Aliske Webb has been an unpublished author, a self-published author, a NYC published author and is now the Publisher of Bookmice.com, a royalty-paying electronic publisher of quality fiction and nonfiction. Her email address is: firstname.lastname@example.org
This month: Browsers vs Browsers - Many e-publishers make effective use of Web space by placing varying amounts of the e-book on their site as a sample. How much does an Internet-surfing e-book reader expect to see as a sample, and how much does a publishThe idea that publishers should providing the same kind of relaxed "cafe" for the book browsing public as the bricks and mortar type of establishment is a concept we've become familiar with. There are those who abuse that system and simply sit and read a whole book for free and never buy--sort of like sitting at the public library only you can drink Starbucks coffee while you read. One supposes that the Barnes & Nobles of the world have factored in this scenario and count on the fact that most people in bookstores will eventually buy enough books to offset the free-loaders and that certainly must be the case since they are still in business.
A recent unofficial poll asked the question of "how much" does an internet-surfing e-book reader expect to see as a sample, and how much does a publisher feel obliged to provide. The results indicated that an average of one to three chapters is a reasonable amount of material to provide. One supposes if you haven't figured out whether you like the content or the author's style of writing by then, you probably never will. And sales seem to indicate that where sample chapters are provided, people are more inclined to buy rather than just buying blind on a cover artwork or descriptive blurb.
A very emotional debate took place recently within writer's circles about the iUniverse situation. Some writers were shocked and appalled to find that their entire manuscripts were on the site for anyone to read free of charge or on some sort of "honor system" very similar to the cafe/bookstore idea. (In this column I won't address the issue of why the authors in question would sign a contract not understanding what the terms were and how their book was going to be distributed, I'll deal with contract terms later.)
The position of iUniverse appears to be that people will be honest and pay for what they read. What is missing in this equation is the understanding of fundamental human nature. In a bricks and mortar establishment there is a strong psychological pressure (however subtle) on people to eventually move on out of the store or to buy something. Psychological studies of "honesty" in people indicate that most people are in fact honest in public situations. You know the type of hidden camera study, if someone finds a "planted" wallet in a public place where others are present they are more likely to turn it in than if they find it in a place where no one is apparently observing them. It is sad but true.
With the Internet and browsers sitting in their pajamas surfing our electronic bookstores, there is no moral suasion in effect and a far greater risk of temptation to merely bookmark a location and return again and again until the book is read. And this behavior is subliminally reinforced by the amount of information that is freely available on the net. We may be in danger of creating an expectation in the minds of people that if it is on the net, it is free or it should be free. The public clearly understands the value in a shredded-tree book with its costs of production, storage and distribution, but many people don't yet understand the invisible costs of electronic publishing and marketing, much less appreciate that writers need to feed their families also. The Internet is a far fuzzier concept in most people's minds.
While I personally applaud the Project Gutenberg endeavor of putting all public domain books into electronic format available for access by anyone--this is a wonderful step toward global literacy, which we whole-heartedly support--we need to clearly differentiate between the libraries of the Net and the commercial businesses of publishing on the Net. This may be harder to create in the minds of the e-book reading public. There are people who will argue that the creation of free public libraries did not kill the publishing industry. But public libraries, while free, are not anywhere near as easily accessible as an Internet connection in someone's home or office. And most people wouldn't even consider stealing a library book, yet wouldn't think twice about "keeping" that e-book with a virtual perpetual bookmark.
There is no doubt that with easy internet publishing capability, many authors will choose to simply put their books out there for free anyway--idealists perhaps who would just prefer to be read rather than concerned with being paid and that in itself is an interesting philosophical position to take. Is that ultimately where this explosion of information technology is going to take us? Global Free Information? A Star Trek-sort of idealist scenario? (We took the first step toward that when we built the first free public library predicated on the ideal that books/information should be free.) And if that is the case, how do authors maintain a "professional" status (much less a livelihood). In the future, will there even be a discrete job description labeled "writer"? Or will everyone in the course of their job functioning also become a "writer" about his or her work experience?
With every good thing there is also the darker flip side. Free e-books may well herald the dawn of global literacy in previously unimaginable ways, and may also be the beginning of the ultimate end for publishing houses and the profession of writing. In the meantime, the transition period will be a stormy and painful one for many.