Word Count

Writers Talk About Writing

The March of the E-Books

"Kindle-schmindle, Nook-schnook, give me a good old-fashioned book," I wrote a year ago in a Visual Thesaurus column that garnered more comments, and more negative comments, than any other column I've written in three years contributing to the site. "Fie on you, Michael Lydon," VT subscribers told me in no uncertain terms, "we love our Kindles, and don't you dare say mean things about our little black and white darlings!"

Well, dear VTers, your comments have not made me change my mind; I still vastly prefer turning the pages of paper books to swiping the screen of my Kindle Paperwhite. Yet in the past year the ongoing e-revolution has wrought changes in my professional writing career worthy of description: I am being carried along, willy-nilly, by the still-rising digital tide.

In a word: paper Luddite though I may be, I'm now the proud author of four e-books available through Amazon Kindle and other similar e-book portals. My first e-book was Ray Charles: Man and Music, originally a hard cover biography of the Genius published in 1999 by Riverhead Books, a division of Penguin Putnam. A trade paperback followed in 2001, and both editions did moderately well, but Penguin Putnam soon returned the rights to me, and I in turn sold the book to Routledge, a division of Taylor and Francis. Routledge published a paperback edition that came out soon after Ray died in June 2004. In the contract they got the right to create an e-book, and they did so in 2007.

At the time I barely noticed the e-book Ray Charles because both the e-book and the paperback sold slowly, and my royalty statements contained no checks, only notations of modest reductions of my advance. A year ago, however, I noted that Ray Charles in paper had sold sixteen copies in six months, while the e-book Ray Charles had sold sixty-five copies. Tiny totals, of course, but here's what caught my eye; the e-books had sold four times the number of the paperbacks sold. Plus, I feel sure that those sixty-five copies would not have sold at all had no e-book existed. E-book publication did more than supply a demand; it created a demand.

Routledge also brought out my 2004 How to Write Songs for Fun and (Maybe) Profit as an e-book in 2007, but it's sold slowly, and I can see why. Music instruction books don't fare well on Kindles. Students can't put the reader up on a music stand, and the screen page is too small for the examples of music writing to be easily played from. The e-book also lacked the helpful instructional CD included in the paper edition, a disadvantage mentioned in several online reviews.

My third e-book, Now What?, I first published in 1993 as a xeroxed, fold-over chapbook printed at a neighborhood copy center. In 2011 I put out a new perfect-bound paperback edition using the wonderful Espresso Book Machine at the McNally Jackson bookstore in Manhattan. Formatting the text for the machine prepared me for turning Now What? into an e-book in the summer of 2012. To distribute the e-book to online outlets, I signed up with BookBaby, a subsidiary of CDBaby that sells my CDs — another subsidiary, HostBaby, hosts my and my wife Ellen Mandel's music websites. At first I opted for BookBaby's $149 package, then realized that price didn't give me full proofreading privileges, so I upped to the $249 package. BookBaby's Help Desk answered all my many questions with unfailing knowledge and courtesy, and by the beginning of October I could click-click-click and find my digital baby at Amazon's Kindle, Barnes & Noble's Nook, and at Kobo, Sony, and a few other e-book sites.

An e-mailed publicity blast to my entire contact list stimulated a trickle of sales in the fall; in mid-winter I got a royalty check for just over $50. But as the days have grown longer and the sun warmer, I've had to face the fact that Now What? has joined the ranks of thousands upon thousands of self-published e-books quivering expectantly in the cloud for orders that do not come. I had known going in, of course, that Now What?, subtitled "A Philosophy of Freedom and Equality," was unlikely to fly off the digital shelves as fast as Fifty Shades of Gray, so I can't say I'm heartbroken. Yet I think any writer who hopes for a wide world of readers will sympathize with the blow my ego suffered when, moments ago, I read that Now What? ranked #938,457 in Amazon's sales roster.

The tale of my fourth e-book, The Rolling Stones Discover America, is more exciting. Way back in 1969, as a reporter hot on the rock 'n' roll trail, I got a fabulous opportunity: to travel embedded with the Rolling Stones on a month-long tour of America. "A wild ride" barely begins to describe the month — in and out of jets and limos, concert halls full of screaming longhaired kids and full volume music, all leading to the disastrous concert at Altamont. I wrote up my mindbending adventures in a hundred fervid pages, publishing it first in Ramparts, then as the final chapter of my first book, Rock Folk. A few years ago when I first heard of Kindle Singles, I thought, aha, The Rolling Stones Discover America would be perfect for the Single's long article/short book format. One agent tried and struck out, but this past December a second agent tried and, bim-bam-boom, we had a deal. Amazon created a "cover," a red, white, and blue version of the Stones' famous lips-and-tongue logo, got my text expertly copyedited, and by mid-January, ta-da, there it was, with its own page in the Kindle store.

The publicity and on-site display that the Amazon Kindle staff gave my action-packed Single was as good or better than promised, and I did everything I could to promote it by putting up posts on Facebook and sending e-mails to my own contact list. The book took off from the first, in February becoming #1 in three rock music book categories and soaring to the twenty-third best selling Single and the 2400th selling book in the whole Kindle store. Did I check the rankings daily? Oh no; more like fifty times a day! Reviews came in more slowly than I expected, but they were by and large enthusiastically positive, and I savored every one. It's too early to know accurate sales figures, but I'm estimating well over two thousand downloads and counting.

As March rolls on, I can see that sales are slowing. Now Rolling Stones is down to 4000th in Kindle book sales, but that's a lot better than Now What's millionth place. The fiftieth anniversary tour the Stones are planning for this spring and summer could boost sales again, and I'm still hunting up fan sites and other niche markets where a '60s rock book could find readers.

That's my e-book story so far. When and if major developments occur, I'll report them. Here I'll close with three notes of possible interest to anyone who might want to publish an e-book.

One, I assumed that Kindle would want photographs — Mick Jagger and Keith Richards are famously photogenic — but, no, the editor didn't. Photos eat up bandwidth and slow downloads, he explained, and since e-book buyers read them on so many different devices, it's hard to tell how photos will look on screen.

Two, I got such good promotion from Kindle because I made a three-month exclusive deal. Had I released Rolling Stones to Nook, Kobo, Sony, or other e-book sellers at the same time, Amazon would have been much less attentive to my book. When my three months are up in mid-April, I'll need to decide whether to re-up the exclusive deal or branch out. Right now I'm waiting and seeing.

Three, although Amazon is in effect the publisher — they created the ready-for-sale product, and they take in the money from the customers — the giant retailer considers itself the e-book's distributor and lets my little Franklin Street Press be the official publisher. This pleases me deeply, for in Franklin Street Press' two decades of existence, the company has taken in only a miniscule amount for sales of its sixteen-book catalog. I've printed twenty or thirty copies of most of these books, and most of those I've given to friends, family, and professional contacts. For Franklin Street Press to be making real money on real sales to real readers is intensely pleasing to my literary/commercial soul. I still feel ambivalent about e-books, but as Beth, the friendly gal who runs McNally Jackson's Espresso Book Machine, says, "Any way that gets your writing out to the world is a good way."

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Michael Lydon, who has written about popular music since the 1960s, is the author of Writing and Life, published by University Press of New England. He has also published a dozen other essays on literature through his own Franklin Street Press. Lydon teaches "The Music of Writing" at St. John's University and leads seminars for teenage writers through the Connecticut Young Writers program. Click here to read more articles by Michael Lydon.

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Comments from our users:

Monday March 25th 2013, 7:51 AM
Comment by: Sabina F. (Rockville Centre, NY)
Modern technology is a wonderful thing however give me a real book to have and to hold, to write in, make note, underline sentences of meaning and pull off my book shelf years later and have fond memories flipping through the pages. There's nothing better! And for all the books that never make it to my favorites list, I donate, pass on, share. One can't hand a download to another with a smile and feel the real meaning behind the act. Kindle and Nook are convenient devices that have a place but nothing can replace a paper book.
Monday March 25th 2013, 8:20 AM
Comment by: Roberta M. (Redmond, WA)
Kindles have removed the threat of our house falling over on its side with the weight of the unorginized and barely wadeable library room. My husband and I read at such a rate we were eating acres of oxygen-producing forest yearly! Now if we could stop the tonnage of catalogues filling our recycling tubs every week, we might have a chance to minimize our carbon footprint.

Books in paper are precious: as a writer I know this well. But some sacrifice must be made for a far more precious planet. I still but some well-made and illustrated books, as I buy art, but that is for the sake of art - or for manuals I need to drag under the sink, explaining the J trap . . .
Monday March 25th 2013, 8:22 AM
Comment by: brian A. (Maple Leaf Canada)
I too prefer 'a good old-fashioned book'. The only time I swipe the screen is when it is not clean. Perhaps the source of my reluctance is that I do not swim and fear '..being carried along, willy-nilly, by the still-rising digital tide.' I always enjoy the smiles in your writing...thank you.
Monday March 25th 2013, 8:25 AM
Comment by: Karen D. (Laurel, MD)
I do not understand the insistence of some people (almost all of them "I HATE E-BOOKS!" people, by the way) that one must be either/or. I love being able to get on an airplane or train with thousands of books at my disposal and no room taken up in my luggage. I also still buy beautiful or reference books in hard-copy.
Monday March 25th 2013, 9:23 AM
Comment by: Sue B.
Karen has the right idea: what is the point of taking a "stance" on this issue? If you like paper books, read paper books. If you like digital, read digital.

I can't be without my book (I always have at least one in my backpack), and when I pack for a trip (always very light), a considerable amount of space always had to be taken up with books: very heavy, and resented a bit on the trip home, once they'd been read. Also, I have nerve problems in my hands, and the strain and pain of holding a book open for hours on end had actually begun to take its toll on my willingness to pick up a book, and I could no longer read in bed at all.

So, live and let live, and consider for a moment just how interesting the rest of the world finds your sniffy, judgmental exclusionism.
Monday March 25th 2013, 9:42 AM
Comment by: Linda V.
While I agree that having a book in hand is superior, I must admit that age and the failing eyesight it has brought makes me think that a reading device is in my future. Things change.
lkv, TX
Monday March 25th 2013, 1:06 PM
Comment by: David D. (Seattle, WA)
Some years ago, I had a hip replaced. In fifteen years, I wore it out and had to have a "revision." I knew I'd be in hospital for awhile and thought a Kindle would be superior to several books. (Actually, a nurse told me that people INTEND to read, but medications, pain, weird environment usually means that reading does not happen.) I had several books downloaded into my device and actually did read two book and half of a third in as many days. So I became a fan. But I still love my books; raggedy old paperbacks, fancy new limited editions. They are all my friends. And furthermore ... as I drive 800 miles to visit family several times a year, I am also a BIG fan of audio books. I "read" wonderful books with my ears and still keep my mind on my driving and have freedom to watch the wonders of the landscape even as Neil Gaiman's Anansi Boys have their hilarious adventures.

It's all good. Even a rickety 76 year old can avoid being a Luddite.
Monday March 25th 2013, 3:00 PM
Comment by: Sue B.
Go, David D.! :)
Monday March 25th 2013, 4:51 PM
Comment by: David D. (Seattle, WA)
Thanks Sue B. I go as best I can. The body limps but the brain still jumps rope. Being bionic has hilarious aspects such as entering a courthouse that uses metal detectors. I tell the monitor, "I will set off the alarms because I have metal parts." The monitor grunts, seeming not to comprehend and directs me to go through the device. Bells sound, lights flash, the guards drop into combat ready posture, people stare and I try not to giggle. This is quite serious, but I had alerted the keepers. So I had a tee shirt made with an xray of my hip. It makes no difference. So I try to clutch a paperback book to peruse as they intensify their investigation, examining the bottoms of my bare feet and so forth. I am grateful for my story by Vonnegut, and just wait in the glow of the passing effect of the chrono-synclastic infundibulum.
Monday March 25th 2013, 5:55 PM
Comment by: Sue B.
David D., I'm laughing so hard I'm weeping!
Monday March 25th 2013, 8:30 PM
Comment by: Ellen M.
Sue B's on the right track here: new channels are alternatives, not substitutes. I have a friend with neck/shoulder nerve problems that have been greatly mitigated by reading a Kindle on a stand, and my physical therapist is after me to get one to reduce the strain on my neck from reading big books in bed (anybody got other suggestions for reading in bed that reduce hand, shoulder and neck strain?). And travel seems like the perfect reason to go e-book, but I still buy paperbacks and schlep them along!
Tuesday March 26th 2013, 12:52 AM
Comment by: Murali K. (India)
When I look back, I cannot recognize myself, a strong e-book-phobist for now I read only Kindle.
The paper books appeal to 'feely' people. I am not saying this as a criticism but as an observation. I find I can carry all my books to all the countries I travel to, pick up the book I want to read, refer across the books to confirm my views in debates. Kindly does have advantages over Paper. But if you just stay in one place and want to relax with a paper, you may not need Kindle
Tuesday March 26th 2013, 11:55 AM
Comment by: Meredith C. (Murfreesboro, TN)
I have to protest to David D. that 76 is the new 55--or something like that. I love books (a former English teacher) and had large bookcases filled to the brim with them until I decided to move into a smaller place. I'm 72 and miss the books on the shelves, but was threatened by my daughter to let go or by god! So I bought a NOOK (sometimes wish it were a Kindle) and buy books with appreciation for the convenient storage. I still buy paper books sometimes--cookbooks, books with pictures, children's books, etc. but mostly I click "confirm" on my NOOK. And I'm also such a huge fan of audible.com too! I listen to so many books that are wonderfully read to me--a treat to me in ways that I can only think came when I was read to as a child--but I do so while I'm cleaning or cooking or whatever. Anthony Trollope has carried me away with his prose more than once. So David, congratulations that your mind still jumps rope, and enjoy those books all the more because you CAN!
Tuesday March 26th 2013, 12:31 PM
Comment by: David D. (Seattle, WA)
Nice advice Meridith C. My first pass at 55 was very energetic; my present effort is more cognitive because I read - everything. I hold to the "use it or lose it" adage. My gravest fear is the possibility of blindness, but even then, there are those audio books. Even a very poor quality book seems to activate the synapses and when the brain warms up, the search for something good intensifies and I cast aside the cereal box and Wonder Woman comic for something I can really sink my mental teeth into. I DO enjoy because I CAN.
Tuesday March 26th 2013, 1:02 PM
Comment by: Meredith C. (Murfreesboro, TN)
Good for you, David. Of course, I'm thinking of the unfortunate people our age that have lost the use of a good mind. My father died of Alzheimer's and he was gone too soon. If you care to discuss your reading with someone who reads or listens constantly, you can email me at meredithrchildress@gmail.com. Please don't feel that my feelings will be hurt if you don't enjoy that kind of interaction. I agree with your thoughts on "use it or lose it" and if that's true, I shouldn't have a problem. I write quite a bit and hope to get a small novel published if I can only get it edited completely. All on my own and mostly for my children and grandchildren. And so, in response to the real topic of these posts: I read all the time, whether a book or a Nook, or listening, and I wouldn't want to give up any of them!

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