Indie Booksellers Need to Reject “Status” Quo

By Elizabeth Burton, Executive Editor, Zumaya Publications LLC

Most bookstores still don’t consider eBooks “real.” They see them as a sales gimmick (hence the “bundled” concept where an eBook and a print book are sold together). They aren’t geared mentally to coming up with the kind of marketing ideas for eBooks they can for print because in many cases booksellers don’t read eBooks, have no intention of reading eBooks, etc., etc., etc.

When they start thinking of eBooks separately from print, as if it were, say, a line of stationery or a fancy bookmark, they’ll be in a better position to take advantage of the potential revenue stream. The problem is, most of them also seem to hate the idea that books are products, so there’s a second layer of resistance to that concept.

In this sense, eBooks are more like music than books. It’s not about the tactile pleasures of turning pages or sniffing ink. It’s about entertainment, period. I’m not talking about multi-media digital books here–just the entertainment we avid readers derive from reading in and of itself. The joy of words and stories and characters.

Both booksellers and mainstream publishing have the same basic problem: they’re trying to fit eBooks (and, to a lesser degree, on-demand printing) into the status quo, and it won’t work. I sighed during Digital Book World’s recent webinar discussing how indie booksellers might benefit from eBooks  and POD, when a representative from Vroman’s commented several times that the Espresso Book Machine costs $100K, and how it would take ten years to make that back, by which time the technology would have changed drastically.

Yes, an EBM is a big investment, but like every major infrastructure investment the idea is to come up with ways to maximize revenue to provide a good return. For example, small community organizations that lack big budgets but would love to be able to have a cookbook to sell as a fundraiser. They might lack the funds to pay for even a digital short run, but having the file loaded on the local EBM would mean they could obtain as many copies or as few as they wanted at any given time.

However, in discussing the issue, everything the gentleman from Vroman’s said practically screamed that he wasn’t getting beyond “how we do things now” to “how we could be doing other things and making money.”

From my perspective, of course, the frustrating point was that once again a means by which my authors could gain entry into bookstores was rejected, even though that means addresses all of the previously applied arguments against stocking our books–notably our general refusal to accept returns. I’ve often wondered how many small bookstores who rely heavily on credit from returns have actually calculated the cost of pulling them from the shelves and packaging them.

A small bookstore willing to invest in an EBM can literally increase their stock by thousands of books very few other bookstores have.

If the goal is to make money, then how is having the ability to recommend little-known titles and produce the book in 15 minutes not an advantage? And if, as the booksellers insist repeatedly, they exist to connect customers to new and undiscovered authors, why is there such resistance to expanding their horizons to include established, reputable publishers with books of proven quality solely because of the way those books are produced?

The Harlequin Horizons subsidy press uproar, in particular the response of the writers’ groups, was no surprise to those of us in the POD trenches. Everything about digital publishing challenges the status quo–and the emphasis there is on “status.”

Getting that New York publishing contract has become the brass ring for writers, and many of those who manage to get theirs seem to feel as though anyone’s managing to attain the goal any other way somehow diminishes their accomplishment.

Do I think the Horizons business was handled badly? Unquestionably. Do I think it’s a good idea? Absolutely. It’s hard making a buck in publishing, and business decisions have to be made on the basis of what’s good for the company, not whether said decision is going to violate some artificially derived “standard” of the industry established by third parties.

After all, if all the publishers go out of business, all the authors will have to–dare we say it?–self-publish.

My goal as a writer is to be read. If I make money at it, too, that’s all the better, but I don’t feel I need the approval of anyone other than the people who buy my work and read it and enjoy it. If other writers feel the need to barricade themselves behind arbitrary standards and insist those standards are the only “real” path to publication, they’re welcome to do so.

The irony is that, since I’m also an acquiring editor, I know full well how heavily personal tastes determine what books get past those vaunted guardians, and as a publisher I know how commercial viability has to be considered. I’m also aware that the determination of what’s commercially viable is as subjective in many ways as defining a great book.

When I’m presented the argument that self-publishing or print on demand are de facto vanity publishing, I usually refer to an anecdote about Abraham Lincoln.

Lincoln was once called upon to defend a man accused of breaking into a neighbor’s chicken coop and stealing chickens. There was no solid evidence against the alleged thief, but the victim of the theft and the prosecutor insisted there was no doubt he was guilty because everyone knew the defendant was a thief.

When it came time for Lincoln to cross-examine the accuser, he asked the man, “How many legs does a cow have?“

“Four, of course,” the farmer replied.

“And if we called the cow’s tail a leg, how many would it have then?”

“Why, five,” said the farmer.

“Well, no,” Lincoln said, “it would still only have four, because calling a cow’s tail a leg doesn’t make it one. And calling a man a thief doesn’t make him one either.”

The jury’s verdict? Not guilty.

Yes, POD and eBooks have allowed subsidy presses to sprout like toadstools after a rain, but authors and booksellers who dismiss the technology as if it defines end results are limiting not only the possibilities for previously unpublished writers but their own as well. Calling a legitimate publisher who uses an inventory-free business model a subsidy press or an author mill solely because they operate differently from the mainstream model doesn’t make them either one.

Elizabeth K. Burton is a former journalist, published novelist and editor who in 2003 was plunged head-first into the business of digital publishing. Zumaya Publications LLC in Austin TX has published more than 100 works of fiction and nonfiction printed on demand and available in non-DRM ebooks.

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  1. Malcolm

    If I were an indie bookseller I imagine I could come up with a lot smarter ideas than purchasing an EBM to get a return on $100 000. Your argument seems to presuppose that in the infinite cloud of books that aren’t deemed ‘worthy’ of mainstream publishing lies a revenue stream that can be exploited simply through making them available.

    Most Independent booksellers will tell you that apart from @launch, self-published and small press titles just can’t compete and simply making them more available won’t cut it.

    The problem with e… and in this case you really are still only referring to pBook as the EBM still delivers the printed product… is the consumer is located in the web. A bookstore might be the location of some sales but they are not a sustainable component, but act exactly as booksellers have said, as an add-on or bundle.

    We know the consumer will usually buy them online. The retail solutions suggested by retail are only there to keep the bookshop in the mind of the consumer so we continue to be a destination for recreational retail. Independent retail’s future lies in diversifying into lit events, lit merchandise and all the attendant activity you attract when the local writing community decides you are their community store.

    Independents do understand that for every dollar’s worth of return there is about a 15% cost. Independents do understand that they are just one gatekeeper in a chain of cultural arbiters that sometimes see good works languish.

    What they also realise is that simply offering the ability to purchase a wider range of books doesn’t diminish the role of the bookseller in selecting the range they display and offer.
    Having 100 000 title in a digital warehouse does not help a physical retailer sell them, they still have to select those that match most closely their customer base and then merchandise and display them… this is still retail after all.

    Absolutely rejct the status quo but don’t mistake which part of the business you are in. In the end I’ll borrow Lincoln from you and say simply calling something a lost opportunity doesn’t make it one

  2. A great post and lots to think about, for everyone. Writing may be a labour of love but the finished book is a product and if it can be sold in more than one form than that just makes it a better product. Thanks for sharing this post.

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