Want a copy of Bill McKibben's latest book, Deep Economy? Want to buy it cheap from Amazon.com? Well, as I write this, anyway, you can't. The Amazon page for the book refers you to third-party sellers, 'cause they ain't offering it. What about Wendy Clinch's "ski diva" mystery Double Black? Same deal.
What the frak happened? The two authors have nothing in common except that they live in Vermont and they're published by divisions of megacorp Macmillan. Last weekend, Amazon and Macmillan had a little tiff that has already been resolved, sort of. (That's why the Buy buttons for both books should reappear soon.) Should that tiff matter to you, the average reader? Well, maybe. And I'm guessing it matters a lot to the writers involved.
Basically, it's a dispute over the pricing of e-books for Amazon's Kindle device. Until now, Amazon has been offering electronic editions of new books for $9.99, a price that serves solely as an incentive to shell out $259 for a Kindle. If you buy a lot of bestsellers and other popular books in hardcover, with list prices hovering around $25, that's an awesome deal.
But it's not such an awesome deal for the publishers, the authors or the authors' agents, all of whom want to regain some control over the pricing of e-books as they become more popular. Apple, which is all set to launch an iBookstore for its new iPad, has already negotiated with the big publishers to set prices in the $12.99-14.99 range. In this new pricing model, the publishers actually take a smaller cut, but, according to this interesting analysis that I don't totally understand, it also prevents Amazon from taking over too much of the supply chain, thus safeguarding the publishers' positions in the long run.
As I discovered when I talked to DeFilippi — who used to have an agent and publish with HarperCollins — the Kindle and similar devices (Barnes & Noble has its own, the nook) are opening up opportunities for self-published writers.
And some of those writers have high profiles. Take James Howard Kunstler, author of acclaimed peak-oil tome The Long Emergency. He has one novel out from Atlantic Monthly Press and another on the way. Meanwhile, though, he's self-publishing an e-book version of his three-act play The Big Slide. His press release says it "centers on a large family seeking refuge in the Adirondack Mountains of New York state as the country is collapsing into economic and political turmoil."
Kunstler is putting his play out in several formats: You can listen to a podcast of a staged reading, download a PDF for $5 from his site, or buy the Kindle edition for the same price.
Why would you throw that money at Amazon? People who've actually used a Kindle (or nook) are better equipped to answer that question than I. But I gather that these e-readers are easier to take to the beach than a laptop, and easier on the eyes than a monitor.
Are we headed for a world without paper books? A world without offline bookstores or publishers, where writers of all stripes simply offer their electronic content to Amazon, Apple, et al. and hope someone ends up buying it? Where prices are set by a book's sales ranking?
Sure, now I'm sounding more apocalyptic than James Howard Kunstler. We all love our dogeared paperbacks and indie bookstores and libraries. For now, folks. For now.