August 12th, 2013 by Mike Fulton
Posted in Authors, eBook Publishing

Lately I’ve been working on moving most of my belongings into storage in preparation for a move. This has included the boxes and boxes of old paperbacks, Mostly science-fiction and fantasy. My favorite authors typically have their own storage boxes so that I can make at least some modest attempt at keeping everything organized and easy to find.

The other day I ran across the box with the books from Larry Niven. Larry Niven was one of my first “favorite authors” along with Robert Heinlein, Arthur C. Clarke, and Isaac Asimov. I stopped for a moment to have a look through the box and rediscovered old friends like Ringworld and the other Known Space novels and short story collections. It occurred to me to imagine how much I would enjoy reading these classics once again. With that in mind, I started browsing Amazon earlier this evening to see what was available in Kindle format and what the prices looked like.

I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised anymore when it turns out that some classic book like Ringworld is not available in e-book format, but as it turns out, I was still surprised! There were some books in Niven’s Known Space series, mostly the short story & novella collections, But novels like Ringworld, The Ringworld Engineers, and Protector were nowhere to be found.

I know these books are 30 to 40 years old, but it is simply nothing less than a crime to let them fade away like this, especially when so little effort is required to get them into the essentially immortal eBook format.

I realize that some older titles are not available in e-book format because of issues with the publishing rights. Perhaps the author has died and the heirs of the estate don’t even realize that the publishing rights have reverted. Or maybe the publisher doesn’t even know who owns the rights anymore.

However, it’s hard to believe that’s the case in situations like, for example, the David Eddings estate, which is worth millions of dollars. You can bet the people managing the estate know exactly what the publishing rights to his books are worth, and that it would be a good idea to make them available in eBook format, and yet most of his best-selling titles are not available in the US as e-book.

I’m sure there are some situations where it’s a genuine puzzle to figure everything out. I am equally sure that the publishers are rarely making much of an effort to try.

I was also a little disappointed, although again, not really surprised, to see that the prices for the eBook editions from that period of Larry Niven’s career were right up there the same with new release paperbacks. I was maybe, just a little bit surprised. Because recently I’ve seen a trend where older releases are getting ever so slightly discounted by a dollar or two here and there. I suspect in many cases, this is because the author has regained the publishing rights for these older titles, and has self-published them.

That leaves me to an interesting idea. Once a writer has become reasonably well-known, or at least has gained enough of a following to make a living at being a writer, it really doesn’t make any sense for them to live under the thumb of the traditional publishing houses anymore. They can self publish a book on Amazon at half the price of what a publisher would put it out for, and still make more money per copy than the traditional publishing contract would give them.

Publishers really need to buy a clue and get with the idea that it’s not the 19th century anymore. The business model for publishing books needs to evolve, just like the business model for music has evolved. One of the biggest changes in the music market that came about as a result of digital publishing was the realization of how much of the market had to do with sales from the back catalog, as compared with new releases.

When digital music publishing started to take over, one of the less obvious changes was the fact that all the records for all the sales were on computer now. You no longer had to rely on questionable inventory or sales figures taken by hand by workers in record stores. Before you could easily get an idea for how a brand-new release was selling simply by tracking the shipments from the warehouse, but you might not have any idea how well old titles were selling because they were existing inventory that had shipped to the record stores years earlier. Unless it was a perennial bestseller, like Pink Floyd or Led Zeppelin, and had to be reordered from time to time, record companies simply didn’t know how well or how poorly the older titles were selling.

But when digital music publishing got started, sales information was available instantly, and with near perfect accuracy. The publishers could now see exactly how well the old titles were selling. And it turned out that the back catalog titles were generating much more income than anybody had realized.

Book publishers don’t seem to have realized that yet. You would think they would have noticed how well stores like Half Price Books are doing, selling mostly used books, in an era when retailers like Borders Books are going bankrupt and Barnes & Noble is struggling to keep their doors open. A big reason for the continuing popularity of used bookstores is the availability of older titles that are no longer in print and therefore no longer available through the main retail channels.

They don’t seem to recognize the sales potential in older titles. There are certain exceptions, like for example Frank Herbert’s Dune manages to come out in some sort of new edition or another on a fairly regular basis, so I’m sure the publisher knows that book, at least, is worth worrying about.

With eBooks, there’s no reason for older titles to be “out of print”. Even if the text of the book is not already available in computer readable form, it only takes a few hours with a book scanner to make it so. From there it’s just a matter of proof reading and a bit of computer work to create the eBook files. The cost per title is minimal, and the break-even point is fairly low.

It took the music industry many years to get a handle on digital publishing and figure it out, but these days they seem to have it figured out for the most part. Here’s hoping that book publishers trip over a clue sometime soon and don’t take quite so long to figure it out.

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