The Disruption of Guttenberg’s Dynasty or What Is Happening to the Traditional Book?

By G.G. Vandagriff

This article is based on an interview with David P. Vandagriff

My husband has made an intense study of the e-book/e-reader phenomenon.  Since I am a writer, I am intensely interested in the following questions.  Maybe some of you would-be writers will be as well.

Q. What do you think is the future of ebooks?

Regardless of the data source, any graph of ebook sales over the last five years shows sales ramping up at a phenomenal rate. 

– The International Digital Publishing Forum shows quarterly ebook sales increasing 250% per year from Q3 of 2009 to 2010.

– The Kindle ebook reader is Amazon’s largest-selling product.

– Amazon, the largest bookseller in the world, currently sells approximately twice as many ebooks as hardback books.

– The Book Industry Study group says that ebooks represented 1.5% of the book market in 2009 and 5% of the market in the first quarter of 2010.  Some industry insiders estimate that currently ebooks represent 9-10% of total book sales.

According to a recent New York Times article, this Christmas is shaping up as the season for ebook readers.  “In a recent Consumer Reports poll, 10 percent of the adults surveyed said they planned to give an ereader as a gift this year, up from 4 percent in 2009. . . . Carolyn Reidy, president and chief executive of Simon & Schuster, said she expected ebook sales to shoot up on Christmas Day, when people open up their ereaders and immediately start buying books.” (Great Holiday Expectations for Ereaders by Julie Bosman, November 14, 2010)

We can safely say that the sales figures for ebooks will continue to increase at a rapid rate and that ebook sales will displace a significant portion of hard copy book sales.  Recently, the President of Random House predicted that ebooks would constitute 50% of book sales in five years.

A second set of statistics from Amazon suggest that its Kindle purchasers include a high percentage of its very best book customers, people who have historically purchased multiple books per month.  The ereader market is growing so rapidly that 33% of ebook buyers have entered the market in the last six months. (A brief note about my use of “Kindle”.  Kindle is a physical ereader sold by Amazon, but it is also the name of a free ereading software package that can run on your personal computer, iPhone, iPad, Blackberry, etc.  You use Kindle software to download Kindle ebooks from Amazon’s website.)

While the ebook trends are all very positive, it is far too early to predict the demise of the printed book.  Cursory research into ebook adoption quickly discloses a large group of people who are adamant that there will never be an electronic replacement for physical books, at least for them.

Having personally witnessed the disruption of several established markets by revolutionary technology, my response is that I heard the same thing about typewriters and printed accounting ledger books before the personal computer became ubiquitous.  My guess is that the physical book is going to become the typewriter of an ebook-dominated world.

Q. What is the role of the publisher and agent in ebook publication?

In today’s world, agents and publishers are gatekeepers. 

Today, an author can’t effectively submit a manuscript to a major publisher directly.  He/she must have an agent who approaches various publishers.  The agent is a gatekeeper who controls access to publishers.

Today, an author can’t persuade a large number of bookstores to stock his/her book if it is not published by a major publisher.  The two major U.S. bookstore chains, Barnes & Noble and Borders, have buyers who are accustomed to dealing with established publishers and will simply not deal with individual authors.  Certainly, a hard-working author may be able to travel from store to store and persuade a store manager here and there to purchase some books, but that is a long, long road to travel.  Despite recent store closings, both Barnes & Noble and Borders have over 700 stores.  The publisher is a gatekeeper who controls access to bookstores.

Amazon’s approach to ebooks has begun to disrupt the lives of these two gatekeepers.

Amazon has made it very easy to self-publish an ebook.  For a complete do-it-yourselfer, it’s a matter of creating a cover in Photoshop, writing a little promotional copy and uploading your manuscript.  Go to Amazon.com, then look at the very bottom of the page and click on “Self-publish with Us” for all the details.  A variety of other online locations, including Smashwords and Barnes & Noble PubIt, can do the same thing, although sometimes with a small fee.

You will learn that if you price your ebook between $2.99 and $9.99, Amazon will pay you a royalty of 70% of the sales price.  One sale at $9.99 generates just under $7.00 in royalties for the self-published author and royalties are payable monthly.

Your self-published ebook will be listed for sale on an Amazon page that looks pretty much like the one listing this week’s #1 New York Times bestseller.  You don’t need an agent or publisher to get there.  Amazon has created a gatekeeper-free online bookstore for ebooks.

Will you sell as many ebooks as J.K. Rowling or Glenn Beck do?  That’s another story.  There are more than 750,000 ebooks and other epublications listed on Amazon’s website.  J.K. and Glenn are a lot higher on the Amazon bestseller list than you are.  The odds against you getting “discovered” and turning your self-published ebook into a bestseller are pretty long.

This is where publishers and agents play an important role in ebook publication.  They have knowledge and contacts that allow them to get your book noticed and written about.  The publishers have promotional budgets for their books that can be used to buy your book a place on the table everyone sees when they walk into Barnes & Noble.  If a customer doesn’t want to buy a physical book, he/she can use their smartphone to buy a copy of your ebook on the spot.

This doesn’t mean that ebooks have changed nothing for publishers.  A few established authors have switched to self-publishing their new books as well as their “backlist,” the books that were published conventionally by their publishers earlier in their career.  Several claim to be making good money doing this.  If J.K. and Glenn decide to go this route, they’ll make good money too.

Q.  How will ebooks change the market for LDS writers who wish to write with LDS standards, but not necessarily about LDS characters?

Although there are a growing number of LDS writers who are finding great success on the national scene while still writing to LDS standards (Brandon Sanderson, for one), LDS authors can and do face pressure to compromise their standards in order to please non-LDS publishers, which are overwhelmingly headquartered in New York.  For better or worse, in many commercial literary genres, New York standards require material that LDS writers are unwilling to provide.

LDS publishers have been slow to adopt ebooks, but more and more are converting their existing book lists to ebooks.  I have heard reports that some LDS publishers are proposing to publish some books as ebooks only, with no physical books printed. 

From a publisher’s standpoint, publishing an ebook is dirt cheap compared to dealing with physical books.


  There are no bills for printing, shipping or warehousing.  With physical books, most bookstores have the right to return unsold books to the publisher for a refund.  There are virtually no refunds with ebooks.

The dramatically lower costs for ebook publishing does raise an issue of author royalties, however.  For physical books, typical royalty rates are 6.5-10% among LDS publishers.  If a paperback book sells at retail for $10, the author typically receives 65 cents.  The publisher earns the lion’s share of the revenues generated by the sale of the book because the publisher foots the bill for publishing, editing, promotion, etc.

In the non-LDS publishing world, the current standard royalty for ebook sales is 25%.  If an ebook sells for $10, the author receives $2.50 in royalties (although some publishers pay only on their net ebook revenues, not the retail price).

The bottom line for LDS authors is that ebooks give them the opportunity to self-publish easily (although not necessarily profitably) if they want complete control over their content.  It also appears that LDS authors may find that LDS publishers are willing to publish a wider range of ebooks than they do physical books, so new publishing avenues may open in that realm as well.

GG:  In my next column, we will have David answer the following questions: 

What responsibilities will the author take over if he/she publishes the ebook themselves?

Tell us about how this will effect authors economically.

If ebooks become the majority of books published, what will happen to publishers and agents? 

In your opinion, is this a good trend?  Why?

How does an unknown publicize his/her ebook?

G.G. Vandagriff is the author of eleven “Guttenberg Books,” nine of which are also e-books.  She loves to hear from readers at her website  or her blog .  She also has a new website(http://PTSDweb.com)  connected with Pieces of Paris, her latest book. 

David Vandagriff is the author of I Need Thee Every Hour: Applying the Atonement in Everyday Life.  He is the resident techo-genius in our office.  Questions for him will be referred from G.G.’s blog or website.