Friday, 21 September 2012

Nothing new under the sun

By Peter Stuart Smith (AKA Max Adams, James Barrington, James Becker, Tom Kasey, Thomas Payne and Jack Steel)

There’s been one interesting development reported in the press recently which again serves to underline the widening gap between conventional – paperback and hardback – publication and electronic media. According to USA Today, the bestselling American author Tess Gerritsen released a mini e-book in advance of her new novel, published in August. The ‘teaser’ e-book, for want of a better expression, sold for only $1.99, making it a true impulse purchase, and was clearly intended to both appeal to her large existing readership so that they would have something else to read ahead of the publication of her novel, and also provide a cheap e-book that would allow people who’d never read a Gerritsen book to sample her writing and see if they liked it.
            The beauty of this kind of exercise, of course, is that the time taken between an author or publisher deciding that a novella or mini e-book is a good idea, to the finished work being available on Amazon can literally be a matter of a day or so after the manuscript has been completed. Contrast that with the length of time it would take a conventional publisher to achieve the same thing. Granted, my first published novel was a fairly weighty tome, well over 100,000 words, but that was delivered as a finished manuscript to the publisher in May 2003, and the book was finally released in August 2004, almost a year and a half later.
            The ability to react quickly and produce a book at short notice is completely beyond the ability of most publishing houses, and this is in no way their fault. The extended timescale is forced upon them by the various processes which are involved in the printing and publication of any book. The only time publishers do release a book quickly is for works like biographies which are issued a very short time after the death of the subject. And this can only be achieved, of course, because the entire manuscript has already been written by the biographer, and the only things missing are the date and circumstances of the death of that person
            I think this kind of very reactive approach to publishing, of getting additional publications out on the streets very quickly, is something we’re going to see a lot more of in the future, and not just as teasers to bridge the gap between publication dates of major novels. For example, if a book proved to be unexpectedly popular, the author could release a short work explaining how he got the idea for the book, the time it took to write it, and other material of that nature. A controversial work could be followed by a kind of expanded author’s note, detailing the sources for the published information and the reason the writer and publisher felt it was important to place the material in the public domain.
            In short, I believe this very flexible approach to publication could actually start a whole new trend, and it could only be achieved because of the existence of the Kindle and other electronic readers.
            But the corollary of this new development, obviously, will be the widening of the existing gap between readers who like books and readers who like to read books on an electronic device. As well as the obvious and well publicised advantages of the Kindle and its electronic kin, this new aspect to publishing might serve to drive more people towards making the jump to an e-reader of some sort, with a consequent knock-on effect in the sales of conventional books. And, of course, that will be another blow that both publishers and bookshops will have to absorb.
            And there’s another possibility as well, a possibility that actually takes publishing around in something of a full circle. Perhaps authors could consider releasing their books in serial format, selling them cheaply as electronic downloads in tranches of three or four chapters at a time, which would allow new readers of their books to sample their storytelling ability at almost no cost. And, quite probably, even if the serialised sections were very modestly priced, the cost of the complete work could be far more than most books are selling for today as Kindle downloads.
If this happens, it really would be a return to the good old days, because authors such as Dickens and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle released many of their books in this way as a matter of course, publishing their novels in serial form in popular newspapers of the day.
            Perhaps in publishing, as in so many other fields, there really is nothing new under the sun …

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