Art Kavanagh

Criticism, fiction and other writing

Could subscription reading put paid to the ebook?

I bought the first ebook that I actually paid for in 2009. That was before the introduction of the iPad and iBooks (later to be renamed Books) so I downloaded my purchase into the Kindle app on an iPod Touch. The book was The Bankers by Shane Ross, published by Penguin Ireland. Considering the status and reputation of the publisher, I was shocked to see what a mess had been made of the formatting. Photographs which appeared in the printed book were not included in the ebook, but their captions were there, all lumped together at the end. Blockquotes weren’t indented, and were distinguished from the surrounding text only by the absence of a first line indent in the following paragraph. There were some stray hyphens (presumably hard hyphens placed at line endings in the printed book).

I’ve seen a number of questionably formatted ebooks in the years since. The instance that sticks with me is that of Whit Stillman advising his Twitter followers to buy his Love & Friendship in paperback, partly because the footnotes weren’t displayed at the end of the page in the ebook versions. I also know of several poets who have published their collections as ebooks (or tried to), with results that were, in various ways, unsatisfactory.

The paradox of the ebook is that, while liberating both readers and publishers from some constraints, it subjects us to others. With one hand we’re given the ability to reflow and resize text, change the font, the justification and hyphenation, add highlights and notes and to search the text for words and phrases. Plus, of course, freedom from the requirement to store physical books (whether in warehouses or on our livingroom shelves). The other hand deprives us of typographical flexibility (e.g. the ability to display letters, emails, telexes or newsprint in a different font from the main narrative), complex layouts (including footnotes), page numbers that remain constant across different ereading devices and, if we happen to be the cautious type, the option of reading in the bath.

Even some of the apparent advantages of the ebook are less of a boon than they might seem. Changing the font, for example. In addition to the publisher’s embedded font (which you’ll usually have to change if you want to avoid hyphenation and right justification), Apple Books offers several very similar serif fonts (I tend to use Iowan) and just two sans, Seravek and San Francisco. (I hadn’t tried San Francisco before starting to write this post, probably because I unconsciously thought of it as “just” a system font — it’s immediately become my new favourite.)

But the thing that really bothers me about ebooks is that they’ve been artificially limited to make them look like “real” books, and so more likely to be accepted by readers with a decades-long habit of reading printed books. That might have appeared necessary or advisable to conservative publishers in the late 2000s but ten years later we must surely be almost ready to move on. The question is where?

Some months ago, I wrote a piece on Medium, explaining why I no longer think of myself as a self-published author. Some readers of that post seem to have understood it as advocating a return to traditional publishing. Far from it. I believe that traditional publishing is undergoing a brutal shakeout that will leave the industry unrecognizable. The shape it will end up in is impossible to predict. On the other hand, I don’t think that self-publishing as currently practiced is a workable alternative. The self-publishing phenomenon has been gamed and monopolized by Amazon so that it works to their benefit and turns the rest of us into digital sharecroppers.

So what’s an author, particularly an “aspiring” one, to do if the avenues of traditional publishing and ebooks are just dead ends? I haven’t mentioned print-on-demand, but the business model there looks very similar to that of ebooks: Amazon provides the publishing tools that enable an author to format and “publish” a book at very low cost to her, and then will store the digital files on a server indefinitely. Self-publishers are advised to make their books available through print-on-demand as well as in the form of ebooks. From what I can gather, in most cases the PoD sales are negligible.

To me it seems obvious that if there is any solution to the author’s dilemma, it surely lies in some form or other on the web. Earlier this year Nate Hoffelder of The Digital Reader pointed out the absurdity of the claim that we need to find a “Kindle for nonfiction”. The Kindle format works for fiction in part because layout is straightforward. Footnotes, blockquotes, equations, diagrams, charts and precisely positioned illustrations are rare. It’s unusual to need to use two different fonts. Nonfiction of various different types tends to be more demanding. But, as Hoffelder points out, the demands of nonfiction have already been answered — by the web.

If many of us have overlooked the fact that the web is now the ideal platform for nonfiction, it’s not surprising if we also fail to appreciate how easily it could play the same role for fiction. When it comes to publishing on the web, the distinction between fiction and nonfiction may not be as impermeable as some of us have tended to assume. Whatever kind of writing you’ve been engaging in, the first advantage that the web offers over both traditional publishing and the Kindle paradigm is flexibility. Need to correct an error or to post an update to take account of new research? Obviously the web makes this easier.

But where the web really wins out is when it comes to length. I’ve been fascinated by the paradox that short stories are very popular with readers and writers, while treated with suspicion by publishers and book-buyers. It’s not a difficult paradox to explain. To become an economic proposition for publishers, short stories need to be gathered together into approximately novel-length “collections”. But each story in the collection is a self-contained, independent unit. Because of the book-like package in which the collection is presented, the reader may feel under pressure to consume it as if it were a novel, crashing through the boundaries of the discrete tales and failing to give them the necessary space and time to work on our critical faculties. In other words, the traditional “book” model has never been an ideal one for publishing short stories, while the web provides the medium in which they can reach an appreciative audience.

An analogous problem is encountered when it comes to the novella. Let’s assume that a novel of about 300 pages can be bought, edited, designed, printed and distributed by a traditional publisher at a price of €10 per copy. Compare that with a novella of about 120 pages. Printing costs will obviously be lower. The novella may well require less of an editor’s time than a novel would have, but probably not proportionately less. Transport may be less expensive, as the printed and bound novella will be lighter than a novel. Again, the saving is unlikely to be proportionate to the number of pages. So the novella will reach the shelves priced at, perhaps, €7.50 to €8. The novel is going to look like better value, even if the would-be book-buyer isn’t conscious of having made the calculation. As a result the novella, no less than the short story collection, is an evidently riskier prospect from the publisher’s point of view.

So, not the least of the advantages of publication on the web is the freedom to choose the right length for the story. I’d expect this to lead to the publication as novellas of more stories which might previously have been artificially extended to novel length, a surge in the number of single (uncollected) short stories and many more tales that don’t easily accommodate themselves to classification by length. We’re already seeing a boom in flash fiction. My own view is that much flash appears to have been compressed or truncated so as to conform to somewhat arbitrary requirements as to word count. The more we learn from the results of such experiments, the more we’re likely to find that such length-based categories are an unnecessary staitjacket carried over from the exigencies of traditional print publishing. Ultimately it doesn’t matter much whether you describe your work as a short story, a novelette or a novella if you’re not trying to work out how to position it on a physical bookshop shelf.

That, of course, brings me to the central question: how to monetize our writing if we’re not attempting to sell books, whether to a traditional publisher or via the Kindle store? If you’re an “aspiring” writer (or an established midlist one who seems suddenly to have dropped out of favour), your priority must be to build (or reconnect with) a readership. The majority of authors (and this is particularly true of self-publishers) do not make significant amounts of money from their writing. Arguably the best approach is first to concentrate on establishing a body of readers, whether it be on Wattpad, Medium, your own website or anywhere else, and worry about monetization later.

Authors are often advised to develop a newsletter and/or a blog in order to grow a following to whom their books can then be marketed. The newsletter and/or blog will consist of writing (“marketing content”), the creation of which is likely to be a resented chore for an author whose “product” is also the written word! Why not forget the books (for the time being at least) and instead of promoting your writing by writing more (and almost certainly inferior) stuff, put your real writing up front and see what kind of readership you can gain with that? Ultimately, that’s what you want people to read — and it seems perverse to try to achieve that aim by giving them something else to read instead!

If and when the time comes to monetize your writing, it probably won’t be through ebooks or (more’s the pity) print. Publishing continues to change at a dizzying rate and I’m not claiming to be able to see the future but, for what it’s worth, my guess is that the subscription model is likely to be most authors’ best bet.

For now, Amazon dominates reading on subscription with its Kindle Unlimited offering (which is, of course, based on ebooks, though a subscription reading service doesn’t have to be). Unlike the market for ebooks, I believe that the subscription model is worth trying to wrest from Amazon’s control. There is some competition, though it’s probably not enough to make a dent in Amazon’s market dominance. Scribd subscriptions include articles and other writing as well as ebooks, though I understand that self-publishing authors can’t directly place their work — whether book-length or shorter — with Scribd.

There is already a well established subscription service where a reader can find a wide range of fiction and a plethora of different kinds of nonfic for a low monthly payment, which can be cancelled at short notice. And this service pays at least some of its authors. The quirk is that it doesn’t pay (like Kindle Unlimited) according to number of pages read but rather according to how much the readers applaud. Obviously, I’m referring to Medium’s membership and partnership schemes which combined form the type of subscription service that I expect to become standard. (Membership is the reader’s side of the process, the partner scheme is the author-publisher’s.)

I haven’t used Medium’s partner programme myself, as at most a handful of my posts there have drawn enough readers to make that a paying proposition. (My impression from reading the comments of those writers who have tried it is that fiction doesn’t bring in the big money. But then — a handful of high earners apart — it probably doesn’t do that elsewhere either.)

For these reasons, Medium seems a good option for writers (whether of fiction or nonfic) trying to get our work before a substantial part of the reading public. Not everybody agrees with that assessment, though, so I hope soon to look at the arguments for posting on one’s own site in preference to Medium.

Posted by Art on 29-Dec-2018; updated 27-Apr-2019