Reflections on the eBook Revolution

Aaron Elkins

My husband, Aaron Elkins, and I have been involved in the mystery publishing world for almost 30 years, and somewhere along the way, it's lost the romance it once had. The book became a unit. 

A unit to be produced in a specified time, to be packaged in a certain length, and to be sold like so many varieties of breakfast cereals. Many full-time writers are not out living interesting lives, trying to soak up inspiration for their next books. Instead, they're pounding away, trying to write a novel within the confines of the publishers' schedule instead of their own imagination. Some very successful writers manage to get around this by hiring teams of work-for-hire writers or ghostwriters to do it for them. One amazing fact of the current state of publishing is that there are even dead writers hiring ghosts—oh, excuse me—I mean the "estates" of dead authors hiring ghosts to get those books out every year. Whatever it takes to meet that deadline, right?


Some writers like Aaron love to write so much that they manage to do both: write up to their own internal standards and to make the annual deadline. However, Aaron's been consistently late every year, going on twenty-five years or so. Thankfully, he's been lucky enough to have understanding editors. Still it means that he's usually under stress and, some day, I fully expect to find him dead slumped over his computer. (Yes, this has been a topic of "discussion" in our house.)


The end result of this, in my humble opinion, is that frequently there are very good first, second, and sometimes even third books in a mystery series—and then there is a slide into lousier books with an alarming rise in violence. Haven't you continued to read a mystery series because you love the characters, but the books are less and less satisfying? I know I have.

Being a romantic and having a very understanding co-author, I've had the luxury of writing five Lee Ofsted golf mysteries with Aaron over a fifteen year period. I've had the pleasure and joy of writing within the confines of my own imagination, but because they weren't produced on a one-a-year schedule, we lost a couple of opportunities for commercial success. It's no surprise that all of the Lee Ofsted books went out-of-print. (As an aside, recently Shuesi-sha, Inc., a Japanese publishing house, has discovered them and will be translating and publishing them in Japan over the next few years.)

Just about the time the publishing business model looked broken beyond repair, the digital world presented writers and publishers with some unique opportunities. (And yes, some scary downsides, but let's leave them aside for the moment.)

Digital books to the rescue

Authors can now have their books "in print" again with very little cost involved. Aaron and I now have much of our own backlist in the Kindle Catalog and are looking forward to having them available soon in all other popular eBook formats. In the past, these books have only been available through the huge internet-based, used-book market. Writers and publishers do not receive compensation for the sale of used books, but with the advent of eBooks we can start collecting royalties again on our out-of-print titles. Unfortunately, it also opens us up to the scary downside of electronic publishing—piracy. If people start downloading and reading pirated copies of our works, we are in trouble yet again.

One of the chief benefits of electronic publishing is that authors can spend more time developing their style and finding an audience. As print publication evolved, the bottom line came first and the down-the-road potential of a writer last. Publishing houses focused most of their attentions on finding the next bestseller and couldn't afford to give writers much time to develop. And they didn't have as much energy to spend on their midlist writers—the ones who used to be the backbone of the industry.

The old way of doing things worked against new authors. Because of the cost and constraints of producing the hardcopy of a book, there are authors who never got a chance. In the past, an author might have written a fine book, but the subject matter only appealed to a few, or the book was too long, or too short, or not violent and sexy enough for current trends. In his book The Long Tail, Chris Anderson discusses how technology allows businesses to prosper by taking advantage of niches. Electronic publishing allows authors to take advantage of this principle. In addition, it gives them more flexibility. A book can be released on the author's timetable. And gone would be huge print runs for titles the publishers think will be bestsellers, with only small runs for everyone else.

Finally, the publishing industry can cut tremendous waste out of the supply chain. Even if a reader wants a hardcopy of a book in addition to a digital copy, the POD (print-on-demand) technology means that books can be printed when it is purchased. That means millions of books won't be printed, then later warehoused, and finally destroyed. This will save not just trees, but ink, water, and fuel.

Getting books into the eBook catalogs

When Amazon introduced the Kindle, they gave individual authors the opportunity to upload their own books into the catalog if they owned the copyrights. Sony's Reader Store also does this, but I don't know about the B&N Nook or what Apple has in mind for its iBookstore. We started taking advantage of Amazon's offer right away and have gotten a lot of our backlist into the Kindle catalog. It's exciting to see the early Gideon Oliver mystery novels available in the Kindle catalog. We are in the process of making them available through other online catalogs. It's taking a fair amount of time because, as we quickly discovered, it's not as easy as it looks. There are not only the formatting issues you have to deal with, there's the problem of cover art. Authors usually don't own the cover art on their print books, so they need to create new covers for their eBooks. There are people and companies out there who will get a book ready for a fee, but if the author does it all they can keep their royalties. Fortunately, there are how-to books to help you with this. It does require some computer skills, but it's gotten easier for us over the last year.

Finally, issuing a book in electronic format lowers costs for publishers. They no longer have to print the book, warehouse it, and ship the books to retailers, or deal with unsold returns. In addition, once a book is in electronic format, it never has to be reprinted. It's always available when someone wants a copy. I think there will be a lot of contention between authors and publishers over this issue. It will be interesting to see how it plays out.

Publicity: Does going it alone make sense?

Publishers can certainly help further an author's career. They not only help with editing, offer marketing support in the form of catalogs, ad buys, sending authors on book tours, and negotiating good display positioning in bookstores. They also help by giving advances on books so an author can support him or herself while writing it.

Unfortunately, as the houses pour more of their energies into bestsellers—or what they hope will become a bestseller—this support is going to fewer and fewer writers. In fact, a large number of writers are being asked by the houses to contribute to their own marketing through the social networking sites and by maintaining their own Web site. If authors are being asked to share more and more of the work of promoting their books, when does going it alone make sense? How much more work would be involved, especially if they have some name recognition? And if they do, will they be blacklisted by agents and publishers?

The future of electronic publishing

The publishing world is in complete flux because of the eBook. It's going to be fascinating (and a bit stomach-churning) to see how it plays out. All authors would be wise to follow the developments closely so that they can decide what will work best for them in the long run.

However, one thing's clear. Print publishers are no longer the gatekeepers they once were, and being rejected by them is no longer the death sentence it once was. Because of the eBook, print-on-demand, and the ability to market books using social networking and the author's Web site, publishing a book no longer costs a lot of money. Author's can try it on their own.

However, here's a note of warning. I've heard rumblings that some book agents and publishers might try to make never-published writers fearful of going that route by refusing to work with them if they self-publish (a.k.a., blacklisting them). But considering the power of the internet, the potential success of "publisher X sucks" campaigns, and consumer boycotts, I can't imagine why the traditional publishing world would want to go down that road. Instead, they should embrace it. After all, the self-published eBooks world might be a great "farm team" for them, a place where they can spot and nurture budding talent.

In addition, it might bring back some of the romance I spoke about earlier in this article. It might even lead to a flowering of literature and a new era of creativity. And once authors find that their niche is bigger than they expected, they might even team up with traditional publishers to take advantage of the knowledge and marketing power they bring to the table.

I might be dreaming here, but all this might lead to a new age of real bestsellers. Not ghost-written or committee-written knockoffs, but real books with the vision of a single author's creative talent.


The eBook Revolution

by Tracy Sebastian

UnnaturalSelectionI was walking through my local grocery several months ago and a paperback book with an interesting cover caught my attention. I bought the book, Unnatural Selection, and after one chapter I was hooked. I love mystery thrillers without blood and gore. I had to read more from Aaron Elkins, the book's author.

I looked at the inside cover and found out that this was the 13th of a 15-book series. I immediately pulled out my iPhone, launched my eReader app (free;, and discovered that none of the other 14 titles were available through eReader's online eBook store. Then I went to and discovered that most of the earlier books in the series were out of print. I had to order used copies of the books, pay shipping, and wait. It was a pain, but it was worth it. I love the books in this series.

Out of curiosity, I recently checked my eReader app to see if the books were now on there; five of the author's most recent works were available. Then I launched the Barnes and Noble app, B&N eReader (free;, and found the same 5 books. Finally, I went to Amazon's Kindle site and found the whole series—even the out of print books!

With the proliferation of eBooks and online stores, avid readers will have better access to out-of-print and hard-to-find books. I found this to be an exciting prospect, but wondered what book authors thought about the eBook revolution. I contacted my now favorite author, Aaron Elkins (The Gideon Oliver Series) and his co-author wife, Charlotte (The Lee Ofsted Mystery series) to find out if the digital book revolution had made life easier or harder for them. Charlotte responded at length; here's what she had to say.

Aaron Elkins
From a Mystery Writer's Perspective
Sept/Oct 2010
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