January 24-30: “Printed book, or e-reader? Why?”

E-readers are proliferating like dandelions in the spring. Do you own an e-reader? Are your print books available in electronic form? Do you prefer one form over the other? Join ITW members Joe Nassise,  John Gilstrap, Karen Dionne, Bill Reed, Vicki Hinze, and Jim Duncan as they kick off this Thriller Roundtable discussion.

Joseph Nassise is the author of more than a dozen novels, including the internationally bestselling Templar Chronicles series.He’s a former president and trustee of the Horror Writers Association, the world’s largest organization of professional horror writers,and a two time Bram Stoker Award and International Horror Guild Award nominee.

John Gilstrap is the acclaimed author of five thrillers: SIX MINUTES TO FREEDOM, SCOTT FREE, EVEN STEVEN, AT ALL COSTS, and NATHAN’S RUN. His books have been translated into more than 20 languages. He lives in Fairfax, Virginia.

Karen Dionne is the internationally published author of Freezing Point, a science thriller nominated by RT Book Reviews as Best First Mystery of 2008. A second environmental thriller, Boiling Point, about an erupting volcano, a missing researcher, and a radical scheme to end global warming is forthcoming from Berkley December 28, 2010. Karen is cofounder of the online writers community Backspace, and organizes the Backspace Writers Conferences held in New York City every year. She serves on ITW’s board of directors as Vice President, Technology. She is also Managing Editor of the International Thriller Writers’ newsletter and webzine,The Big Thrill.

William Craig Reed served as a U.S. Navy diver, submarine fire control “weapons” technician and photographer for special operations on nuclear fast-attack submarines. Craig earned commendations for completing secret missions during the Cold War, and is an alumnus or member of several military, veteran, and technology associations. When not writing, Craig is a partner in Aventi Group—a technology marketing consulting firm (www.aventigroup.com). He was a former vice president and board director for the Silicon Valley American Marketing Association, founded two software companies and co-authored the book Tarzan, My Father with the late Johnny Weissmuller, Jr. Craig is the author of the thriller DNA and the non-fiction memoir Crazy Ivan: A True Story of Submarine Espionage. RED NOVEMBER: Inside the U.S. – Soviet Submarine War is Craig’s latest non-fiction thriller published in May 2010 by William Morrow/HarperCollins. Born into a Navy family on the island of Guam, Reed lives in Silicon Valley, CA.

Vicki Hinze is the award-winning author of 24 novels, 3 nonfiction books and hundreds of articles on craft, business and the writing life, published in as many as 63 countries.Her next release is DEADLY TIES, a faith-affirming thriller being published by Random House’s, Waterbrook-Multnomah.For more info visit her websites: www.vickihinze.com and vickihinzebooks.com.

J.N. Duncan, living and working away in the state of Ohio, is a writer of dark, urban-fantasy-suspense. His first novel, published by Kensington, will be out in April, 2011.

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  1. A little over a year ago, I posted an entry called “Kindle Schmindle” on my blog, killzoneauthors.blogspot.com. I opined on how, as a full-blooded bibliophile, I would never switch to an eReader. I love the smell of books, and the feel of them. The mere heft of a book as you read it, I wrote, is an ingrained part of the reading experience. I considered myself the last holdout–the Alamo of paper books.

    Then, last February, my wife gave me a Kindle for my birthday. After three days, I handed the keys of the Alamo to General Santa Anna. Jim Bowie, Davey Crocket? Sorry, dudes, you’re on your own. This Kindle thing is amazing!

    I can’t speak to the other eBook platforms because I’ve never tried them, but the Kindle is easy to read, it’s lightweight, and it makes the process of buying books ridiculously simple. Not only have I abandoned my defense of the paper-only format, I am buying books at a rate that vastly exceeds previous years. Purchasing an eBook is the ultimate impulse buy. I bought the Complete Works of Edgar Allen Poe a few weeks ago for $0.99. Will I ever read them? Probably not, but what the hell? If the apocalypse comes, I’ll have hundreds of thousands of words to keep me company, all for the low, low price of ninety-nine cents.

    As a reader, then, I think that eBooks are a godsend. As a writer, I’m even more excited.

    Last July, thanks to equal parts marketing strategy from Kensington (my publisher), buzz, sunspots, planetary alignment and pixie dust, my latest release, HOSTAGE ZERO, climbed the eBook charts with a sales velocity that I’d never seen before. Better still, those sales pulled that book’s predecessor, NO MERCY, right along with it, to the point where NO MERCY was parked for three days as the #1 eBook (yep, even outselling that Stieg Larson guy for that period). Both books remained in the Top Five for two weeks, and in Kindle’s Top 100 for 58 days.

    During that same period, my pBooks (I love that term) did sort of okay. Nothing to be ashamed of, but nowhere near the number of copies sold in paper as sold in electronic formats.

    Why the discrepancy? Well, no one can be sure, but for writers like myself, who come out in paperback originals (PBOs) I think it has everything to do with distribution. Back in the day, the attraction of the PBO was its universal presence. Every newsstand, drug store and grocery counter had a huge selection. The Big Box stores didn’t yet exist, so book stores, per se, were few and far between—at least where I grew up.

    These days, for the most part, you don’t find my books in airports and in drug stores–at one time, the primary outlet for that format. What little space is available at all for paperbacks is occupied by reprints of last year’s hardcover bestsellers. And why not? Given the cost of retail space, and the middling performance of most paperback originals, why not go with the sure thing? Newsstands don’t even exist anymore, at least not as they used to.

    To pick up one of my books in paper, you pretty much have to go to a bookstore to get it, and that makes the distribution problem even worse. The independent bookstores have largely been driven to extinction by the Big Box stores that grow like weeds–increasingly sickly weeds at that. Borders has stopped paying publishers for books, for God’s sake. If there’s a better going-out-of-business plan, I don’t know what it is. B&N’s not in the best financial shape, either.

    Think about it: The Big Two (before Amazon) drove their the independent competitors out of business, and then they themselves started to implode. It’s too soon to sound any death knells, but even if the management teams are merely held to their words, huge swaths of this country will no longer have access to a convenient bookstore.

    At least not a brick-and-mortar one.

    According to the New York Times (9/2/2010), “By the end of this year, 10.3 million people are expected to own e-readers in the United States, buying about 100 million e-books. . . This is up from 3.7 million e-readers and 30 million e-books sold last year.” If I do my math properly, that’s a 330% increase over a twelve-month period. Quite the impressive trend.

    And as a rising midlist writer, it’s exciting as all get out. Let’s be honest: as the business model stands now, PBOs get lost in commerce. In the Big Box Stores, the casual shopper sees the PBO by Gilstrap as just another spine-out splash of color between the face-out Gerritsens and Grishams. Unless you’re specifically looking for my book, you’re not even going to see it. And if you live in one of the hundreds of communities where your Big Box store has packed up and left, you don’t even have a place to go to order a book you want. That leaves you with the romances and the reprints of last year’s hardcover bestsellers from the racks of the grocery store.

    By contrast, the eBook universe is vast and simple. Any reader can buy any book at the press of a button, and for significantly less cost than a traditional book purchase. Plus, there are no shipping costs. Greater convenience + less cost seems like a solid business model to me.

    I think there are tough times ahead for publishers, but they’ll be orders of magnitude tougher for those who fail to embrace what I see as the certain death of hardcovers (because of price) and mass market paperbacks (because of distribution). I think that trade paper will replace the hardcover (as they already have in Europe), and that the eBook will be the new mass market. In ten years, I predict that even the trade paper format will be on life support.

    The new reality is likely to be particularly difficult for publishers and authors who are used to making huge dollars calculated on the basis of $28 hardcovers followed by $9 paperbacks. I just don’t think that’s sustainable in the new marketplace.

    For publishers and authors who are ready and willing to adapt (thank you Kensington!), I see a bright future for the book industry. Back when I was a kid, a paperback was only $4.99 and hardcovers were about $14.00. Now that we’re in the 21st century, I see a future of eBook originals at $4.99, and trade paper at $14.00. And when it all settles out, new star authors will be born.

    John Gilstrap

  2. I’ll readily admit, I’ve been in the same boat as John Gilstrap. Paper all the way, baby! Over the past year or so, as I’ve watched the ridiculous growth of ebooks, I’ve come to the conclusion that I will eventually buy an ereader. The only thing that has held me back to this point is money (on again, off again lay offs have made this kind of purchase impossible over the past few months). I have kept tabs on what people have said about the digital publishing industry, and while a part of me laments the decline and struggles of the paper book industry, I’m all for the future of digital.

    You can find all kinds of stories about writers who have done quite well for themselves through almost soley digital publishing. J.A. Konrath is probably the most well known, and has become something of a poster child for industry. He is far from the only success story. Whether through self-publishing or via traditional publishers, you can find many authors who are garnering far more sales via ebooks over pbooks. The reasons? Over the past few months, millions of reading devices have been purchased, from the ipad to the kindle and the nook, there are now a LOT of readers out there now with ereaders. And because of the handy, impulse buying convenience of them, these readers are now reading more books than before. As an author, I cannot complain one bit about this. I fully expect I will sell more copies of my debut, Deadworld to the digital buyer than paper.

    We live in a world of convenience (for better or worse) and people will generally always turn to that which is more convenient for them. Ereaders provide the convenience of storage, the ease of buying, and additional perks like larger print for those who have difficulties with standard print size. As the tech develops, we’ll see things get more interactive, which will be a big deal with certain kinds of books. They will get cheaper. I suspect we’ll see a slew of sub-$100 ereaders for next xmas buying season. It will be a gift you get for your kids and grandparents alike. Over time, we might actually see a growth in readership across the board, which can only help the publishing industry in the long run. There really is very little downside to the ereader and its monumental growth.

    However, there still are a couple of drawbacks. Brick and mortar bookstores will suffer. We’ve seen this recently with Border’s financial woes. It has hurt the independents and the libraries. Why go check out a classic when you can download it for free or nearly so? I happen to really like bookstores and libraries. They have an atmosphere, an ambiance that is impossible to find elsewhere. Being amongst shelves and shelves of books makes me feel good. And there is something to be said about the smell of books. It’s good for the soul, and you can’t mimic any of this with an ereader. So, while I will get an ereader and thoroughly enjoy the experience I’m sure, I will continue to buy paper books too. I will still make trips to the bookstore, and I will always have shelves in my house with books on them.

  3. Great comments, John, particularly about distribution of physical books vs e-books. I’m in mass market paperback too, and with a new release just out, I spend a fair amount of time worrying about which stores are carrying my novel, and how many copies each one has, so I’m all for more e-reading.

    As far as devices are concerned, I have an older Sony Reader PRS 700 I bought a couple of years ago after I hauled a dozen paperbacks with me on a research trip to Chile, and decided I’d had enough of that. Naturally, as soon as I purchased it, they upgraded that particular model and dropped the backlight to make the screen easier to read. It’s also about twice as heavy as the newest Kindle, though no more so than the average book.

    I do about half my reading electronically, and about half in print. There’s just something about a physical book that I can’t resist, especially when it’s by one of my thriller pals, and it’s right there in the bookstore . . .

    And by the way, just so you know, I REALLY wanted that coprolite you were awarded at the banquet at ThrillerFest last July for the worst Amazon review . . . guess I’ll just have to hope for an even stinkier review next year!

  4. John and J.N. touched on many of the industry aspects and personal convenience factor, so I’d like to offer a little different perspective that I think is also a pertinent aspect on preferences.

    Everyone in our industry suffers from eye strain. Many readers do as well. A few years ago, I went through a series of eye surgeries that significantly limited my reading. The challenge was contrast. Buff colored pages look nice, but after a dozen or less pages, the print faded into them. That meant frequent breaks were needed. Read and rest, read and rest. That doesn’t make for truly enjoyable reading, particularly if you’re into suspense and thrillers. It’s actually often frustrating because you’d like to keep going and can’t.

    I had been anti-ereader until then, though I fully expected that they’d replace print books for all but top sellers in a few short years. Greater distribution, more manageable risks for publishers with diminished returns, which have haunted publishers for a long time. More books “less safe,” more trailblazers–I could see wonderful opportunities for authors on the horizons, but I too love the feel of a book in my hands. The problem was, I couldn’t see them. Yes, I was grateful not to be blind. But that said, I’d be less than honest not to admit that it is a wicked trial for a writer not to be able to read much. After all, what leads most to writing is loving to read.

    And then came Kindle. Sharp print. Large font. Those things in short order replaced the tactile preference. I could read and read… and read. For hours–as much as I liked. And with less muscle strain. The world of books was open to me again. In a sense, I got something vital to me in my life back.

    I’ve had the flu. Four days of fever and counting. With that comes the predictable headache and that too makes reading a challenge. But using the text to speech, I was read to and it wasn’t perfect, but it was good and relaxing.

    I think of the worlds this opens up to those with vision challenges, and to all those along the spectrum down to ones who suffer tired eyes. The more situational reactions I hear, the more certain I am that we’ll see an expansion into not just ebooks and articles, but media-rich stories that open new and different and more markets.

    Some said younger readers would embrace ereaders and older ones would not. But features override the reluctance to embrace new technology. Recently, one such reluctant ereader user spoke of putting her Kindle inside a Ziploc so she could read while in the bath. I chuckled at that, but it’s a sign–one of many–of ereaders being not just embraced but welcomed.

    1. Vicki, you stress the size factor, which I think is really important. I only mentioned it in passing, but there’s a whole segment of readers out there who can’t or won’t read because of eyestrain. While the older generation of folks may not be as tech comfortable, as the tech savvy generation gets older, they will continue to read. I also think ereaders will eventually help young readers get into reading more. I’m pretty hopeful on the future of books, at least as far as growing the percentage of people who read, which is pretty abysmal in our country, I believe.

  5. J.N., adjustable font is a big plus. I know several series where the word count on the printed books was lowered specifically so that the font could be made larger in response to reader requests for larger type. Too, making ereaders user friendly to those unfamiliar with computers–and there are still many–pulls that resistant group’s focus from what they don’t like to what they do. Saving space. Carrying thousands of books with you at once so you can read to mood at will.

    There are more subtle issues too. Privacy about what you’re reading. This can be an issue for some when books have suggestive (racy or violent) or graphic covers.

    Fewer allergens and saving trees, too.

  6. I can’t improve on what everyone else has said other than to declare that I received a Kindle for Christmas, have sampled a couple dozen books, and am now halfway through my 3rd e-novel (John’s NO MERCY was the first) with no intention of going back to paper.

  7. Sorry I’m late to the party, but I’ve read my colleagues’ comments with interest.

    I’ve owned an ereader for two years now (an old Sony PRS505) and almost all of my book purchases are now in electronic format. I carry it with me pretty much wherever I go and have it stocked with over a hundred titles at any given time. Since I’m usually in the process of reading three or four different books at once, I can take all of them with me and read whichever one I want at any given time.

    I’m even more thrilled with the whole e-reading revolution as as writer. The ability to bring out several of my backlist titles has not only introduced those works to a whole new group of readers, but has also allowed me to earn a sizable income from books that were just gathering dust on the hard drive. With a couple of new books coming out in trade paperback and mass market later this year, I’m hoping to fan the flames even more and give those readers who discover me in print the ability to read more of my work electronically and vice versa.

  8. We’ve touched on many aspects here that pertain to us as readers and as writers. One, as writers, that we haven’t yet discussed is piracy, and since that impacts us as writers, I think we’d all consider it relevant.

    Recently I ran a check and discovered 21 of my novels had been uploaded to a pirate site. I reported those with rights to the publishers, and their legal division handles the challenges from there. The books where rights had reverted, I contacted the site personally, informed them that I was the author and held the copyright and I had not authorized the digital uploads. The site responded quickly, putting up a notice that the copyright holder had requested the content be “filtered.”

    In two days over 400 copies of a trade paperback out a few months were downloaded.
    On the other 20 novels, the numbers varied. 100 plus copies to zero. Four hundred copies on a trade paperback in two days is a significant number.

    Some say that these are people who wouldn’t have bought the book anyway. I say if those readers are in countries that restrict distribution, that could well be. But even in those countries, piracy is a significant issue. For writers to have the opportunity to write (as in, be able to afford to write), the issue must be addressed. And it is, though solutions and resolutions are in-progress not fixed as yet.

    As writers, this is an enormous challenge with ereaders, and as this market explodes (which I firmly believe it will), if not addressed, piracy will become an even bigger challenge for writers and for publishers.

    Your thoughts?



    1. E-piracy is already a huge problem, and as more and more people start reading electronically, I think it’s only going to get bigger. I recently wrote a sort of “e-piracy primer” for Daily Finance about the impact on authors, both in lost income and in lost time patrolling for and monitoring the pirate websites: http://www.dailyfinance.com/story/media/e-piracy-the-high-cost-of-stolen-books/19790305/. As bad as the current situation is, I think we’re only seeing the tip of the iceberg.

      I know at least one publisher has an online form where their authors can report illegal downloads, which the legal department then follows up on, but the burden of finding the illegal copies in the first place still rests on the author. As if writing and promoting our work wasn’t enough! I’m honestly not sure I’m also prepared to take on the role of policeman.

  9. Definitely an issue. I know that I will be as vigilant as I am able in tracking down pirated versions of my book. If I was interested in putting my book out there for free, I already would have. I feel bad for readers with access/monetary issues regarding books they would like, but I’m in the same boat. There are lots of other great books out there to read. As a professional craftsperson who has invested a huge amount of time and effort into my creation, I would like at least some compensation for it. While I certainly want as many people to read and like my stories as possible, I can’t afford to do it for free, and that what people who pirate books are telling me, that I don’t deserve it. And that’s not right.

  10. J.N., a tip: set up a google alert for your name and each title. Then, when either crosses the net, you’ll get an email alert. I run a separate advanced search and see what’s come through in the last 24 hours or the last week, depending on the span between these specialized searches. (I can post directions on how to do that, if you’re not familiar. Just yell) It’s easier to stay on it than to pick up now and then–the time investment required, I mean. Pretty quick to do, just takes a few minutes this way.

    I also run image and blog searches–those other than straight web–because some think that by removing key words, they hide. If you run the images/blogs, you pick up the covers and other tidbits that lead you to these pirate sites.

    Some specifically instruct uploaders to remove keywords, so unfortunately it’s necessary. Now and then, run the first line of your book, too.

  11. I agree that piracy is a major problem. I recently ran a three month experiment in which I made a list of the top fifty new releases I wanted to read and looked for them online. Using just two pirate sites, I was able to find copy of every single one of those books online within less than a week or so of their actual release dates. I blogged about the experiment at http://josephnassise.com/a-three-month-look-at-ebook-piracy

    So far neither the music industry nor the film industry has found a successful way of dealing with this issue, which doesn’t bode well for the publishing industry being able to do so either, unfortunately. And it will only become more important, as electronic editions rise in popularity.

  12. Very interesting fodder, Joe. It’s going to take advocacy and persistence for all artists to protect their interests, I think. This nearly collapsed the music industry and I believe publishers have learned from the lessons in that and are being more pro-active about getting out in front of the challenges.

    For some reason, the public doesn’t seem to make the connection that writers write for a living and if they’re not earning one, they will be earning a different living in a different career. But that’s another topic for another day. 🙂

    One thing about ereaders that I find incredibly exciting for writers has to do with risk-taking. I love blazing new trails. Mixing genres and blending them to develop new sub-genres. I’ve seen this as a way to expand our markets and embrace new readers who like elements of the familiar with new elements. It’s a win/win.

    Once, in a discussion with a good friend who also happens to be an editor, she said the only thing more risky than taking on a new author was manufacturing the o rings they use on the space shuttle. This was after Challenger so it was a powerful example. Well, the same is true for risky books. Some think that authors who are well established are free to write what they want, but more often than not, those authors are working an inverted pyramid, meaning their options for writing something new and different are less limited because they have commitments established that relate to reader expectations.

    Say, for example, an author writes legal thrillers, and has a successful career established with a very healthy readership. Now the writer wants to write a different type of novel. The publisher is resistant because it knows the book won’t fall within the perimeters of what the reader expects. It might agree to publish the book, but reluctance will be involved, and likely lower print runs, less support and all else that goes with it. It’s risky business for the publisher and the author.

    The risks aren’t eliminated in ebook format, but the fiscal impact can be diminished. EBooks also open the door for those books that in years past have fallen through the cracks. They don’t quite fit in this or that spot, but they’re wonderful books. Ebooks offer opportunities for these risky books.

    Then there are those books that are valuable and worthy. The ones that have a niche market but won’t have broad appeal. These are difficult to get through committee, past marketing. The return on investment can’t be justified–and yet the book has value. This is frustrating for authors, but these type of books really frustrate editors who love them too. Ebooks give these valuable books a venue where they they can succeed.

    What I’m thinking is that these are books that wouldn’t get strong distribution or marketing support. They wouldn’t get substantial notice or be out in sufficient numbers to gain a foothold. But in ebook, they can get out. Authors can experiment, take more risks, innovate–and so can publishers. And they can do so and remain on fiscally solid ground. This offers a lot of opportunities to writers that have dwindled in recent years. I find this incredibly exciting because we need to continue to be innovative and creative, to take risks or we will stagnate. We all know what happens to stagnant industries. They die. So this is exciting and vital to the long-term health of our industry.

    Can’t you look down the road just three or four years and see tons of media-rich works? Fiction and nonfiction? An explosion of new sub-genres, disparate blends, and out-of-the box books that obliterate the boxes?

    Definitely exciting–and not only possible but probable because of ereaders and the affordability of ebooks. I can’t wait to see what happens. 🙂

  13. Read very interesting post by sf author Tobias Buckell, where he talked in detail about digital piracy. He made the interesting point that there is actually no empirical evidence that piracy has any direct, negative impact on sales. While it makes sense that we might lose sales to piracy, there are some who discover authors via piracy and end up buying, and there are those who pirate just to collect books, which would be no sale regardless, but really the overall effect is kind of a wash for authors, and we are better served not stressing overly about it and not personally getting involved. Better to spend time writing and let publishers deal with it as it comes up.

  14. Noteworthy article in PC World (thanks to Kathy Carmichael for the tip) regarding sales info on ebooks v print books. Between June and July 2010, 180 Kindle books were sold for every 100 hardcover books. Now, in the 2011 post-2010 holiday season, 115 ebooks sold for every 100 paperback books.

    Sales on the Kindle outstripped projections by nearly a third, so authors can suspect to see elevated ebook sales, though it’s way too early to state that an ebook sales trend that exceeds print is at hand. Its heels, however, are be chased, with growing percentages of sales already evident to many authors tracking their own sales.

    You can read the PC World article at: http://news.yahoo.com/s/pcworld/20110128/tc_pcworld/amazonkindlebooksalessoar

    J. N., with all due respect to the sf author who feels piracy is a wash and we should pretty much ignore it and leave it to the publishers to handle, I watched that happen in the music industry and it nearly killed it. We license our books, we don’t sell them. Authors and publishers are partners in this alliance. Protecting our joint interests, in my humble opinion, requires a team effort that requires everyone’s participation and effort. They can’t do it all. Neither can we. We have to work to together for our common good.

    In my own situation, had the pirated copies all been to say, China, where sales are restricted, I likely would have agreed on the stolen copies not representing what would have been sales. But that wasn’t the case on the lion’s share of pirated copies on my works.

    There’s a greater principle at work here as well. I choose to give plenty, as most authors do. But theft is theft. To in any way condone it is encouraging more of the same. That’s a disservice to all authors and all publishers.

    I don’t think we have the luxury of ignoring the problem or not working with the publishers to resolve it. And I fear if we do that, then we won’t be dealing with a problem, we’ll be coping with a crisis. I hate being in crisis. 🙂 So with that author, on this, I’ll have to respectfully disagree.

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