Literary game-changer

Windham County authors, booksellers react to shifts in readers’ habits — and how those habits will affect their livelihoods

BRATTLEBORO — Regardless of how more traditional bibliophiles might feel about it, downloadable electronic books have become a major part of print publication.

Kindles and Nooks are more popular than ever, and many people find a downloaded copy of a new or favorite book more convenient than carrying around a printed hardcover or paperback.

According to the Association of American Publishers, e-books in 2010 accounted for 6.4 percent of all book purchases.

The shifting landscape of bookselling naturally affects Windham County authors and booksellers alike.

Local authors Theresa Maggio and Castle Freeman have both published works electronically (a reprint of The Stone Boudoir by Maggio, and a series of short stories, Round Mountain, by Freeman).

Freeman describes his experience with publishing Round Mountain through the Concord ePress as “entirely positive.”

“I knew the publisher, the Concord ePress, in Concord, Mass., from working with them on another project,” he says. “They invited me to contribute to their first list of 12 books to be published as downloadable texts only.”

Freeman says that “it happened that some years earlier, I had put together a collection of short stories, mostly from the 1980s and 1990s, that failed to find a conventional, ink-and-paper publisher. I thought, Why not try it on the ePress, then?”

“I did, they liked it, and here we are,” he says.

Freeman likes his new-media publisher's traditional literary values.

According to the publisher's website, the Concord ePress is an offshoot of the Concord Free Press, which “publishes limited editions (3,000 copies) of original trade paperbacks and gives them away, asking only that readers make a donation to a charity or someone in need.”

The press is a “labor of love” for a consortium of writers and publishing professionals.

“The Concord ePress people are the best: very able, experienced, and dedicated to good writing,” he says. “My manuscript was gone over afresh thoroughly and critically. It was copy edited and proofed by practiced editors.

Freeman does, however, regret that Round Mountain is currently not available in bookstores.

But, he says, the Concord ePress is working on adding print-on-demand capability to their books, “so I hope we'll be in stores before too long, as well.”

Nonetheless, Freeman's main goal for publication is the same as any author's: “to have my stories read.”

“Two other books of mine, published in the conventional manner over the past few years, have been made available by their publishers as downloadable e-books, for sale along with their paper editions,” Freeman says. “This is common practice now among publishers generally, I believe. eBooks are not going to go away.”

Theresa Maggio recently turned to e-book publication to renew interest and sales for The Stone Boudoir, a book about the remote hill towns and villages of Sicily which she wrote 10 years ago. She decided to republish in order to generate additional income.

“[Electronic publication] was easier since the book, my second, had already been published as a hardcover and as a paperback; the same publisher sold the e-book rights to Amazon,” Maggio says.

“The book was already 10 years old, and sales have slowed considerably, naturally,” she says. “E-book sales may provide additional income from the book.”

“I have no concerns as long as [readers] have to pay to download and I get a percentage from my publisher, who does the accounting,” Maggio says.

Although Maggio points out that “e-books pay less than paper books, percentage-wise,“ the experience will be positive “if I see income from the [Amazon] eBook on my next royalty statement!”

Maggio's predicts that “e-books are the way the world is going, [and] authors will earn less from now on, probably.”

Local bookstores like Mystery on Main Street in Brattleboro and Bartleby's Books in Wilmington are aware of the rise in e-books and electronic publishing.

In addition to its recently reopened storefront, Bartleby's sells Google eBooks on its website, while Mystery on Main Street still limits its books to the paper-and-ink variety.

Bartleby's sells Google eBooks through an arrangement with the American Booksellers Association through its Indiebound program, which supports independent bookstores.

“Most of our customers continue to purchase books from our store, instead of e-books from our site,” says owner Lisa Sullivan. “Convenience seems to be the biggest factor.”

“The primary benefits to our store is that we can keep customers who might go to another site to purchase eBooks,” she says. “We also don't have any inventory carrying costs when selling an e-book.”

For Sullivan, it's more about how much people are reading and supporting the authors than what kind of technology is being used in the process.

“Readers are good for authors, so whether they read an e-book or a printed book is only a small piece of the equation,” she says. “There are so many books published per year that authors need to find a way to break through the crowd and get their book noticed and read.”

“I don't believe e-books and local booksellers are mutually exclusive,” Sullivan adds.“Booksellers introduce new authors and old favorites to readers every day, either in their store or on their website or via Facebook.”

The 21st-century eight-track?

Dave Wilson from Mystery on Main has much to say about how e-book sales affect and help local bookstores.

“We do not sell e-books or e-readers,” he said. “In fact, we don't sell anything that needs a battery.”

“We sell books, and they are powered by ideas, which we think is pretty special in itself,” Wilson says. “We have, however, looked into the possibility of selling e-books should we see a demand.”

Wilson says that most of his customers “enjoy the feel of a book more than they do a piece of plastic. They come to us for information, conversation and recommendations.”

While he is a strong advocate of print over plastic, Wilson recognizes that e-readers and e-books have their conveniences as well as their drawbacks.

“People choose e-readers for several reasons. They can be very convenient on a long journey. A book doesn't have a keyboard or dictionary, which many readers find convenient,” he says.

“E-books are marketed as cheap, although book prices are quickly increasing. E-books can keep a faltering title in print,” Wilson also notes.

“A well-established author might sell to a new group of readers, but I don't see much of an upside for new authors in an electronic world,” he adds.

“Most bookstores hand-sell new authors that they like. It is always going to be tough for a new author to be recognized, but booksellers are often a great help to them,” Wilson says.

The cons of e-printing, he points out, are that people cannot make the same personal connections downloading a book as they can browsing in a bookstore.

“People have a tendency to browse in a bookstore, read the jacket copy, weigh the worth of their pocketbook and their time against the book they have in their hand,” Wilson says.

“Most people form a relationship with a book before purchase it; I don't know whether or not that happens while trolling the Internet for something to read,” he says.

“People see the worth of local bookstores and the printed books they carry,” Wilson adds. “People make connections in a bookstore that they can't make online.”

“Personal connections are so important,” he says.

Wilson recognizes the “panic” in the publishing industry over the e-book's rise in popularity, but considers it “a waste of energy.”

“Are e-readers here to stay? Certainly, but if you look past the hype, there's really very little information so far,” he says.

“And with the constant change in technology, Kindles could be the 21st century's version of the eight-track tape player,” he hypothesizes.

“Remember when the computer was going to create a paperless society?” Wilson adds.

“This shift in media will take time to shake down, and there's plenty of room for books, e-books, recorded books,” Wilson says. “If we continue to run around in circles worrying about the fate of publishing, we won't be able to make time to sit down and read a good book - electronic or otherwise.”

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