Mike Fleming

john-grishamJohn Grisham’s decision to let Random House release his 23-book backlist in E-book format means one of the last big holdout authors has taken the digital plunge. Is it another symbolic nail in the coffin of indie bookstores and chains? “It’s too late for that, because there already was a corpse in the coffin, and those nails have already been driven,” said Otto Penzler, who has operated The Mysterious Book Shop for 31 years. It continues to struggle as he’s watched most of his fellow indie shops close. “One more author going to the dark side doesn’t make a difference, and I didn’t sell much Grisham anyway. It certainly is going to make a difference to Barnes & Noble and Borders.”

While most authors dove right into E-books, Grisham avoided them, partly due to his penchant for the brick and mortar bookstores. He is a principled guy that way. At one time in his career, studios were throwing as much as $7 million at him to make films from his books. Unhappy with some of the finished product, and his inability to have a voice in the process, he swore off film adaptations for years. Grisham’s longtime agent David Gernert said that it just felt like time to broaden into E-books. Undecided, Gernert said, is whether Grisham’s next novel, The Confession, will simultaneously be published in E-books and hardcover, as Da Vinci Code author Dan Brown did with The Lost Symbol. Many authors make the digital market wait 3 to 6 months, to give pricier hardcovers an exclusive window. Trident Media Group chairman Robert Gottlieb said he insists on that window for authors like Catherine Coulter. One reason is that E-books aren’t counted in The New York Times bestseller list.

Gernert said the decision will come soon. The E-book move is just one of several projects that Grisham has going in just about every medium. A Time To Kill is prepping for a stage launch; TV series are being made from The Street Lawyer and an original idea; Grisham has three movies perolating–William Monahan is writing The Associate for Paramount, Jamie Linden is writing The Testament and Mark Johnson and Hunt Lowry, and The Partner is being written by Ann Peacock.

“John is as loyal to independent booksellers as he has ever been, but we reached the conclusion, rightly or wrongly, that e-books can in fact supplement the reading marketplace, without eroding the traditional one,” Gernert said. “You see people reading the Kindle, the Sony Reader, but you also see them on the subway reading a paperback. It appears there are ways for print and E-books to coexist.

Penzler disputed that logic: “For every person buying an E-book, that’s one fewer buyer of a traditional book. But I have to be fair. Kindles are great. I see how people carry 20 books around. Books are less expensive, and some are free. But I’m a guy who likes a real book.” Penzler also acknowledges that in a way he too has taken the E-book plunge. He runs his own imprint — Otto Penzler Books — publishing mystery and crime novels through Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Many of the titles are available on digital.

“My authors have to collect royalties to make a living,” he said. “Not doing it would be like saying, I won’t sell my books to Barnes & Noble. You would hurt your authors, so I guess I am part of it.”

This situation isn’t dissimilar to the woes that might plunge Blockbuster into bankruptcy. How can brick and mortar rental stores survive when Redbox kiosks rent DVDs at 25% of the cost? The big question for authors and their agents is one that comes up in each conversation I’ve had with lit agents: what happens when Amazon and other E-book sellers control the publishing marketplace, suddenly hold all the leverage, and are no longer content selling books as loss leaders to move Kindles and other devices?