Zombi Authors and the Death of Publishing

I just visited Project Gutenberg looking for books from the American Colonial period and just beyond. The other day I’d found and downloaded an encyclopedia of “useful information” published in 1889, which had fascinating stuff in it. One article, for example, reflected the scientific thought of the day about the origin of oil—and did so without mentioning dinosaurs at all. Books like this are great for getting in to the mindset of folks back then—a critical skill for any writer.

As with any Internet search, clicking one link led to clicking another. I clicked on the category link for Science Fiction. I had page after page of listings for books and short stories by authors whose names I recognized. These were books that I’d seen as fifty-cent paperbacks on racks in bookstores. These were authors I’d actually seen in person. Heck, one was an author I’d spoken to on Wednesday! There had to have been at least 250 novels by authors like Philip K. Dick or H. Beam Piper for which I’d paid good money in print editions and enjoyed thoroughly. Their presence on Project Gutenberg—from which they can be downloaded for free—is a boon to any SF fan who wants to convert his physical library to digital.

These books are even a greater boon to anyone wishing to provide science fiction to younger readers. I was twelve years old when I started devouring the Edgar Rice Burroughs novels. If I remember correctly, there were sixty-some-odd books between the Tarzan, Mars and other series, and I bought every single one. Sure, they’re pulpy, but they’re good reading fun—just the kind of book to take care of rainy summer days, cold winter nights, or those long family car trips. The OZ books by L. Frank Baum are there, too; and a whole bunch of the Tom Swift novels.

Digging around in Project Gutenberg’s archives is like diving into those boxes of books in your grandparents’ attic. You won’t recognize everything, but you’ll find some incredible gems. Whether you want to reread the books out of nostalgia or fill in the gaps with books you missed, they’re there for you. And while material written in the first half of the 20th century might read as dated, lots of it won’t, and the newer material is just as good as it would be if you snagged it in a store or at a garage sale.

It’s this last point that should terrify publishers. Looking at that list of science fiction books, I saw at least a hundred which I would be more than happy to read. I saw many more that I figure I should read, just to bring me up to speed on the history of my genre. I don’t have to pay a single cent for them, and as long as I have them in my reading queue, I don’t need to purchase anything new.

So, let’s do the math. Let’s say parents buy a twelve-year-old an ebook reader. Even if he devours a book a day during the summer, and two books every week (my old reading rate) during the school year, it would still take him over two years to consume everything Project Gutenberg is offering. And Project Gutenberg (as well as other Internet sites) keep increasing their inventory all the time. Add to that the free samples new authors will be making available on the Internet, and this new SF fan might never need to buy a book for the life of his ebook reader. (And gone are the days when you have to snag a paperback of a classic for English class. They’re all in public domain, so you can get them online for free, too!)

The picture actually gets worse for publishers. They have a narrow window of books for which they’ve purchased the ebook rights. Judging by the contracts I have, they didn’t start considering the possibility of needing them until the mid-90s—at least as far as SF/Fantasy is concerned. While they’re making attempts to buy up or claim the rights to much of the backlist they’ve published, their window is closing. Even if an author were to sell the ebook rights to his published work, he still has the option of writing new work and making that available for sale on the Internet. Every sale an author makes directly to a reader, is one less book they need to buy from a publisher.

Publishers, who are basing their projections for the growth of the ebook market on their own sales of ebooks, are missing the free books in public domain, and the direct sales. In short, their numbers are numbers which are valid within their publishing bubble, but do not take into account the economy outside their control. While that external market might not be generating too much pressure yet, I think it will become significant. After all, if someone spends $150 or more on an ebook reader, they’ll want to fill that box with ebooks fast. Getting public domain books is a great way to do this, easing any pressure they feel to amass a library to justify their purchase.

You might think that authors would be threatened by this availability of free work, but we needn’t be. Unlike publishers, who are middle-men, authors are creating content. Our inventory window is not shrinking. As we make work available at reasonable prices, we make the purchase of new material attractive. Without argument, free is better than $2 or $5, but $5 isn’t a whole heck of a lot, especially in the area of an impulse purchase of work by an author you like. As long as authors are willing to make their work available economically, and find ways to market it, they’ll be able to make a living and then some.

I could go on in their vein for a long time. I know I’ll revisit the subject soon. For now, however, I have some reading to do…

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One Response to “Zombi Authors and the Death of Publishing”

  1. I, too, am going back to look at the earlier stuff. Pulp the ERB stuff might be but it is well written. I was amazed at how “not well written” A Study in Scarlet was. Will still go after other Conan Doyle stories, of course, but ERB is winning the day of the old stuff.