Tuesday 15 December 2009
They say the fluttering of a butterfly's wing in the Amazon rainforest can cause a hurricane in the northern hemisphere. Stephen Covey's decision to move from his traditional, conventional publisher, Simon and Schuster, to Rosetta Books an electronic book publisher working in association with Amazon, may turn out to be one of those moments in the history of book publishing when everything changed and wild forces were released into the creative environment.
Mind you, Covey has been lucky with his timing. The announcement that he is moving the ebook rights of two of his most successful titles to Amazon.com comes after a week in which the chief executive of Random House US unilaterally declared to literary agents that the imprints under his control had "the exclusive right to publish in electronic book publishing formats". For some commentators this salvo was the opening of hostilities in a war between publishers and authors' representatives that has been in the offing for more than a decade. Covey is not the first US writer to flirt with ebooks, but he is the first to declare a preference for the different business model offered by Amazon. In turn, this begins to look like the fulfilment of those predictions that Amazon's position in the market meant it should become a publisher. In other ways, however, Covey's move is less radical that it might seem. Essentially, he is treating the ebook as an electronic paperback, selling mass market rights after a conventional hardcover launch with Simon & Schuster, the publisher to whom he is at pains to stress his loyalty. There's also much less risk attached to his contract. Covey's writing sells to a niche market of managerial readers for whom books such as The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People are career bibles. The risk factor inherent in publishing a novel is absent with an author like Covey. We are not talking Virginia Woolf or Kurt Vonnegut here.
The ebook sale of classics is the next logical step in a market already under desperate pressure to generate revenue. And that's where traditional publishers start to panic. Backlist sales are the bone marrow of their business. The economics of digital publishing are not yet proven, but it is likely they will give authors a way to make far better returns on their writing than has traditionally been the case. Suddenly, the prospect of a flight from paperbacks seems a possibility. If the mass sales of established titles migrate to an ebook market they cannot control, then they are in the middle of a commercial hurricane that will threaten to blow down their houses, uproot their crops and ultimately drive them to ruin.
For the moment, Covey's move will only accelerate publishers' preparations for the shift from ink and paper to the digital screen. The book will not be outmoded, but it will face competition from yet another format.