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Getting run down on the infobahn

It's not going out on much of a limb to predict that 2010 is, finally, the year of the ebook. A lot of electrons are going to be spilled trying to predict the winners on this frontier; the most likely, I think, are Apple (iPhone, iPad), Amazon (Kindle), Google (Books), and Ray Kurzweil (Blio). Note something about all those guys? Yes: none of them are publishers. Just like the music industry, publishers have left it to technology companies to invent their new medium for them.

Note something else about what those guys are not? Authors. Almost everything that's created in this world - books, newspapers, magazines, movies, games, advertising, music, even some industrially designed products - eventually goes back to one person sitting in a room with a blank sheet of paper trying to think up a compelling story.

Authors - and writers generally - used to have a hard but easy job: deliver a steady stream of publishable work, and remuneration will probably happen. Publishers sold books; authors just wrote them. One of my friends, a science fiction writer contractually bound to HarperCollins, used to refer to Rupert Murdoch as "the little man who publishes my books for me". That happy division of labor did not, of course, provide all, or even most writers with a full-time living. But the most important thing authors want is for their work to be noticed; publishers could make that happen.

Things have been changing for some time. It's fifteen years since authors of my acquaintance began talking about the need to hire your own publicist because unless you had a very large (six figures and up) advance most mainstream publishers would not consider your book worth spending money and effort to market it much beyond sending out a press release. Even copy-editing is falling by the wayside, as a manuscript submitted electronically can now feed straight into a typesetting system without the human intervention that gave pause for rethought.

"Everyone's been seeing their royalty statements shrink," a friend observed gloomily last week. He made, 20 years ago, what then seemed an intelligent career decision: to focus on writing reference books because they had a consistent market among people who really needed them, and they would have a continuing market in regular updates. And that worked great until along came Wikipedia online dictionaries and translation engines and government agency Web sites and blogs and picture galleries, and now, he says, "People don't buy reference books any more." I am no exception: all the reference books on the shelves behind my desk are at least 15 years old. About 10 percent are books I'd buy today if I didn't already have them.

So this is also the year in which the more far-seeing authors get to figure out what their future business models are going to be. An author with a business plan? Who ever heard of such a thing? The nearest thing to that in my acquaintance is the science fiction writer Charles Stross; he is smarter about the economic and legal workings of publisher than anyone I've ever met or heard speak at a conference. And even he is asking for suggestions.

First of all, there's the Google Books settlement, which is so complicated that I imagine hardly any of the authors whose works the settlement is a settlement of can stand to read the whole thing. The legal scholar and MacArthur award winner Pamela Samuelson has written a fine explanation of the problems; authors had until January 28 to opt out or object. This isn't over yet: the US Justice Department still doesn't like the terms.

We can also expect more demarcation disputes like this week's spat between Amazon and Macmillan, discussed intelligently by Stross here, here, and here, with an analysis of the scary economics of the Kindle here. The short version: Macmillan wants Amazon to pay more for the Kindle versions of its books, and Amazon threw Macmillan's books out of its .com pram. Caught in the middle are a bunch of very pissed-off authors, who are exercising their rights in the only way they can: by removing links to Amazon and substituting links to the competition: Barnes and Noble and independent booksellers including the wonderful Portland, Oregon stalwart, Powells.

To be fair, removing the "buy new" button from all of the Macmillan listings on Amazon.com (Amazon.co.uk seems to be unaffected) doesn't mean you can't buy the books. In general, you simply click on a different link and buy the book from a marketplace seller rather than Amazon itself. Amazon doesn't care: according to its SEC filings, the company makes roughly the same profit whoever sells the book via its site.

It's times like these when you want to remember the Nobel Laureate author Doris Lessing's advice to all writers: "And it does no harm to repeat, as often as you can, 'Without me, the literary industry would not exist: the publishers, the agents, the sub-agents, the sub-sub agents, the accountants, the libel lawyers, the departments of literature, the professors, the theses, the books of criticism, the reviewers, the book pages - all this vast and proliferating edifice is because of this small, patronized, put-down, and underpaid person.'"

Wendy M. Grossman's Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of the earlier columns in this series.


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