The Grand Conversation on ebooks: Kate Eltham

Kate Eltham is a writer and creative industries professional based in Brisbane, Australia. Kate is Chief Executive Officer of Queensland Writers Centre and founder of if:book Australia. Her volunteer projects include coordinating the Aurealis Awards and co-convening the Clarion South writers workshop. Kate has been a regular contributor to ABC Radio and The Courier Mail and has published numerous short stories in anthologies and magazines. She appears regularly at writers festivals and presents seminars and workshops on writing and publishing industry topics.

Kate’s contribution is the last but certainly not the least in the ‘Grand Conversation’ on ebooks. She is one of Australia’s foremost authorities on ebooks, and she has plenty to say on the subject:

“The witch is dead (isn’t she?)”

Shane asked me to write a contribution to the Grand Conversation on ebooks a month ago and it’s taken me all this time to pull my finger out. Which means I get to cheat a little bit and read through all the great contributions that have been made before now before putting my thoughts down.

One of the clear motifs in the Grand Conversation here at Shane’s blog, which is being echoed across the interwebs in other conversations on ebooks, is the shift in power from publishers to authors that has been brought by disintermediation of the publishing supply chain.

The argument goes something like this: publishers have been guarding the gate between authors and readers for decades. Not only do they narrow the opportunities for authors to reach readers, they take a disproportionate share of the revenues. They have to, of course, because publishers have legacy cost structures that make it expensive for them to publish books. But in order to stay competitive, for all but the best selling authors, they have been investing less and less in author development, editing, production quality, and particularly, marketing. Digital technology now makes it possible for authors to do all the functions a publisher used to do and reach their readers directly, rightly earning a larger share of the spoils.

Ding dong, the witch is dead.

I can’t fault the logic. The evidence is mounting that proves each of those statements. Production and distribution costs are falling, online retail channels are proliferating, ebook sales are rising. Why would an author ever need a publisher again?

Perhaps they don’t. I’m not going to use my 15 minutes on Shane’s blog to argue the essential virtues of publishers.

But I do want to point out a few things to the authors who think it’s now just a few merry steps down the yellow brick road to the millions of readers (and therefore customers for their books) waiting for them in the Emerald City.

While authors and publishers have been slugging it out over royalty rates and digital rights, many on both sides of the gate have missed the real shift in power that has been going on for close to a decade now. The shift in power to readers.

Readers are the real gatekeepers. They decide if you’ll find an audience for your work. They also determine whether the business models authors and publishers choose will be sustainable. And all of the issues like price, availability, territorial restrictions and DRM mentioned on this blog … those are reader issues. Readers are the true force that is shaping the new dynamics of the book industry: how and where books are bought and used, how books are discovered and made successful.

Before you intone “it was ever thus”, consider the lack of influence readers had, in a pre-internet, print-only world, on availability, price, and distribution of books.

As book buying has moved to the web, as the internet has lifted the veil on regional disparities in price and availability, as digital tools have made it easy to publish, convert, and move content from person to person, the book supply chain has become more and more exposed to the influence of consumer wants and needs instead of its own desires and inefficiencies.

But here’s the rub. If it’s easy for you to publish your own e-books and distribute them via independent services like Smashwords or Book Baby, then it’s easy for millions of other authors, too. And not just other creatives. Organisations with decades of content locked in their databases are flooding the digital marketplace with their titles, too. Some of it is free, some of it is cheap, but either way, there’s a lot of it and we haven’t even seen how deep and wide this river of content will get.

Readers will have near unlimited choice of book content, and alongside it, video, web, music, and other content as well.

Being published isn’t your biggest hurdle anymore, being read is.

So as authors, take your moment to celebrate your newfound independence and the potential economic windfall it will bring you. Finished? Great, because you’ve got just as many challenges as you had before, they are just different challenges.

Smashwords and Book Baby can get you into the Kindle and Kobo store but they can’t find you readers, they can’t market your book for you, they can’t dampen the noise in the channel that is swamping your very very faint signal.

So what are you going to do about that?

Do you understand what book metadata is and how to use it to improve discoverability? Do you know how to tag your e-book for better search results? How will you support independent book retailers to sell your books, or libraries to make your ebook available for lending? How are you tracking your ever-proliferating licences and royalty agreements? What’s your pricing strategy? Your social strategy?

Let’s go deeper. Should you even be writing books? Is the audience that most wants to connect with your stories waiting for an app, or a transmedia storyworld, or a game? A bespoke handmade booky artefact? How do you know who your readers are? How will you engage in conversation with them? How will you help them engage with each other? How are you preparing for a post-ebook future or even post-text?

All of these problems face publishers now, but they also face authors who are publishing independently. And I have no doubt whatsoever that enterprising authors are capable of solving them, creatively and profitably.

But when you think back to your childhood, when you first realized you love stories so much that you might one day want to create them for a living and share them with readers everywhere, is this how you imagined you’d be spending your time? Is it how you’d like to be spending your time now?

The book industry is well on its way to being completely disintermediated. But we’re also on our way to re-intermediation. In other words, new intermediaries, new service providers, new connectors, will spring up to help us solve the new problems of a digital marketplace. These might not be traditional publishers, in fact, it seems quite likely they won’t be. They might be database developers, software and app developers, social media strategists, game and ‘narrative experience’ designers. Whatever they are, one thing seems certain. Very very few people will have all the knowledge, tools, and expertise to handle every aspect of this themselves.

Chances are, the services you require will be fee-based or will occupy some of the royalty share that publishers used to take. If you don’t want to a publisher to handle all of these choices for you, or if you’re not willing to cede the 90% of equity in your creative work to achieve it, you’ll need your own strategy for connecting to your readers. The only thing authors need to decide is where they wish to place themselves on the control continuum.

Authors with backlist content ready to digitize right now would be mad not to take advantage of the current expansion in the ebook market. But while the witch may be dead, the Emerald City is just as far away as it ever was. Who will you choose to accompany you down the yellow brick road?

Kate Eltham’s opinions on publishing, ebooks, and life can be found on Twitter or if: book Australia.



  1. Damn it I thought it would be
    Step 1. Write book
    Step 2. Profit

    Wise words Kate.

  2. Vicki says:

    Excellent article. Thanks, Kate.

    @Sean: 🙂