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The E-Book Dilemma

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So now that the pricing structure of e-books has been resolved once and for all, where does that leave the authors, without whom the publishers, their employees, and agents might be on food stamps?

Once the gatekeepers of the printed word, the power of the publishing community has been severely diminished by the indifferent scythe of technology. The e-book intrusion on their vaunted system of cultural filtration has been breached and they are now forced to compete with anyone who believes they have something to say that will add to our knowledge, entertainment and cultural advancement, once the exclusive purview of the publisher-chosen printed book.

For fiction authors who are published by traditional publishers and rely on advances and royalties for their living, the future is dim. There will be exceptions of course, especially in those books that attract youthful, computer-savvy genre readers and in certain categories, like romance fiction, which a largely feminine audience gobbles up like popcorn and currently represents a large chunk of the e-book consumer market.

But the destiny is in the numbers. There are presently multi-thousands of books published every week. This number is sure to rise now that the ease and cost of entering the marketplace has shrunk affordably. A growing portion of these books are self-published by mostly genre fiction authors. Many are priced at 99 cents and still others are given away free by self-published authors hoping to gain reader traction in the process. So far, there is no metric to determine the success or failure of such giveaways.

The best rule of thumb for the marketing of trade books is that 50 percent of readers are persuaded to purchase by publisher advertising and promotion, if any, and the other fifty percent by author familiarity and word of mouth. It is a purely arbitrary number since no one really knows the answer and the variables are legion.

The endurance rate of author popularity will most likely shrink rapidly in the forever-spinning universe of cyberspace. So called "Best Sellers" will have a much shorter lifespan than before. Entrepreneurial authors will proliferate in cyber space, especially in the genre fiction field.

The traditional publishers will probably continue to publish the non-genre authors, especially the serious novelists to whom writing is an artistic calling, as a matter of prestige and devotion, but the advances will, by economic necessity, continue to shrink. But then, serious novelists have always been on the bottom rung of the author income chain and yet continue to pursue their calling, despite the slim odds of making a living, by creating their brand of immersive reading.

Publishers and authors are now scrambling to find the magic bullet that will propel books sales. The process is bound to get hotter now that pricing has become a wild card. There is still, however, some robustness left in the traditional book business. But the changes that are occurring are swift and profound and what's ahead is, to say the least, challenging.

Unfortunately, the traditional publishers either did not see it coming or did not react fast enough to their changing fortunes. Their reaction comes a bit late in the process as e-books have begun to take hold. Their agency ploy strikes me, with its secrecy and collusion, as a desperate act that they knew would fail.

My guess is that more and more authors will opt for their own promotion and depend on creating circles of interest that could proliferate and help to increase readership. Like everything else, what was once mass has now becoming splintered and fractionalized. Success may soon be measured in more modest terms.

But while my clairvoyance meter has run pretty high when it comes to e-books, I cannot discount the creative imagination that rarely fails to choose a wayward path to another, more satisfactory outcome. The fact is that immersive reading is a powerful motivator and important human need. It has proven its resilience time and time again.

There are certain bedrock givens that continue to stoke my optimism. Stories are created by the author and, however delivered, they are the very essence of human communications. Their value to culture and civilization is immeasurable. A way will be found to fulfill this need and what is important to the human condition will find its way to be profitable.

Warren Adler's latest novel The Serpent's Bite will be published in September.

Warren Adler is the author of 32 novels and short story collections published in numerous languages. Films adapted from his books include "The War of the Roses," "Random Hearts" and the PBS trilogy "The Sunset Gang." He is a pioneer in digital publishing. For more information visit Warren's website at warrenadler.com.