Wednesday, February 25, 2009

GUEST - Deborah Smith

From Debra Dixon: Soooo long ago when I was trying to decide what I wanted to be when I "grew up" as a writer, I decided I wanted to be the love child of Stephen Hunter, Deborah Smith and Tami Hoag. All I knew of Deborah Smith was that she could sling words that were so deeply human and true that her books piled up on my keeper shelves. Then in a twist of fate, Bantam bought a book of mine and I found myself at a fancy restaurant. Eating dinner with Tami Hoag, Deborah Smith, Iris Johansen. I said nothing and just smiled. Terrified.

Halfway through desert, Deborah Smith "yipped" (she yips) and said, "OMG. Who's desert coffee is this?" It was my coffee but I was too scared to say anything when she stole it from the waitress, who--I'm sure--thought Deb would hand it to me.

That was the beginning. Today she's the dearest of friends and I scramble to keep up with her mind. I hope you'll all join her in a rousing discussion. She loves to wrestle with ideas. So, you chime right in with your thoughts!

I have seen the future of books, and they will have a lot in common with my great grandpa's wooden-framed writing slate. He toted his slate (which I've inherited) every day of his boyhood to a one-room schoolhouse in the mountains above Atlanta, circa 1870. Great-grandpa Robert, who was named after Confederate General Robert E. Lee, (my great-great grandpa Kimbrough, Robert's father, was an infantry sharpshooter under Lee's command) could chalk no more than a few words or perform simple arithmetic ciphers on his little five-by-seven rectangle of smooth gray slate. And then, with a simple movement of his hand, those images could be erased.

You could say it was the original beta tester for an ebook reader.

A few minutes ago, as I started to write this blog on an entirely different subject, Jeff Bezos, head of, sat down on the TV screen across from my coffee-table-propped feet to be interviewed by Jon Stewart on The Daily Show.

And he handed Stewart the new Kindle.

I gaped at it. I'd never seen one in the flesh before, meaning on TV, not a still photo. So there it was. The size of great grandpa's boyhood writing slate. A screen inside a delicate white frame, at most one-half-inch thick (I bet I could slide it under a closed door) and small enough to tuck inside most purses, fanny packs, or the average Bible, if you wanted to secretly download the Sunday comics during church.

"You can download an entire book in sixty seconds," Bezos told Jon.

Jeff Bezos wasn't what I expected as the big kahuna of the massive online bookstore that's re-defining how we shop and read. He looks like a cross between Howie Mandel, Peewee Herman and a barista at a really trendy coffee bar: Slight, bald, hip, in slender pants, a black pullover and a simple jacket, but with a big, disturbingly confident laugh. He guffawed at least once every fifteen seconds at Jon's jokes. His laugh sounded so happy and boyish. Is he Satan in slick threads or an adorably successful elf?

I was still recovering from the "download a book in sixty seconds" announcement as Bezos went on to say that the Amazon Kindle books are all 9.95 (cheaper than most print books, he pointed out) and the latest Kindle model will hold fifteen hundred books.

The Kindle is wireless (and Amazon doesn't charge users for the wifi connection,) its battery will last up to two weeks without re-charging, and it will read aloud to you. "Is it like one of those robot voices?" Jon asked, to which a chortling Bezos admitted it was -- for now. Neither Jon nor Bezos mentioned the Authors Guild's recent challenge of Amazon's ability to, in essence, create audiobooks without paying the authors or the publishers for those rights.

But Jon did note, "Uh, publishers are worried about people being able to pirate books with this."

Bezos breezily dismissed that concern. Publishers have the option of encrypti ng their books to protect them, he said, not mentioning that Digital Rights Management is considered the clunky Frankenstein of the ebook world and is fading away quickly. In other words, readers want NO hindrance to their ability to transfer their Kindle books to other readers or share them with friends. And Bezos surely knows that.

"We're finding that people are buying more books because of the Kindle," Bezos said. "They're buying more books and they're reading more." I assume he said that to reassure us book industry worrywarts that just because Kindle is lowering the value of the content authors create, *and* making it easier for readers to steal that content, *and* preparing to undercut the value of audio rights for books, that we'll make up the losses in volume sales.

"But I like the feel of a book on my chest when I fall asleep in bed," Jon pointed out. (Warning: paraphrase alert in effect.)

"You can do that with the Kindle," Bezos told him. "And you only need one hand to hold it."

The audience hooted and Jon moaned lecherously, "Ohhhhh, The Great Gatsby."

Then Bezos told him the Kindle's retail price. $359.

Jon stared at him. "And on top of that I still have to pay for the books I download?"

"Yeah," Bezos chortled.

Jon flipped the Kindle at him with comic disgust.

Okay, so . . . cute interview. But serious subject. The experts think we really are on the cusp of "Ebook Nation," a time when the always-a-bridesmaid-never-a-bride digital book finally catches the eye of the mainstream audience. Good news or bad news or both for the book world?

Readers are clamoring to remove all encryptions that hamper their use of the files. Pirated copies are zooming all over the world in increasing numbers. A whole bunch of "new media" gurus are calling for ebooks to be sold at a fraction of the price of print books, and there's even a respected school of thought that says ALL digital content -- books, articles, music, etc. should be free. Absolutely free.

I'm not sure how that rationale works. The "free for all" folks merrily insist we publishers and authors can come up with some nifty new ways to make money off our content other than charging people for the privilege of reading our stories. But so far none of the "Free the Books" crowd has displayed even a remotely accurate understanding of the costs of publishing -- costs that will remain whether the book is digital or print -- and so far, the suggestions for how to make money without asking readers to pay for anything have amounted to vague and ridiculously naive ideas based on the belief that, Golly gee, most people will be happy to contribute money to authors if authors are really really nice to them.

So I'm thinking about my great grandpa's writing slate some more. Maybe I'll go get it out of the display cabinet next to Grandma's wire-framed glasses and Great Aunt Ruby's hat pin.

Maybe I can stand on street corners, a tin can for tips at my feet, holding up my antique ebook with these words chalked on it.



Helen Brenna said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Helen Brenna said...

Oh, and WELCOME, Deb!! Thanks for visiting with us again!

Betina Krahn said...

Deb, welcome!! So good to have you here!

I saw the Bezos appearance on Daily show and thought his constant, hee-haw-ing laugh was bizarre. I wondered if he was ON something. I laughed a lot at his comments and Stewart's comebacks. And the one-handed read thing-- waaaay reminiscent of the days when the Rendezvous magazine gave a "for fun" award for the Best One-handed Romance Read. (Yes, I was there, in person!)

I personally am confused. I love the idea of the Kindle. I was on a plane recently where I struck up a conversation with a guy who was using one and when he found out I was an author, he looked me up on the spot and bought and DOWNLOADED one of my books before my eyes! I was dumfounded. Also a little humbled. I felt so close to the new technology. Like I had been knighted by The Goddess of the Future. sniff.

But now that you mention it, I have no idea if I got any kind of royalty from that transaction. Except that Bantam usually finds a way to get their money-- which means I probably did get royalties on that sale.

And yes, there is a trend toward Freebie-ing Everything that has ever been or could ever be on the internet. Intellectual property is so heavily pirated these days that it's a wonder anyone is still making money at publishing. And so many writers are giving their works away for free on the internet. . . well, that's a comment I'd better keep to myself.

And I had a slate like that, too. Wonder where my tin cup is. . .

Michele Hauf said...

Welcome Debra!
I am the proud owner of a Kindle (Version 1, though doesn't #2 look nummy?) I must say I have about 90% free books on my Kindle right now because I'm always looking for a bargain, and there are great 'legal' sights online that offer a lot of copyright free classics to download. I downloaded The THree Musketeers (I collect that book; now I have it in eVersion!), the complete library of Memoirs of Casanova (310 volumes; gasp!) and there are also publishers who will once in a while give away a free eBook (Harlequin giving away 16 right now!)

Anyway, I love the technology. I was one of those "I'll never read an eBook". Even though I've been ePublishing since '98, and always wanted a toe in that part of the industry so I could know what was up with that.

I will never stop reading paper books. Some books you just have to buy for the pretty cover. And coffee table books, well, 'nuf said. But some new-to-me-authors are now on my Kindle. You can download a 'sample' to read first before deciding to buy the whole book. I love that option. And yes, it's nice to read with one hand and prop the other behind your head when reading in bed. Just one thumb to turn the page. And wherever you are (took it on a trip to Las Vegas recently) you can select any book from your library to read, whatever you're in the mood for. So cool.

Do I think this is going to make the pirating of eBooks more rampant? It's already rampant; I don't think this will make it that much worse. I do honestly believe some of the eBooks should be priced lower by the larger publishers. If they've already went to the expense of putting the book out in hardcover or paperback, what then, is the additional expense of doing a digital version? I think it's much smaller for a big house than a smaller press.

My Nocturne Bites sell for $2.99 for a 10K word story. I think that's outrageous. I'd be happier with a .99 cent price point.

Whew! Talking too much here. Love the Kindle. Can't say enough about it.

Michele Hauf said...

Uggh. That's only 30 volumes of Casanova. Mis-typed.

Playground Monitor said...

I recently went on vacation to a Caribbean island resort and every day I saw folks reading on the beach. Not an e-book reader in sight. And that's where I'd find a Kindle very convenient -- on vacation where you could carry the Kindle instead of a half-dozen paperback books.

I hate the piracy that abounds and the slip in the moral compass that lets folks think it's perfectly okay to do it.

Betina, I'll loan you my tin cup. Actually, I think it's aluminum and my mama bought it for me my freshman year in college to use for measuring laundry detergent. It's still in my laundry room though no detergent requires a whole cup any more.


GunDiva said...

I have a friend who is wintering over in Antarctica - the Kindle would be perfect for her, as packing enough books to read for ten months is almost impossible. I can see the advantages of the Kindle for travel purposes, but I'll NEVER give up my "real" books. I love them; the feel, the smell, the textures of the pages. Nope, never giving them up.

I do worry, however, about how authors get paid for their eBooks. A lot of hard work, time, and effort goes into writing each one and the authors should be compsensated. Honest work for honest pay and all that good stuff.

There's no easy answer, but know that there's at least one reader out here who will always reach for the real book before the eBook.

Debra Dixon said...

I think the Kindle is fabulous. Love the concept. Love the technology.

I have a Kindle 2 on order.

Having said *that* let me also say I great fear the erosion of content revenue from the very sincere voices who claim that without the cost of printing the books should be oh-so-cheap.

As gently as possible I'm adding my voice to those discussions when I find them and hopefully helping readers remember or realize the hundreds and hundreds of hours that go into producing a fabulous book that they hold in their hands via e-book or paper-book.

Printing, especially for the big publishers, is the smallest cost.

We (at BelleBooks/Bell Bridge) are pricing some of our books a little lower in ebook. We're also taking (for now) the approach that the ebook when it's new carries the same pricing as the print version. Then once the book has been out for a while we knock a little off the price. Sort of like hard-soft in paper publishing.

deborah smith said...

Howdy, all.
Deb Dixon and I have been studying the ebook world avidly since we put all our BelleBooks backlist into ebook editions last year. Now we routinely release the ebook at same time as the print one. Our ebook sales have been very encouraging. So it's not like I hate ebooks or the Kindle. In fact, since cutbacks in my favorite newspaper are making it harder to get print editions, I'm thinking a Kindle might be handy for reading the daily news at the local diner. Although it's harder to hide behind a Kindle when an annoying neighbor trots by. LOL. But I do think the pub world is on the verge of a major transition, not all of it good. There are a lot of ideas floating around as to new ways to make money in publishing, so I'm hoping some fantastic new business model will take root.

lois greiman said...

Welcome Deb. Thanks for riding with us.

I'm not sure what to think of ebooks. I'm kind of an old fashion girl in a lot of ways. On the other hand, trees die to make books. Something to keep in mind.

debbsmith said...

By the way, the Authors Guild president, Roy Blount, has a piece in the NYT today about the Kindle. I didn't realize how good the voice-to-text features already are. Even if an author thinks: Well, no one is ever going to record the audiobook of my novel anyhow, so why should I worry about Kindle? Remember that 1. the audiobook industry is becoming a very big market and there may indeed be a future for your audio rights and 2. on principle alone, why should Amazon make money off an audio version of your book and not pay you anything extra? BelleBooks just got its first earning reports on BB audio books sold by (ironically, an company, so Amazon is making money on traditional audio and the Kindle audio, too) Let me assure you that there IS MONEY to be made by authors who use their audio rights wisely.

Kathleen Eagle said...

Welcome, Deb! First off, I loved A GENTLE RAIN. An Indian cowboy from Florida--wow! It's the kind of book I want to read--great characters, interesting situation, wonderful relationships--and I'm finding too few lately. So thanks for another terrific read.

Keri Ford said...

Hi, Deb! As a girl living in a single-wide, the kindle is looking darn appealing. But I know what's going to happen. I'll download a book, love it, and then want the hardcopy version of it to sit on my shelf! So that's not saving me much money, though I think authors will love me!

Kathleen Eagle said...

E-books. Dang it, I love real books. I'd be perfectly happy to live in a house made of windows and walls full of book shelves. Okay, room for a nice print here and there, and a few places for collectibles. But don't take my books.

I have one of those slates, too. The grandkids love it. They love books, too, even though they're more computer savvy than I am.

I just don't feel like cuddling up with a Kindle after a long day at the computer! But I know it's coming. I do.

Kathleen Eagle said...

So when it gets here--the Age of E-Books--how will authors make a living?

Let me run these prediction up the flagpole:

I suspect publishers will survive. We're headed for such a glut of media stuff that either we figure out ways to filter or our brains will explode. Publishers are going to figure out that most people want real news, useful information instead of spin, and worthwhile storytelling.

Assuming publishers survive, I suspect that the royalty system will be changed somehow. Fiction writers will organize a la screenwriters. Writer-for-hire will become the norm, and there will be some kind of scale.

Not saying it's good or bad--just postulating...

Linda said...

Deb, I also loved A Gentle Rain and, having just moved to Florida, I'm learning that "cracker" down here is a whole different animal than a "cracker" in Georgia. LOL

I love ebooks. My ebook reader is backlit so I can read it in the dark (while hubby sleeps) or someplace with very little light so I don't have to turn on a lamp. Unfortunately, it doesn't read Adobe or Microsoft. (sigh) The Kindle is appealing for ease of buying and downloading a book but you have to buy from Amazon and it isn't backlit.

I didn't know royalties, or lack of them, was an issue with ebooks. I always assumed you were paid for each book sold no matter what the format. Was I naive?

However, in my new house I also have a library. Can't fill those shelves with ebooks, now can you? Since I read a lot, filling the shelves isn't really an issue for me. heh heh I guess you could say I love books in all their many forms.

debbsmith said...

Hey Kathleen, Linda, everybody:

Linda -- authors do get royalties on ebooks. But ebooks are much easier to share for free than print books, and we don't get paid for books that are passed along that way. It's entirely possible for a reader to buy one copy of an ebook then share it with a thousand other readers. Or ten thousand. And a lot of younger readers have grown up with all sorts of free stuff to read on the Internet, and they seriously believe that they have a right to read whatever they want, if it's on-line, for free. I admit I'm spoiled by all the great free sites that are out there and so, when I find one that won't let me read something until I register as a member or, heavens, subscribe for a fee, I generally thumb my nose and move along to somewhere else. We're all getting conditioned to not pay for stuff on the Internet.

What Kathleen said about publishers still being important: I totally agree. Readers and/or advertisers may pay for special access to imprints and lines that guarantee them a certain type of book at a level of quality writing. Because readers don't want to sift through thousands of new books to find the kind they prefer.

And I wouldn't be surprised to see more work-for-hire models that give writer's a single chunk of money up front.

Debra Dixon said...

Authors do make royalties on ebooks. Yep. Yep. Yep. But only on the ebook and not on the audio "substitute" that Kindle is touting in a bid to lure readers.

Most of the smaller publishers have pretty good ebook royalties. (We do.)

The larger publishers are trying to negotiate less favorable royalties. Ahem.

Amazon itself is trying to hold on to more of the profit. If you don't have enough clout with them, they try to grab 60% of the retail price of the book for themselves. They want to keep more of the revenue than the content generators. That values distribution over quality content.

Smart publishers or publishers with good lists certainly negotiate with Amazon and come to a reasonable accomodation. (g) Still, it's clear that Amazon highly rates it's footprint in the market.

For authors, they're scrambling to make sense of the new technologies and the meaning for their livelihood. "What is fair?" is a question that has yet to be decided. Will volume of units sold go up or down?

The other issue is that paper book prices have in NO way kept up with the costs of producing the books. So, publishing is already underwater a bit on the retail pricing. They hit a wall, or a perceived wall, in the prices readers will or can pay for books. That wall doesn't seem to exist for academic an business books which often carry really really high price tags. I frequently buy business books that are $50.

Where on earth was I going with this? LOL! Rambling over.

Debra Dixon said...

Oh, and the one thing I don't think folks have talked about is the used book industry.

If reading moves heavily to the ebook format, will this insure that more ROYALTY units are sold?

Authors don't receive royalties from any of the used book sales. Will pirating increase because there aren't books for $2 ?

Don't know. I haven't talked to used booksellers. I wonder what their concerns are? They may see their livelihood reduced. Some sell new and used books.

debbsmith said...

Hey again
The used book industry is a whole nother can of worms. It's gone way beyond the old debate we authors used to have about the corner mom-n-pop used bookstore cutting into our new sales. Used books are now a major sideline for the big retailers like Amazon AND individuals are selling used books direct to buyers on eBay and elsewhere. A recent article on the book industry said publishers of text books are getting slammed because students share used copies instead of buying new. Publishers of classic literature are also seeing their profits drop significantly as those books are resold online. I have nothing against used books and admit to buying them myself, but at some point the combo of pirated ebooks, heavily discounted online prices, used book sales and dwindling sales of new books may bankrupt publishers and traditional booksellers too.

mec said...

Hi, Deborah!

Love your books - A Gentle Rain is one of my favorites.

The appeal of the Kindle or Sony Reader is that it would help with the space issue. However, purchsing one would put a huge dent in my book buying budget. So, until the price drops, I'll continue to haunt the bookstores, looking for the newest releases from my must buy author list.

Estella said...

Hi Deborah!
First let me say I really enjoy your books.
I have been looking at a Kindle, but the price is way beyond my budget(retired senior).
I have ebooks on my PC, but I prefer print books I can hold in my hands.

Anonymous said...

Your last line caught me. WILL PUBLISH FOR SPARE CHANGE. lol.
Come on over and say hi on Romance Writers Ink's group blog, Writing Sluts--WILL PUBLISH FOR MONEY.
Great minds, huh?