Friday, November 12, 2010

The E-book Revolution

By C.J. West

Last month I moderated the e-books panel at Bouchercon in San Francisco. The Gang asked me to stop in and share my reflections and I’m delighted to visit.

It became clear during my research that e-books address the most serious problems facing the publishing industry. Returns? Check. Shelf life? Check. Selection? Check. The big surprise came when I downloaded work from each of the panelists. I expected the books to come quickly, but I didn’t expect to enjoy reading on an electronic device. I staunchly supported paper books until I tried an e-reader. Now I’m a convert. I bought my Kindle at Target yesterday.

The question in my mind after this panel is not so much whether there will be a revolution, because it is coming. The question is: what kind of a revolution will it be?

Are e-books an economic revolution?

The economic arguments for e-books are strong. The marginal cost (what it costs to produce one more book) are miniscule compared to print books and the implications for distribution are many. Consider a third-world school in need of textbooks. If the publisher can cut cost 95% by switching from hardcover to e-book format, they can afford to be generous with donations. In fact, it may be cost effective to donate the e-readers and e-books rather than offer hardcovers for multiple subjects.

There is another swirl in the economic wind. Authors earn 70% royalties on e-books distributed directly through Amazon. Because authors get most of the purchase price, many more authors will earn a comfortable living when the e-book market matures. That means no day job and more time to create.

Is this a class revolt?

E-book only authors tend to be younger and more hip than their Dead Tree Book (DTB) counterparts, but they aren’t the only beneficiaries of the revolution. I went to Barnes & Noble to shop for the authors on my panel. Of the seven authors, the store carried books for only one. It is even less likely you’d find our books in a supermarket or a Walmart, but the playing field for e-books is conspicuously level. All seven of us have e-books available for download and this erodes the advantages of the mega bestselling authors. I predict that midlisters who embrace e-books and go independent will be among the biggest winners in this revolution.

E-books are also a proving ground for new talent. One of the panelists, Boyd Morrison, published The Ark on Kindle after being rejected by 25 traditional publishers. The Ark sold so well on Kindle that Boyd signed with Simon & Schuster. The Ark has received excellent placement and has been translated into several languages. Boyd’s success will encourage new writers to follow his path and publishers to scour e-books for the next Boyd Morrison.

Are e-books a creative revolution?

I’ve heard Tim Hallinan call e-books a creative revolution and I’m a believer. The simplicity and low cost of e-book distribution allow authors to publish books they want to write. This applies to new authors breaking into the market and established authors who want to try a new genre or a story publishers don’t find commercially viable.

This discussion sparked a firestorm during our panel. One author blanched when his sale of e-books on Amazon was called self-publishing. The term self-publishing ignites heated debate over the quality of the work and who has the right to bring books to market. Whatever your opinion on gatekeepers, the digital levy has been breached and the tsunami of electronic titles is out there waiting for you to dive in.

How do you view the revolution?

Have you used an e-reader? If not, what’s stopping you?

Footnote: After this post was written, two important pieces of e-book news were reported. PW reported e-book sales spiked 150% in September as compared to a 40% decline in hardcover sales. The NY Times also reported that it will begin a bestseller list for e-books in January. If you're an author not involved with e-books yet, here is your wake-up call.


CJ West is the author of 5 thrillers. His latest, The End of Marking Time has been called “a modern 1984 meets Prison Break.” CJ interviews thriller authors monthly on Blog Talk Radio. His first novel, Sin & Vengeance is in development for feature film by Beantown Productions, LLC. (

The End of Marking Time on Amazon Kindle

Sin & Vengeance on Amazon Kindle


  1. This is such a great topic, CJ. Very though-provoking. I hadn't really thought so directly about the "conspicuously level playing field", but that is such an excellent point. My only concern for E-books (aside from missing the physical reading experience of book in hands, but I don't think that'll ever go away completely) is books becoming a needle in a haystack.
    As in print publishing, it all comes down to marketing and promotion, exposure, and often, luck.

    But marketing and promotion will evolve as the digital revolution matures, so opportunities will be there, I'm sure.

  2. Hey, CJ! I love the idea of options, and I think having e-books available in addition to print editions of books is fabulous. But I am one of those traditionalists who will cling to my print books until they have to pry my skeletal fingers from them. I love the smell of books, the feel of the pages in my hands, just so many tactile things about them that strike a chord in me the way that a Kindle or Nook never will. I understand the joy of being able to pack 500 books into an electronic format, but I don't care about that. So while it makes a difference to some, that's not my worry. And I understand, too, that many authors are able to see their stories in readers' hands because of the wide open door policy of e-books. Hey, nothing wrong with having lots of choices! I do believe hardcovers might go the way of the dinosaur sooner than other print formats because it's too expensive when you can buy e-books much more cheaply. However, I figure at least several generations will have to die off before e-books kill off print books entirely (thank heavens!). So until then, I'm going to keep buying paper...and keep writing print books (that are also available as e-books!), too. :-)
    --Susan McBride
    Paperback Dinosaur

  3. Thanks so much for having me Gang!


    So much of creating a successful book is luck! I do think that e-books give writers a much better chance to deliver their work to readers and let them decide. In the near future readers will have a much larger say in what is sold in electronic form. I can see this happening already with supporters recommending my work to others who buy it instantly.

    Print books will be here for a very long time, but e-books present a tremendous opportunity that can't be ignored. I hear hostility toward e-books from a lot of people who love their paper books, but e-books are encouraging readers to read more and to read lesser-known titles. This is a great thing for writers.


  4. I bought an e-reader long before the Kindle and its successors appeared on the market (and it cost about 1/4 of what the original Kindle did). I was writing for 2 e-publishers, and I wanted to be able to read works by my fellow authors. I fell in love with the convenience.

    Downside right now is that because of the upsurge of the 'fancy' models, it's becoming harder to find content for my dinosaur. So, when I found a new reader with the one feature I refused to sacrifice, I went and pre-ordered it, sight unseen. I absolutely HAVE to be able to read in bed at night without turning the light on; hence all the e-ink readers are immediately crossed off my list.

    Terry's Place
    Romance with a Twist--of Mystery

  5. Great post, C.J.!

    It's a shame that the term "self-published" is so often equated with "crappy" (yes, I picked up on the reference to the author who blanched :)).

    I say this knowing that many self-published authors don't put the effort they should into developing their writing skills.

    However, I don't think readers need an industry gatekeeper to tell them what's good and what isn't.

    This is why all the hubbub about the onslaught of crap from self-published ebook writers is really no big deal. At least, it shouldn't be any bigger deal than dealing with the onslaught of crap published by the Big Six. :)

  6. I started with a Rocket eReader too and loved it. Have a Kindle now and except for the fact you must have a light on to read, I love it.

    I've been e-published way back when this all began. I sat in on the e-book panel at Bouchercon and felt like the panel members really didn't know a whole lot about e-books even though some of them had books on Kindle.

    Your post was far better than the panel.


  7. Great post!

    I'm one of those midlist authors who has embraced e-books and is finally making a living as a result. I haven't gone e-book only yet, because there is no downside to making print books available to readers who prefer them.

    Personally, I still read both kind of books.

  8. CJ, first of all let me say here that I'm very much looking forward to reading your book--it is next on my Pile. Second, you put this discussion in succinct and thought-provoking terms.

    I am a print book lover. I love books and bookstores. When/if my book is published, I want to go to as many bookstores with it as I can. If I meet readers, great; if I meet booksellers perhaps that's even greater.

    Yet everything you say makes perfect sense. I can imagine digital devices affording exactly the benefits you describe and revolutionizing what it means to be published. One question I have is whether the ease of e publishing will make the sheer difficulty of being published by a major more valuable. Or, conversely, will the level playing field you describe, with the Boyds and the Karen McQuestions rising to the top, prove that the majors simply miss too much to be deemed valuable at all?

  9. @LJ, you are my hero! What you are doing with ebooks and print books is fabulous. I don't see any reason not to offer as many formats as possible.

    @Jenny, I hope you enjoy TEOMT. The problem with the big six is that they can only publish a tiny fraction of the work that is out there. There is no disputing their marketing muscle, but we need other voices to rise up and identify great work. Those voices will be the next big boost to this industry.