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Scott Turow’s Letter to Members

September 9, 2010. Upon learning that I’ve just become president of the Authors Guild, friends and acquaintances have tended to ask two questions more than any other (besides, “What were you thinking?”):

#1. Do you own an e-reader and what do you think of the experience of reading that way?

#2. Are e-books and e-readers good or bad for authors?

The first question is a lot easier to answer than the second. I bought a Kindle in August 2009 in preparation for a two-week trip overseas. The sheer convenience of having several guidebooks and half a dozen novels I’d been waiting to read on one lightweight device overwhelmed my doubts. Years earlier, I’d found that reading a newspaper by computer could not compete with holding a broadsheet in my hands, but I have to admit that the Kindle was a pleasant surprise. It bothered me that the Kindle wasn’t backlit, meaning no reading in bed without external lights, but I found the several good novels I read overseas quite compelling, even in an electronic format. A number of the guidebooks we’d brought along had text-to-speech enabled, allowing the Kindle to read to us as we drove—although the robotic voice eventually drove my traveling companion batty, leading us to turn it off. This spring I received an iPad as a gift and found it a leap forward as a reading device, with a crisper image and beautifully backlit. I ended up giving my Kindle away.

With all that said, I still prefer the tactile experience of reading a book, and I also miss the physical presence of some of the books I’ve e-read, so much so that I’ve bought paper versions of a number of them, so they can take their place beside other favorite books on my shelves.

The question of whether e-books are good or bad for authors is more complex. There are at least two ways that e-books represent a favorable development in my mind. Those who have the cash to invest in one of these devices find that any place with a wireless connection can become a virtual bookstore. While this can’t replace the experience of prowling the aisles of a bookstore and seizing hold of a longed-for title that had fallen into your passive memory, or simply paging through a book at leisure to determine if it’s as interesting as it looks, e-readers do allow for instant satisfaction of a desire to own a specific book. There is no trip to the store, no waiting for the online retailer to get it to you through the mail, factors that tend to temper the impulse to buy. For these reasons, I suspect that e-readers increase book purchases among those who own the devices. That’s obviously encouraging news to authors.

Far more important, e-books and e-readers have the potential to dramatically lower the barriers to getting published, and to allow books that traditional publishers aren’t willing to back to compete on a more even footing with books publishers do send forth. On July 13, The Story, which is heard on National Public Radio, carried a piece about Karen McQuestion. Here’s how The Story’s website summarized that feature:

Last summer, after seven years of writing novels no one was interested in publishing, Karen McQuestion decided to try something new. With no expectations, she uploaded one of her books, a romantic comedy, to Kindle. Six hours later, she had her first sale . . . for $1.99. Now she’s had more than 30,000 downloads, a movie deal and a real live paperback coming out in August.

The paperback, by the way, will be issued by Ama­zonEncore, Amazon’s new publishing division. This Cinderella tale will include a happy ending for everyone if we get Karen to join the Authors Guild!

We probably shouldn’t expect a multitude of stories like Karen McQuestion’s. Yet e-books will allow a few aspiring authors every year to find an audience without the intervention of traditional publishers, a development that is bound to enrich our literary culture in the long run.

So those are the good sides of e-books for authors. I’ll devote my next column to explaining the downsides. But let me give you the Executive Summary now. E-book prices, which started out artificially low because of Amazon’s loss-leader policies, may stay low, leading to a decrease in the price of hardcover books. Since authors’ royalties are based on that retail price, they will be making less. Second, e-royalties are a fraction of what authors traditionally receive on hardcover books. To the extent that e-books replace hardcover sales, authors take a second hit. This is a problem not so much for best-selling authors, for whom nobody will need to hold a tag day, but for so-called midlist authors, who are already struggling to live as professional writers.

More next time.