I used to love album covers. Back in the early seventies some friends and I drove from Montreal to Plattsburgh, New York, to buy Alice Cooper’s School’s Out album because the Canadian version didn’t include the panties. Yeah, that’s right, the vinyl record was wrapped in a pair of pink panties.
For years I had both posters from Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon on my wall. The only way to get the posters was to buy the album.
I used to buy records at Dutchie’s Record Cave on Stanley Street in Montreal and ride the bus home studying the album cover.
One wall in my first student apartment had been painted in what I thought was a pretty good attempt at Roger Dean, Yes-style cover art. I can’t remember which album cover it was, but I do remember it was the one with Astral Traveller and Sweet Dreams.
I haven’t bought new music in quite a while but last week I went online and bought, of all things, the Peter Framton album, Fingerprints, an instrumental that came out in 2006.
I have no idea what the cover art looks like, or even if there is any, but Frampton is just as good a guitarist as he was when that got lost in his pop music fame.
So, for me anyway, the covers are gone, the giveaway posters are gone and sadly, the giveaway panties are gone, but the music is still here.
And that’s kind of my segue to books and specifically e-books.
This is in part inspired by Tess Gerritson’s, The End of the World as We Know It? blog post, because while that may be true, the new world might not be so bad.
All the reports that mention Ms. Gerriton's blog refer to her as, “bestselling author Tess Gerritson,” and that’s great for her, but there are a lot of writers like me who know we’ll never be bestselling authors. I don’t know, was James Crumley ever a bestseller? Even George V. Higgins had a lot of success with The Friends of Eddie Coyle, but I think a lot of his other books are out of print. I’ve been tracking down books by those guys and a few others lately and it’s been tough. I’ve been using Abebooks and looking all over online for used copies because a lot of the books I’m looking for aren’t even in print anymore.
There are thousands of books like The Super Summer of Jamie McBride which are out of print and yet Amazon or Abebooks will sell me a used copy. The author, or his or her estate, gets no money from that sale. If it was an e-book, always in print, he might get a quarter. Okay, so it’s not much but you never know, over years it may add up.
For a writer like me that matters. I’m not worried about having a bestseller, I’m worried about people who want to buy my book being able to find a copy.
When I started writing I dreamed about having huge bestsellers, being as popular as Ian Flemming or Robert Ludlum. Then as I got older that changed. First it turned into a sort of hazy dream about being a kind of drunken genuis, hanging out in bars and, well, that one was always kind of vague and never really made sense.
But then I hit on my current dream, the one that’s stuck with me the longest:
I dream about being able to make as much money as a writer as I would as a school teacher.
A quick look online tells me teachers make about fifty grand. Okay, let’s say I make a buck a book (averaged out between hardcover, trade, mass market and e-book) so I’ll need to sell 50,000 books a year.
Wow. Okay, have to look into that drunken genius thing again...
All right, all right, with print runs less then five thousand it's unlikely I'll ever sell fifty thousand copies of a book. Right now I have publishing deals in Canada and the USA, so I'll need a deal in the UK and Australia and everywhere else people speak English (I don't expect to ever sell English books in non-English speaking countries, imagine how much a special order import would cost) and I'll have to get translation deals. So far I haven't been able to get a foreign deal and one of the main reasons given is that my books haven't sold enough copies in English. An Italian publisher, for example, would have to buy the rights to the book, pay a translator, design a new cover, print up a lot of copies, do some marketing and promotion, ship books to bookstores and hope to sell enough copies to make a little profit.
There's no way that's gonna happen.
But with e-books, always available around the world, I might sell enough to make as much money as a substitute teacher.
And that's a chance I'm willing to take even if it means some books will be pirated. Right now some books are shoplifted, some are damaged in shipping and sent back and some are simply returned unsold. Lots of books are given away free as ARCs. Who pays for those?
Yes, it may be easy for me, lucky to sell a thousand copies of a book, to say I'm willing to risk having a few pirated, that's a lot different from a bestselling author who sells 100,000 copies and has 20,000 copies pirated. What about the twenty grand extra they might have made (I still think most people who download illegal won't buy legally)? I don't know about that.
These days it seems there's an awful lot being written about the publishing "industry" in every newspaper at the same time all those papers are cutting back on their book review sections.
Maybe when the fad of e-books and e-readers and book pirating passes we can go back to talking about books. Newspapers will be available on e-readers and you never know, they might bring back book reviews.
Most of us will never be Pink Floyd. We’ll be lucky to be Wishbone Ash.