking myself for not picking it up when it was in print;

Or...

* Discover someone new who I might never have taken a chance on had that author's book not been included with the rest of the books I did want in that Webscription -- the one that I figured, "well, since I got it, I might as well read it." And then was completely blown away by it.

(Note: economics-wise -- at around $6 an individual Baen e-book nowadays -- if you find at least 3 books you want in a given Webscription, you've more than justified its $15 purchase price. Everything else in that Webscription is essentially a free book.)

I think the e-book market, if handled right (at least the way Baen does it), could very well be the 21st century incarnation of the paperback market -- which up until it collapsed in the 90s, was where the mid-list earned their bread-n-butter. Just my two cents, but I think it's the dearth of the mid-list that's the chief reason that publishing is so much trouble these days. Without that solid bulwark of mid-listers bringing in moderate but steady sales, there's no one to take up the slack if one of the bestselling authors has a book go belly-up.

Amanda Green said...

Robert, absolutely. Of course, you said the key phrase about ebooks and publishers -- if handled right. Unfortunately, I think we'll see a lot of mishandling before they really figure out what to do.

Will w-books be the end of hard copy books? No. But will they be a viable option for readers, especially those raised with computers and other techie gadgets their entire lives? Absolutely. It is that mindset the publishers have finally got to take into account and understand. If they do, they will realize there is a new and expanding market out there.