Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Back in Print

For authors who are elated by Google’s action to digitize all out-of-print books and pay out royalties it is, of course, a welcomed development. Despite the challenges by others who fear Google’s power, the concept of out-of-print digitization is here to stay.

Unfortunately, for those authors and their copyright heirs who see themselves as potential financial beneficiaries, I would suggest they don’t break out the champagne.
The primary reason for those books to be out-of-print in the first place, with few exceptions, is because they were deemed by their original publishers as a no longer promising investment, taking up precious warehouse and catalogue space. This is not to say that they did not merit preservation as viable entities, perhaps masterpieces, but for a variety of reasons, some patently unfair, they were relegated to the so-called dust bin of the book trade.

There were also many books lost to posterity when their publishers expired through death or business failure or simply got lost in the shuffle of history.

In many cases, these books do enjoy a modest life-cycle in second hand bookshops and Internet used books dealers. In libraries, they are eventually discarded. Libraries rarely rebind old books anymore. No additional royalties are ever paid to authors by any of these existing venues.

What authors can expect from this massive digitization is, above all, availability. The out-of-print books will join the millions and millions of digitized books in cyberspace, tiny particles in a vast crowd of text, novels, plays, poetry, and textbooks on every subject known to man, the contents of countless libraries. To quote the great Bard, “words, words, words,” an avalanche of words. It will be a Tower of Babel reaching to infinity.

With this endless rejuvenation will come the hopes of living authors, the heirs of dead ones, and other assorted claimants that they will enjoy an unprecedented revenue flow from readers who are just aching to download out-of-print books on the devices that are now exploding worldwide.

By what technical miracle will these digitized books come to the attention of the potential reader? This is the key issue for those who see in this process resurrection, rediscovery and perhaps, a big perhaps, some revenue flow.
As an author of works of the imagination, novels and shorts stories, I rescued my books from out-of-print status a dozen years ago by having my rights returned from the many publishers involved in the original publications, both in English and foreign languages. I resurrected them in all digitization and print formats and they are, of course, available now wherever books are sold.

My objective was to keep my authorial name alive in the only venue that can guarantee, at least theoretically, perpetual survival—the Internet. The objective is to keep the brand alive for as long as possible hoping that a new breakthrough book or rediscovery of an old one will create interest in all of my past works, which will never ever go out-of-print and, with luck, be recycled into movies or capture the imagination of future generations. Everyone has fantasies, hopes and aspirations. That is mine.

The problem is how to find a way for these works to rise above the incessant chatter, to be noticed, bought and read. That is the central challenge for both the author and the publisher, finding readers in an environment that has become a patchwork of a jillion niches.

With mass media outlets in print and television which can set the marketing fires ablaze with their reviews and best-seller lists declining precipitously, one can speculate with reasonable accuracy that they will slowly disappear as mass communication portals. The once dominant newspapers that were the target of choice to disseminate news and cultural happenings will morph to the net, shrunk to niche proportions along with a vast array of competitors that will splinter any attempt to make a big blast marketing push for a single book.

Marketers in the near future will be faced with how to carpet bomb the niches to gain attention, a challenge of epic proportions. All of the creative juices of the advertising and marketing world are attempting to meet this challenge and few have come up so far with an economically feasible plan.

Book publishers use the mass media to ignite the spark of word of mouth, which is the way most books gain real traction. Sometimes it happens naturally, albeit miraculously. But with the big box bookstores wrestling with present and future decline what will be left is the Internet which, so far, Amazon has mined successfully to sell its huge basket of books through its enormously successful portals. But when the time comes when the original kindling, no pun, of the mass media slowly loses heat all the Internet portals selling books will need to revamp their focus to satisfy the swiftly growing e-book audience. Of course, none of this will happen overnight, but my own best guess is that it will, indeed, happen sooner rather than later.

Publishers, too, will have to reorient their marketing strategies as they are faced with a cyberspaced distribution setup. Undoubtedly their strategy for survival will be to hone their communication skills and use the money saved on warehousing and printing to carpet bomb the Internet to gain exposure for their books. It seems a logical ploy but no one can be sure it can work successfully in such a moving target environment. Nevertheless, they will have the bucks to experiment.

Perhaps the day of the best-selling author will expire, lost in the Tower of Babel of the future. Branding authors will be harder and royalty advances will, as a consequence, decline. Serious novelists bent on a lifetime career and financial stability will have a hard time adjusting to the new reality.

Internet bookstores will depend strictly on volume and price wars are sure to proliferate. Publishers, who still control the commercial content gateway, will use the Internet to publish more and more digital books to chase their cash flow. Certain genre categories like romance fiction, mysteries, science fiction, series books and others will probably do well on the Internet although they, too, will run into problems of scale as more and more content comes into the infinite digital marketplace.

For the individual author, which is my focus, the challenge will be monumental. Can the major publishers one day discover the technique of carpet bombing the niches and get the word out for their authors? Or will they abandon their reliance on their few star sellers and bow to the lure of the niches by increasing their content output in every genre and category?

Will the individual author who tries to beat the odds through self-publishing rise above the chatter to gain enough audience to sustain themselves economically? At this moment there are thousands of sites offering self-publishing and promotional services to writers, ignored by the commercial publishing community, who thirst for self-expression, ego satisfaction and dreams of literary celebrity, fame, and fortune and who yearn to make their mark on an indifferent world.

The publishing business is not alone in gaming the future revolutionized by digitization and the Internet. Yes, fellow authors your books will never go out of print ever again, they will be available. That is no small achievement.

Reading is a two way communication system. This means that creating the text is only half the process. The challenge is to connect the two halves. It will not be easy.


Sujatha said...

I was trying to comment on the small...blogentry? you wrote on the nature of blogging, the one with the brilliant lines on the prototype blogger beloved by Hearst, only to end up here in Back in Print (an interesting article itself). This is how bloginept I am. I can't even comment properly. I just started my own blog because my very first novel is coming out in February and I was encouraged to "market myself." I am not the complaining sort, so I am blogging in perhaps appreciative and innocuous tones (read: not nearly as interesting to most as snarky and airing of the family's dirty laundry tones). Really, all I want to do is earn the right to write for a living, and apparently this requires blogging and social networks. I'm cool with it. If you ever do check out debut author's blogs, please check mine out. I need a "following" apparently. My book is called As It Was Written and it releases in Feb. from Thomas Dunne. I like to say it's about Dr. Raman Nair and his five fat daughters and the ancient Brahmin curse that follows them from India to the states. Literary fiction, definitely dealing with themes you seem to appreciate. Perhaps I could interview you sometime for my blog?



Sujatha Hampton

Sujatha said...

Brilliant. My link didn't link. Another show of excellence in blogging. Sigh. Well, don't know how to link my blog, so that's that. Regarding the possibility of our work living in perpetuity on an electronic level anyway, I do hope something happens to save the books. The most beautiful things are getting pushed out of print in these days of short attention spans. The very best YA novel I have read in a long time (Framed by Frank Cotrell Boyce)is not to be found on the shelves, but there are one million copies of Marley Goes to School just stacked up everywhere you look. Sickening and very scary.


Sujatha Hampton

LWPON said...

I'm all for digital libraries, especially for storing books that are out of print and ignored by the reprint industry. But if Google ignores copyright -- I'm talking about books in print with a current copyright or out of print books with a renewed copyright -- how are authors and their heirs to earn financial return for their work?

There is a compromise under discussion today, 11 Sept 09, to share proceeds from sales of the digitized books. But Google has not made an effort to find, or an invitation to writers who hold copyright for books Google has gone ahead and digitized.

Passively waiting for authors or copyright renewal owners to step forward seems a disingenuous posture for such a well-endowed corporation. Shouldn't Google make an effort to find people who hold copyright to the digitized books?

jack raffin said...

wow, man i didn't know you had a blog.

i finished war of the roses a while back.

you the man.