The “State of Ebooks” panel at Worldcon 75 was one of the smaller but more eagerly followed panels at the con, with almost every seat taken. Moderated by Tod McCoy, Overlord at publisher Hydra House Books, the panel included James Bryant, retired electronic engineer, and “panellist and moderator at several WorldCons,” and, as it turns out, an early ebook adopter and a huge fan of the technology, as well as Irene Vartanoff, author and comic writer, and last but not least, Patrick Nielsen Hayden, Associate Publisher at Tor Books, well known for its commitment to DRM-free e-publishing and in the business since the late 1990s.
Irene Vartanoff became a convert to ebooks and self-publishing, she said, due to the portability of ebooks, and the economics and lead times of self-publishing, which underlined that writers no longer needed to wait around for traditional publishers. Nielsen Hayden recalled the early experimental days of ebook publishing in the late 1990s as a time when people joked about the huge number of man-hours of meetings spent on the medium compared to the few dollars of profit. “Things have changed since then.”
For piracy and DRM, Nielsen Hayden said that Tor has seen no loss of sales or business since it went fully DRM-free. He cited Baen Books’s policy of keeping books DRM free, and piracy as essentially a tolerable cost-of-doing-business. And if a show of (clapping) hands from the audience is any proof, the argument over DRM just isn’t an argument any more. No one wants DRM. When someone from the floor asked why publishers still insist on DRM, Nielsen Hayden said: “you’re asking the wrong publisher.”
The panel also had strong opinions on limited geographical distribution for ebooks. “That is one of the cases where I would cheerfully pirate,” said Bryant, “and if I meet the author in a con later on, buy him a beer.” This doesn’t mean that authors are entirely innocent. “There are no agreements between governments that govern any of this,” Nielsen Hayden noted. “But that said, it’s driven by what rights agents and authors want to sell. Agents and authors have a strong and understandable interest in making separate deals.” He did emphasize, though, that this whole system evolved pre-ebooks and “has created all kinds of perverse situations,” and that “our friend Amazon does not help on this,” limiting distribution in smaller countries and those outside the Anglosphere.
Nonetheless, publishers have come round to ebooks. “Publishers like them. They have fewer materials costs,” said Nielsen Hayden, though he also pointed out, “they’re not free to make; they’re certainly not free to make well.” And he maintained that books should still come out, and remain core to the business, while “to do something in e only is going to bring a kind of stigma.” Self-publishers of ebooks only, however, can still succeed, especially those writing in “a narrow but intense niche,” instancing “narrowly defined romance tastes… that appeal to a few people, but to those, it appeals a lot.” Bryant and Vartanoff both agree that combining ebook with print-on-demand is one viable crossover approach, but emphasize that P-o-d is not a good format for discoverability and browsing. Nielsen Hayden remarks that even Amazon’s discoverability platform is “in its infancy.”
One strong argument for continued quality print publication everyone buys into is avoiding obsolescence of formats. Nielsen Hayden noted that a book published around 1600 could be dropped into the sea, left for hundreds of years, retrieved, and would still be readable. Remembering the time he dropped his ebook reader in the sea, Bryant emphasized how valuable an ebook platform is for keeping your entire library intact and with you, even if individual ebooks can never be signed, or become valuable collectibles.
Asked about the best formatting and other approaches for preparing ebooks for publication, Nielsen Hayden emphasized that Amazon is still “the 900-pound gorilla” that is going to provide most of the income for most people, with EPUB as the ideal backup format. Bryant insisted that, when preparing text for ebooks, paragraphs should never have line breaks, with double line breaks between paras, as the default universal standard.
For the future of the medium, however, the panel was definitely still focused on the bare-bones reading experience. Hypertext and interactive books, they observed, have not stayed the course, and ebooks keep reverting to the linear format, which delivers the true immersive experience of reading.