eBooks are changing not just the way people read books but how they buy them. The digital book age promises to deliver an endless assortment of titles with the click of a mouse but also portends to destroy the economic foundation that supports a large class of writers known as midlist authors, the triple-A minor league players of publishing.
These authors, who sell between 10,000 and 20,000 copies of a book, are the workhorses of the industry. They earn enough to make a modest living from their writing, sell enough to keep getting contracts from major publishing houses, and sometimes emerge as best-selling authors.
However, the book-buying habits sustaining their work may become a thing of the past when printed books are swapped for digital ones. As strolling and perusing the aisles of a bookstore is replaced with a mouse and computer screen, the demise of brick-and-mortar retailers will accelerate and critically important links between midlist authors and their readers will be severed.
Consider some of the common ways books by lesser-known authors are sold everyday in a store:
- Examining the history section of a store, a customer is drawn to a book by its eye-catching cover;
- Picking up a book by a popular author from a table, a customer is intrigued by a novel in an adjacent stack;
- Approaching the cash register, a customer decides to get one additional book after reading a sticky note that says "staff favorite," one of the many ways booksellers "hand-sell" a promising title.
As of yet, there is no digital substitute to this serendipitous manner of bringing readers and writers together. Furthermore an important symbiotic relationship between best-selling authors and their lesser brethren will end. Readers who buy new books by Dan Brown or Kitty Kelley frequently leave the store with another title under their arm. But it is often the invitingly deep and varied inventory of books by midlist authors that lure the reader into the store in the first place.
Digital books create a retailing bypass that diminishes the exposure of midlist books to potential readers. Supermarkets have long understood the importance of this aspect of sales, arranging their stores so shoppers have to pass through aisles filled with tempting items in order to pick up a quart of milk. So while eBooks will offer publishers an easier and more economic means to sell more works by leading authors it will increase the challenge of marketing books by others.
There are, however, industry veterans who welcome the new arrangement. Richard Curtis has been selling traditional books to publishers for years as president of Richard Curtis Associates, Inc., a New York City literary agency. Now he also publishes his clients' books as e-books through his company E-Reads. Curtis is convinced the digital book age will include new ways for midlist authors to survive. "We are going to see evolve a new model," Curtis said, "a more viral way of bringing those authors to the attention of the people they are intended to reach."
Curtis, as well as others, is excited by book blogging, twittering, and customer reviews. "Social networking is going to take the place of the autocratic handful of pundits who tell you what to read," he said. Pointing to customer reviews as an example of the future, Curtis thinks readers will be guided in their eBook choices as restaurant-goers currently use Zagat ratings.
Unfortunately, if Amazon customer reviews are any indication of the future, it looks pretty grim for midlist writers. The reviews that currently populate the company's website are a mix of commentary written by friends (every author makes sure of that), irrelevant gripping about the price, format, or the publisher, and a large assortment of diatribes by--for lack of a better word--screwballs. Furthermore, the recommendations generated by Amazon analysis of a customer's purchases rarely include a midlist book.
Digital books will also reward specialization an unhealthy trend for midlist authors. "More and more," Curtis said, "you will see books and publishing ventures aimed at very specific niches." As with the disappearance of general interest magazines, publishers will push their writers to create books for narrowly defined marketplaces further shrinking the market for today's midlist books.
The strongest glimmer of hope for midlist authors is a growing conviction among publishing executives that printed books do not face a future entirely like that of the music industry where compact disc were replaced by downloads. Books are not the same as songs, according to Mark Suchomel, president of Independent Publishers Group. His company is one of the nation's largest distributors of books by independent presses, consummate publishers of midlist books.
"The way you sell music is by sample," Suchomel said. "The most interesting thing when judging a book is the cover." He sees a new world where both print and digital books will survive hand in hand, one version supporting the other.
For instance, Suchomel believes digital books will never substitute in the age-old practice of giving a book. "No one," he said, "is going to wrap up an electronic file."