Print vs. Electronic: Why the E-book Revolution won’t Die

On Tuesday, Michael T. Nickerson blogged about the supposed crash of the e-book revolution. He correctly asserted that the forthcoming death of the revolution was so much hooey.

I want to explain why he’s right, but it’s going to take a brief venture into some history.

Eleven years ago, I was part of another boom market in publishing. Wizards of the Coast had just released the third edition of the iconic role-playing game, Dungeons & Dragons. It was an overnight success.

Borrowing from the software industry, Wizards constructed an open license that allowed third-party publishers to produce royalty-free support books. Known as “the d20 license,” this experiment caused a tidal wave of D&D-compatible adventures, settings, and sourcebooks. Some came from established companies, many more from heretofore unheard-of start-ups.

In the earliest days of the d20 license, anything with a d20 logo on it sold like bread to starving people. If you were a retailer or a distributor, you didn’t even have to try to sell it. Just put it out, and it vanished while your register filled with cash. The early-adopter publishers made a ton of cash too, and, consequently, more and more of them cropped up, each foisting their own vision of D&D supplements on the market.

It didn’t take long before the pace became unsustainable. Every month, hundreds of new D&D books entered the chain. Sales of individual units shrank dramatically. Publishers began calling for distributors and retailers to act as gatekeepers, only letting the good stuff through (there was a lot of badly written, badly edited tripe coming out). Distributors replied that the market would sort it out. Retailers stopped buying d20 books unless it was from a company they knew their customers would purchase or they got a special request.

Eventually, the rapid proliferation of d20 product choked the market until only a few publishers survived. Several distributors and many retailers, their shelves clogged with unsaleable merchandise bought so that “the market could sort out the winners,” went out of business, sorted out by their own lack of vision. In the space of four years, the market for new d20 books was dead, and it had been suffocating since mid-2001, less than a year after it was born.

This is the same apocalyptic scenario being proffered by those who claim the e-book revolution is dying. There will be too many books by too many hacks that the market will fail.

This is absolutely wrong for two very important reasons. First, in the d20 boom there were winners beyond the publishers who survived: consumers. Whether those of us who were publishing the books wanted to admit it or not, it was a great time to be a D&D player. Nearly every week, something new appeared on retailers’ shelves. There was an almost infinite selection of products to choose from. Players had options like they’d never had before.

Second, and much more importantly, the d20 boom and bust was caused by print. POD technology was just emerging then, and it only helped the publishers. The distributors and retailers still had to buy the stock and put it on their shelves. Like any bust, the money invested in product did not turn into enough sales. It sat there and took up space and couldn’t be used for anything else. Books that were never going to sell choked distributors’ and retailers’ (and to a lesser extent publishers’) cash flow.

That simply isn’t the case with e-books. It costs Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Smashwords, and other aggregators and online retailers NOTHING but memory space to stock an e-book. They don’t have to pay a buyer to order it. They don’t have to rent warehouse space to store it. They don’t have to pay to have it shipped. And they certainly don’t have to pay the publisher to stock it. They just list it. IF someone orders it, THEN they have to pay the publisher a cut of the sale.

There is absolutely no risk in the system for the purveyors of electronic books. Risk is absorbed completely by the publisher. And given that most publishers are independent authors investing a few hundred dollars or less in each book, the risk really isn’t very high.

And, again, there was a winner in the d20 boom/bust, and it’s the same winner the e-book revolution creates: the consumer. Lower costs of doing business equals a lower bar to entry, which creates a) more options for readers and b) cheaper books. Both of those things add up to higher sales, which means more profits — both for the retailers and the publishers.

So when I read that Raine Thomas has sold enough copies of her “Daughters of Saraqael” trilogy in just three months of e-publishing to be able to live off her earnings, or that Jennifer N. Simas‘s debut novel, Until Dawn: Last Light is racing up Amazon’s Kindle bestseller list, or that Derek Blass is receiving critical acclaim and media exposure for his debut thriller, Enemy in Blue, I am having a hard time believing the e-book crash is coming. What’s going down is not sales of e-books but the price of e-readers.

The e-revolution is here. The market factors that killed other print revolutions are not in play. It’s a great time to be a reader . . . and an author.


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