By Minda Zetlin | From the May 2013 Issue
I am so over paper.
Given a choice, I prefer to read a book or magazine on my tablet. I’ve heard all the arguments from my fellow ASJA members about how nothing can replace books and how the loss of the physical book is a sad, sad thing, but I disagree. I love curling up in a comfy chair with a good book as much as anyone, and it works just as well if the book is in an e-reader or tablet. Plus, there’s the coziness of reading in bed with the lights off right before dropping off to sleep, something that’s awkward at best with a paper book.
There are practical advantages to electronic reading that are hard to deny. Who was the character just mentioned and whose name is familiar, but whom I no longer recall? I can do a search and instantly be reminded. I have a pretty big vocabulary, but every now and then I hit on a word I don’t know. In a second or two, I can do a dictionary or Web search.
Then there are the limitations that physical books have and ebooks don’t. When I read the Walter Isaacson biography of Steve Jobs, with its descriptions of his legendary speeches at MacWorld over the years, I’d close my ebook app, open my YouTube app, and watch the speech Isaacson was referring to. At least one author I know is augmenting her book with video so readers can watch the actual speech—a great idea we’ll see more and more.
And then there’s the way e-readers have opened up the market to things that would otherwise languish unpublished. Out-of-print books can easily see new life. That awkward length between 8,000 and 40,000 words—too long for a magazine, not long enough for a book—can now be published as a short ebook.
Yup, I’m definitely over paper.
The writer’s viewpoint
Up to this point, I’ve been speaking as a reader. As a writer, the picture is very different, unfortunately, because for the moment, we seem to be stuck with the following equation: paper = money.
Take, for example, book publishing royalties. Traditional publishers have established 25-percent as the industry standard for ebook royalties. On its website, the Authors Guild posted a carefully researched explanation of why that standard is yet another way of screwing writers. Their calculations clearly showed how authors make substantially less on each ebook sale than they do on each paper sale, while the publisher makes substantially more.
As if that wasn’t bad enough, an author I know tells me he had to fight for the 25 percent—his publisher tried to stick him with less. And in their recent settlement with Google, many publishers gave away the right to publish electronic books, at least via Google’s book search, without paying authors one penny for those rights. (For more on that, see the November 2012 President’s Letter.) Considering all this, Google’s recent decision to kill the print version of Frommer’s guides and sell them only as ebooks looks like yet another attack by this $260 billion corporation against the writing community. And so writers everywhere cheered when 83-year-old Arthur Frommer magically appeared to reclaim the imprint. He plans to continue publishing both e-books and print books.
On the periodical side, relative payments for pixels vs. print is even worse, as anyone knows who’s written for both a paper publication and its website. In my case, moving from the online to the print version meant per-word rates that were at least quadrupled, along with a lengthy pitching process followed by careful editing and multiple drafts.
On the website side, there was no fact-checking, interviews were few or nonexistent, and nearly all my pitches were immediately approved. And when I talked to sources for the website, they often asked, with hope in their voices: “Will this be in the magazine too?”
The lesson is clear: In this world where more and more people are choosing to read electronically, paper publication means higher standards, greater prestige, and more money. Recently, a disgruntled freelancer named Nate Thayer posted on his blog his correspondence with an editor at the The Atlantic’s website. The editor wanted him to “repurpose” one of his articles for the site. “We unfortunately can’t pay you for it,” she added. It’s worth noting that, in 2012, the company reportedly turned a profit for the third year in a row, thanks to that website, where readership is up 45-percent and revenues are up 33-percent. Why such a money-making venture can’t afford to pay writers is a mystery to me. Maybe I should ask Arianna Huffington.
Some writers have responded to all this with the view that digital equals evil, and that we should fight for paper as long and hard as we can. But that reminds me of the folks I’ve read about in the 1920s who fought against the telephone for fear it would kill the neighborly habit of dropping by. As a matter of fact, it did kill the neighborly habit of dropping by, but that seems as quaint to us now as a world without telephones.
Here I go, back to being a reader. I find e-reading more appealing than paper reading, and the rapid growth of ebook sales proves I’m not the only one. Like it or not, paper is in permanent decline. So, what’s a writer to do? The only thing we can do, both as individuals and as writers’ organizations, is make sure our clients take our digital rights as seriously as our paper ones, and make sure they pay us a living wage for website writing and for ebooks.
We have to make sure that as paper publishing dies, it doesn’t take with it the possiblity of earning one’s living as writer. It’s a battle we’ll need to fight over and over, one negotiation at a time. And there’s no one to fight it but us.
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