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Stacey Barney

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Am I Still Digging Publishing?

Posted: 08/11/11 10:03 PM ET

If you want to know the truth, how I feel about publishing depends upon the season, the day, maybe even the hour that you ask. Probably like just about every industry these days, publishing is a business of peaks and valleys. It's a business where ideals meet commerce, and one often walks away bloodied and disillusioned. Frankly, some days my ideals and I feel just plain weary. But mostly, there are the days when books come into the office literally hot off the presses, or days when one of my authors gets a starred review, or days when I find a submission that really gets me going, and miracles of miracles, I land it for my house. Those are the days that keep me happy and excited about the business I've dedicated my professional life to.

But the days when I do find myself in the valley of publishing -- maybe a book isn't selling quite the way I'd hoped, or a reviewer kicked around one of my authors, or my editorial team didn't see what I saw in a submission that I'd give my left kidney to have on my list and I must let go, or, you know, those days Borders turns to a pile of rubbish right before my very eyes -- those days, I'm still buoyed by the prospect of something I was told I would never have to worry about by a prominent sales director when I first entered the business 10 years ago: e-books. But it seems these days that all anyone in publishing is worried about is the advent of the e-book and what that means for our industry going forward.

For my part, thanks to e-books, I'm privileged to be working in publishing at a time that's really akin to the wild, wild West, and it's thrilling. Publishing is finding new ways to do its thang, to reach readers by any means necessary, especially electronically.

Now my enthusiasm might sound strange to those who know me best, to those who know that my e-reader sits on a shelf in my office abandoned, collecting dust, to my authors who valiantly struggle through my bad handwriting in the margins of their manuscripts. No, I am not electronically inclined. But readers are, more and more. And publishers are paying attention. The future of our business depends on publishers paying vital attention to what is happening with e-books at this very moment.

The price of the Kindle has gone way down. Choices in e-readers abound, and judgments are even placed on you and your choice of e-reader. Are you fancy with an iPad? Or is the country classic of the Kindle more your speed? Or are you too cool for school with your color Nook? There are even decorative covers that you can place your e-reader in. The world for readers has changed. E-readers have made reading hot again. E-books and book apps are allowing publishers to compete for a generation of consumers for whom Xbox is as serious a competitive sport as air guitar.

And e-books have not just opened up the relationship between the publisher and consumer. Now the world of publishing is suddenly a brand new place for writers, and for the first time in my publishing tenure, writers have meaningful control over how and when their content connects with a consumer (and for how much), independent of a traditional publisher, and in a more immediate way than the self-publishing craze of the late 90s and early 2000s. Overnight successes like Amanda Hocking are selling their wares on Amazon for $2.99, making money hand over fist, I tell you, and being courted by publishers who previously may not have given them the time of day.

Even authors successfully published the traditional way are being dazzled by the lure of the e-book world. Earlier this year, bestselling thriller writer Barry Eisler stunned the industry by walking away from a $500,000 deal with St. Martin's Press. He realized he could do better being his own publisher, and that the Kindle had turned publishing into a very different beast. Amanda Hocking, on the other hand, after selling more than 450,000 e-books on her own, then signed up with a traditional publisher -- apparently tired of going it alone. (Oh, by the way, she's 26.) Though selling your book successfully via Amazon is hardly going it alone.

And how about that, Amazon? That behemoth Amazon? Not just your mama's bookseller anymore. They're now a publisher in addition to a bookseller. Um, wow.

I even hear that Jane Friedman is revolutionizing publishing (again!) with her venture Open Road -- an e-book publisher that's competing with the Big 5 for projects and the potentially lucrative interactive multimedia rights (Books apps, baby!) that come along with those projects.

My point is that we have options. We all have options. E-books have given way to the most creative and innovative time of publishing I have ever known -- and setting traditional publishing on its head. Even agencies are now adding self-publishing guidance to their roster of services. Holy cow!

Did your agent just tell you that Stacey Barney turned your book down for the third time? Screw her! Go sell your great American novel on Amazon and let the marketplace decide as it did with Ms. Hocking.

Are you a consumer who's sick to death of the James Patterson commercials threatening to kill off Alex Cross' character if you don't buy the book? Want the new book you just read about on HuffPost, but bookstores are closed?? You can now browse and buy books in the comfort of your very own living room, shutting out the noise. Suddenly, with an e-book you have more control.

So let's review: E-books = the wild, wild West. The e-reader has made us all prospectors in one way or another -- whether you're a plain ol' consumer looking for a romance to make you swoon or a thriller to set you at the edge of your seat; whether you're a writer seeking fame and fortune, or a publisher looking to expand your audience and provide them a more convenient and innovative reading experience. Either way, there be gold in them thar hills.