WCF, E-readers & me

May 27, 2011

Book Expo America – the biggest publishing conference in the country – took place this week in New York, focused on digital like never before.

Among other things: Barnes & Noble unveiled its new Simple Touch Reader, Kobo debuted its super easy reader, Bloomsbury announced a digital imprint for reprints, Barry Eisler decided to sign with Amazon Books – perhaps the biggest news of all: Amazon announced that it had named Larry Kirschbaum, the former chief of Time-Warner Books and a 40 year industry vet, to head its publishing arm, including – get this! – printed books!

I confess, I was pretty excited by this last bit. To me, it signaled good news -- the book as we know it still has legs if the greatest e-reader promoter ever decides they also wanna go the route of paper, ink and seams.

As an author, I’m grateful and dependent on bookstores – and, as a reader, nothing replaces for me the bookstore experience of discovery and conversation. But l admit that though I love the feel and smell of an actual book and have walls lined with them, as an author, I have soft spot for Amazon.

Why? Well, my books sell well on Amazon, and the Kindle editions do far better than any other electronic version. I also admire the Kindle single – making long essays and short stories available on their own -- and appreciate that authors – particularly self-published writers – have much more say (and make more money) on Amazon than via other publishing means. For authors, Amazon makes it pretty easy.

So I felt a little sheepish last Tuesday, at the Roving Café in Englewood, when I was chatting it up with my friend Linda Bubon, co-owner of Women & Children First, and coughed up that I now own – and enjoy -- a Kindle.

As an author, I owe WCF more than I could ever say. Even before I was published, they were promoting my work. I launch every single book there because, even though I’ve lived on the South Side for more than years and had to switch my practical book buying habits over to 57th Street Books, WCF has always been my literary home.

“Mostly, I read magazines on my Kindle,” I said, guiltily (though this is true – the New Yorker doesn’t seem as daunting on a Kindle). I also quickly pointed out that my Kindle was a gift.

Linda just shook her head. She’s embraced digital books, she said, as have most independent bookstores like WCF. WCF and other indies, in fact, are selling e-books on their websites. But not just any digital book.

“Google made a deal with the American Booksellers Association and major publishers to abide (for now) with the ‘agency plan,’ which assures that publishers set prices, allowing authors, publishers and sellers to get a fair share,” Linda explained. “Google eBooks must be sold at the same price by all sellers (the publishers signed with the agency plan), allowing small and mid-sized booksellers, as well as Barnes & Noble to compete on a level playing field. And Google eBooks can be read on many devices -- iPhone, iPad, Android phones, desktops, laptops, NOOKs, Sony ereaders.”

Pretty much everything but … the Kindle.

“Kindles and Kindle books are proprietary to Amazon,” she said. “Kindle books can only be read on Kindles. Amazon sets the price, bypassing publishers, and often making deals directly with authors -- good for authors, but only in the short run if their main source of income -- publishers’ advances -- goes away.”

In other words, Kindle books can only be bought through Amazon and read on a Kindle or through a Kindle app. Independent bookstores can sell any kind of ebook for any kind of e-reader -- except Kindle formatted books designed for Kindle and Kindle compatible readers.

On Wednesday, Linda decided that this was info that needed to get out more. She made a sign and put it on WCF’s window explaining what ebooks they carry and why.

As for those paper books Amazon will be publishing now, well, WCF won’t be stocking them.

I’m still carrying my Kindle around in my backpack, but I confess it doesn’t feel as light anymore.