"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."