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Guest Blog from Joshua Bilmes: The E-book Revolution

August 17, 2010

For this month’s look into the SF&F marketplace, we have agent Joshua Bilmes of JABberwocky Literary Agency.  JABberwocky represents Charlaine Harris, Brandon Sanderson, Peter V. Brett, Tanya Huff, Elizabeth Moon, and many other speculative fiction authors both new and established.  Here Joshua gives us his perspective on the long-awaited explosion of electronic publishing and its many repercussions.

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There’s this old thing called “hurry up and wait,” but the e-book revolution has been something quite the opposite.  We’ve been waiting and waiting for it to hurry up, and when it finally did show up ten or fifteen years after it was just around the corner, things seem to be happening way faster than I ever would have anticipated.

A few weeks ago everyone was talking about plans by another agent, Andrew Wylie, to launch his Odyssey imprint featuring backlist titles from the pre-e-book age of contracts.  The only problem is that some publishers like Random House are very insistent on their ownership of e-book rights even when the ancient contracts are silent on them.  Random House likes even less that an agent is now calling himself a publisher, let alone with books RH thinks it controls.  The day I’m writing this, Dorchester Books, the publishers of Leisure and the Hard Case Crime lines as well as the Cosmos sf/fantasy books it did in conjunction with John Betancourt, announced they’re going to e-book and POD only and dumping out of mass market publishing.  The array of e-reader devices is growing so fast that some are going under before they even leave the diving board.  And now I can play wordgames on my Kindle.

Well, I think we’re in for some continued very interesting times in the business.

Some random observations…

Personally, I’m biased against E-Ink based e-readers at this point in time.  The iPad does have issues in bright sunlight, was just out walking with mine and it wasn’t fun.  But the E-Ink readers all have issues with darkness.  When I look at any of the E-Ink devices, they just look so totally 2008 to me.  All they do is read books.  With my iPad, between Pages and Stanza I’ve got two different ways of reading a book.  I could get Docs To Go as another app, or any of the apps for any of the other e-readers.  And the annotating or note-taking is easy, which it’s not on any E-Ink device.  And then transmitting the notes to my client is easy, which it’s not on any E-Ink device.  And then I can play music, look at photos in all kinds of nifty ways, check my e-mail.  It’s strange, because in the office I’d rather have a printer, a fax, a copier, that all do their jobs really well, than have an all-in-one that does everything.  But when it comes to something to take someplace, I’m totally sold on having one thing that does many.

There are people that are up in arms because Wylie’s Odyssey imprint has an exclusive for Kindle for a while.  Well, get used to it.  There are colors for the KitchenAid you can only get on QVC, and records you can only buy at Wal-Mart, and books you can only buy at B&N or Borders.  As we at JABberwocky start to look at entering the e-Book space, I’m 90% sure we’ll have some exclusives for some things because it’s so much more promotable that way.  Especially when you only have a limited budget to promote, doing something more promotable is to me a necessity.

Another agent criticized Wylie for becoming a publisher, because it’s an inherent conflict with the role of being an agent.  Well, yes.  There are issues.  And in the sf/f community, Baen Books exists because Simon & Schuster was greeted by hue and cry of epic proportion when it tried to set up a book line packaged by agent Scott Meredith.  But that hue and cry has kind of vanished for the many years Richard Curtis has been running eReads on the side.  But there are issues with everything, and in the current day and age I think agents have to start looking at the publishing side of things.  Or that agents have to become so close to publishers that they can say they’re not but it will end up as a distinction without a difference.

Personally, I’m not fond of becoming a publisher, having to keep track of files of scanned/OCRed backlist books, and even worse of having to keep up with the “metadata” for same. If you don’t know what “metadata” is join the club, but if you’re going to Clarion I probably don’t need to explain such things.  At the same time, if I can go to a third party publisher and offer 60 of my titles, and then I say “hey, if I do the scanning will you give me a better royalty,” and “hey, if I do the cover will you give me a better royalty,” and start to trade off bite-size chunks of the publication process. at some point I’m starting to do almost everything the publisher does and the next step to actually being a publisher isn’t a very long one.  I can do more things aggregating content than most of my clients can do trying to do those things individually.  We can make more money that way.  How much of this do we not do, just so we can say we’re still old-fashioned agents?

A big publisher like Random House can do so much more to push a book than I or my clients ever can.  But if I can increase my client’s royalty by a income of four and have sales drop by half, even for my very biggest of clients, by becoming a de facto publisher for something, do I say “no” on that?  I still need a Random House or a Penguin, they kind of need me, but I can see why Random House is playing nasty with Andrew Wylie.  We’ll be having lots of fun and games as we find out where we truly need one another and on what terms in this quickening revolution.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. August 17, 2010 8:51 pm

    Also, e-ink displays deteriorate after a couple of years. (I bought an Iliad.) I still preferred my old Ipaq that, unfortunately, passed away a year ago. And b&w e-ink is useless for students, who often need graphs and charts in colour. But, like you, I’m watching the Wylie situation closely.

  2. August 17, 2010 9:34 pm

    Thanks for these thoughts, Joshua. On the other end of the publisher-agent-author relationship are people like Joe Konrath saying they don’t necessarity need publishers or agents at all. Personally, I’m not so sure.

    I sold my debut sci-fi novel some months ago directly to a publisher who bought only the ebook rights. Right now, I am negotiating, again directly, with a different publisher to sell the print and audio rights. Despite all this, I am looking for an agent.

    The trouble is, it takes so long to go through the approach-dance-around-be-rejected cycle with each agent, that deals with small, nimble publishers who really want your work and are eager to get it out there quickly, begin to look very attractive. So, why am I still searching for an agent?

    Because I have several manuscripts for sale, each one of which represents a constellation of rights to be managed and negotiated. It’s a lot of work, it requires excellent networks, and it needs specialist knowledge. I would by far rather have an agent looking after my portfolio than do it myself. Additionally, while I can access the small publishers myself, the largest publishers have walled themselves off from authors and will only let agents approach them. Hitting the big-time is easier with a big-hitter batting for you.

    Maybe what I really need is a small, nimble agent🙂

  3. September 28, 2010 3:30 am

    I’ve just this afternoon posted something (http://www.collinpiprell.com/?p=922) that takes issue with Joshua Bilmes take on iPads vs. Kindles, in this very interesting guest blog:

    “Alice” fans and critics (see my last post) likely fall into opposing iPad and Kindle/Sony camps. The former will view Alice as a new and improved kind of reading: “Great! It’s just like browsing the Internet.” The latter — i.e. those who actually enjoy extended reading — will view it with horror: “Whoa! This is just one more patch of digital quicksand.”

    In the spirit of deteriorating attention spans and debilitated Muses, and because it’s way easier than writing a novel, I give you a haiku:

    fall day darkening:

    the locust digital swarm

    eats my absent mind

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