Two Worlds of Ebook Publishing

As a result of writing about my ebook publishing experiences lately, I've been getting more e-mail on the subject. What I hadn't realized is that there are two completely different groups of ebook publishers. The first group, in which I put myself, are publishers who see ebooks as a supplemental or substitute method for delivering books to customers. The second group are primarily interested in ebooks as a way to make money off the Internet. Call me innocent, but until I started Googling around, I didn't realize that there was this whole subculture of publishing ebooks as a sort of "get rich quick" scheme. Perhaps the most successful of these ebook entrepreneurs are those who sell ebooks about how to get rich selling ebooks. The basic pitch runs something like this:

Start by using a variety of Internet tools designed for advertisers to determine what sort of interest there is in any number of subjects or key phrases. Next, run some test advertising campaigns to find out how expensive it will be for you to get traffic (visitors) using online advertising. Stick the information into a spreadsheet so you can determine the most favorable looking prospect, and then put together an ebook that won't leave your customers feeling completely ripped-off or get you sued for copyright infringement. Last, use internet based advertising to drive potential customers to a serious sales pitch page, and use all of the modern advertising methods available to tweak it for performance.

How the third bit is carried out, actually creating the ebook, determines whether we're talking about a publishing business or a spam business. Most successful publishers do what they can to determine whether or not there's a market for a title before embarking on writing or acquiring it, especially in the how-to and self-help genres. Most publishers don't run test advertising campaigns to gather e-mail addresses for nonexistent books that may never be published, but I'll let that slide as being Internet savvy. It's the way the creation of the ebook is treated as a chore to be gotten through that really gets my goat. Simply drawing up a list of hot subtopics under a more general title and then hiring a copywriter to churn out 30 to 50 pages (that seems to be the target range for purpose-written ebooks) is a good way to end up with the ebook equivalent of webspam. Even if you go the extra mile of interviewing "experts" in the field or including some nicely formatted public domain statistics, it's highly unlikely that a writer who doesn't have any experience or expertise in the subject matter can create value for the reader. At best, it's a form of journalism that might produce an mediocre magazine article or blog post, but not something a person would pay for if they knew what they were getting.

I write and publish books for a living, so I'm clearly not some academic snob who sees authorship as a sacred activity that needs to be its own reward. And as an avid reader of 19th century (ie, "real" literature:-) I can tell you that the vast majority of the classics were written by authors who were not only trying to make money, but some who would have watched their children go hungry had they failed. I believe there's a line to be drawn between books and between text content of sufficient length to be sold as if they were books. I'm not sure whether or not this distinction matters to the folks who promote ebook publishing as a way to make money online, but I do get the impression that they feel they're doing something smart rather than something wrong. Yes, market research and modern advertising methods are smart, but setting out to produce and sell products that have no inherent value is wrong. Of course, these ebook entrepreneurs could throw in my face all of the consumer products that are not only valueless but harmful, and I'd have to eat my words. As long as they're salty and crunchy, I won't complain.

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