Dispatches from the Digital Revolution
Here at Appazoogle, we spend a lot of time examining consumer predilections towards book formats. We look at how these behaviors create financial, strategic, and evolutionary implications for publishers. But since I am a heavy reader above all else, and an almost-journalist second, I find myself drawn—and at times sympathetic—to writers. Just don’t tell my publishing professors that.
Last week for Stephen King’s 65th birthday, tweets, tumblrs and blogs popped up honoring the King of Thrillers. Publishers Weekly’s contribution, an aimless highlight reel of his so-called “strange” history dabbling in ebooks, spawned more questions for me than insight. Obviously Stephen King saw immense success in the decades preceding the digital overhaul of publishing; today he could sell a book written in crayon. And he decided to keep chugging along, experimenting with new technologies since the early 2000’s. Doesn’t sound “strange” to me.
So how does he compare to other contemporary novelists who established their success pre-ebooks? Have they evolved alongside changes in the industry? Are they progressive? Stubborn? “Strange”? I decided to look at four other fiction masters who have topped bestseller lists for over a decade, to compare how they’ve reacted to the digital revolution.
When I say “digital revolution,” I’m not only including acceptance of the ebook as a format that’s here to stay (a topic covered in a piece last December), but also self-publishing and digital self-promotion such as social media. Remember, 10 years ago authors weren’t retweeting their readers or employing what I call the Genesis effect: “I will follow you, will you follow me?” Many writers were holed up in a little room somewhere, avoiding human contact. (I’m making this up, but doesn’t it seem like it?) Below we’ll explore how other contemporary, established authors faced the digital unknown: Some with a warm embrace—and some a cold shoulder.
Jennifer Weiner: Twitter Queen
Back in 2010, bestselling chick-lit author Jennifer Weiner took a stab at ebook pricing in an interview with mediabistro.com, simultaneously criticizing ebook price fixing while conceding an inevitable shift in publishing:
“Amazon, in setting that price, is announcing to the world that a work of fiction, no matter how many years it took to write it, no matter how many people edited it, no matter how long the cover design or the page design took, a book is worth $9.99… It’s a tough pill to swallow. Because there are people in publishing who fervently believe that a book is worth $27 and would like readers to believe that, as well. If the answer is $9.99, publishing is going to have to adjust.”
Weiner is also an avid Twitter-(er?). The self-described feminist dispenses writing advice daily, answers fan questions, and holds contests for free books all in 140 characters or less. An outspoken proponent for female writers, she sticks it to the man, criticizing positive coverage of male fiction versus the oft disparaged “chick lit.”
The downside? She’s exposed. VERY exposed. By making herself just one of the girls, she’s won the hearts of 50,000+ followers, but dropped a layer of privacy—leaving her open to the backlash of her public criticisms—even losing some allure. This is not the age for reclusive writers á la J.D. Salinger or Harper Lee.
Sue Grafton vs. Self-Publishers
As a woman who threatened to haunt her children if they ever sold the film rights to her books back in the eighties, it’s not surprising that Sue Grafton is old school. Calling authors who self-publish “wannabes,” Grafton drew the ire of many indies by calling self-publishing a “short cut.”
“To me, it seems disrespectful…that a ‘wannabe’ assumes it’s all so easy s/he can put out a ‘published novel’ without bothering to read, study, or do the research. … Self-publishing is a short cut and I don’t believe in short cuts when it comes to the arts. I compare self-publishing to a student managing to conquer Five Easy Pieces on the piano and then wondering if s/he’s ready to be booked into Carnegie Hall.”
Even so, you have to give it to her: She may not have sold her film rights but she sure sold the digital rights; her books are readily available as ebooks.
Rowling’s launch of Pottermore last April was an aggressive approach to digital, sticking it to Amazon and booksellers everywhere who were chomping at the bit for her ebook releases. Rowling told Bookseller last year:
“I wanted to give something back to the fans that have followed Harry so devotedly over the years, and to bring the stories to a new digital generation.”
Though Pottermore sold $5 million worth of ebooks in the first month, visitors to the site were treated to crashes and technical glitches. The @pottermore Twitter handle became riddled with complaints, and a subsequent Pottermore Fan Forum addressed these concerns with a section called “Pottermore Technical Issues.” Regardless, she took matters into her own hands and created a virtual meeting place and marketplace targeted to her loyal fans—with great success.
Bob Mayer, a former Green Beret and bestselling author, founded Cool Gus Publishing for authors who want to publish books without the aid of traditional publishers. The company sells print books using print-on-demand technology as well as ebooks, growing into a seven-figure business in just 18 months. Hardly a “wannabe” or someone who has taken short cuts, Mayer rejects Grafton’s prescription two-fold: He found success going the traditional route and clamped on to an opportunity to take things into his own hands, for himself and fellow authors.
Where on the digital spectrum are your favorite authors? Are they Twitter superstars, launching innovative ventures—or are they sticks in the mud?