What's changed since Dickens?

"Print is dead" - Dr Egon Spengler, 1984 1

I'm a writer.

I used to want to be a published writer, in the traditional sense, i.e. to sell my stories to a publishing company, who would then print them out and sell them in bookstores. Y'know, a real writer.

I'd thought about putting something on the web, or an e-book, something that used 21st century technology…

...but the joke was on me. I was thinking about that as a way to get the attention of someone who would print my books the old fashioned way.

Then I read an excellent dialog by Barry Eisler and J.A. Konrath about e-publishing. I like Barry Eisler, I've read his (actual, physical, formerly dead tree) books, so the fact that he was moving to (self) e-publishing gave me pause for thought.

Looking at it, traditional book publishing isn't far removed from the time of Dickens:
• the author writes the book (Dickens probably did it long-hand, thousands since have used typewriters, most now use word processors);
• the publishing company formats it and then prints it out on paper;
• they ship it around the world (with consequent delays and carbon emissions);
• booksellers put it on the shelves (taking up a lot of space in prime retail locations);
• people buy it (hopefully), take it home and read it;
• then it sits on shelves in the buyer's home - I read a lot and consequently have multiple shelves double- and triple-stacked with novels.

If, that is, they sell it at all.

However many copies the publisher prints, the one certainty is it will be the wrong number. If it's not enough, they have to print more (and then ship them again). If too many, then they discount like mad, sell as remainders, give away free with other books, or just pulp the suckers.

When you take into account the cost of formatting, publicity, paper, ink, binding, shipping, rentals on all those golden mile bookstores, processing all the remaindered and pulped stock, and markups for all the in-betweeners:
• It's no wonder the writer gets about $2 from a $20 sale;
• It's no wonder so many traditional bookstores are going out of business because of competition from e-books (and illegal downloads, but that's another story).

E-books change the model, removing the costs (fiscal and environmental) of printing, shipping, storing and, ultimately, disposal of words printed on dead tree pulp.

They are a rapidly growing portion of book sales at present, especially because of the Kindle and iPad, the big book publishers are getting on board, making e-books available at the same time as, and a lower price than, printed ones. They still seem to be sorting out the economics of it, with various disputes over who gets what cut, but it's the way things are headed.

The once-familiar town record shop is now a dinosaur, replaced by CDs and then MP3s, but some are still hanging in there for purists who love the sound and feel of vinyl. Many people still buy newspapers, while others download their news. Will bookstores go the same way, becoming a niche market for people who haven't got the e-book bug, becoming more and more specialised, and thus more expensive?

And, thinking selfishly for a minute, what does that mean for me?

The electronic age also leads to the democratisation of publishing. Anyone with half a brain can format something and put it on Amazon or Smashwords, just as anyone can upload a video to Youtube (and critics would say that there are already a lot of people with half a brain doing just that). Successful authors like JK Rowling take it even further, retaining her electronic publishing rights and selling Harry Potter books at Pottermore.

The trick will be, can I make it work too? Not in the Dickensian way, but using 2012 publishing tools?

Let's find out.


  • 1. Dr Spengler has a degree in parapsychology and was a founding member of one of New York's most innovative tech start-ups. His story has been told in two successful movies and a television series that ran for five seasons.