Wednesday, November 17, 2010

The Book World after the Revolution

Sandra Parshall

We’re in the middle of a publishing revolution, and people are behaving the same way they do when any great upheaval takes place. Some are jumping onboard enthusiastically. Some shake their heads and predict it will blow over and everything will return to “normal” – meaning, in this case, that traditionally published books will reign supreme. Others stand on the sidelines, having decided to wait and see how it all shakes out.

Those who deny what’s happening remind me of people who swore 30 years ago that they would never own a computer. Typewriters would never disappear. Yeah, right. Just like printed books and the stores that sell them will never disappear.

A few recent bits of news in the publishing/bookselling world:

In September, bookstore sales were down 7.7%, making it the worst month of 2010, while e-book sales rose by 158%. In the first nine months of 2010, e-book sales rose 190% over the same period last year.

The small independent chain Joseph-Beth Booksellers filed for bankruptcy protection and announced it will close four of its eight stores by the end of the year.

Barnes and Noble plans to close six to 10 stores annually for the next three years. Meanwhile, Borders continues its slow slide toward near-certain death.

I have to wonder where the optimists get their certainty that traditionally printed books and brick-and-mortar bookstores will survive. Those of us who buy and read books are a distinct minority of the population. If a million people watch one episode of a TV show on a major network, the show is an instant flop and gets yanked off the air. If a million people buy copies of a book, it’s a gigantic runaway bestseller. Relatively few authors sell well enough to support themselves with their writing. The vast majority sell fewer than 5,000 copies of each book. Books are not an important part of most people’s lives. They get their entertainment elsewhere. And people who do buy books are increasingly resistant to high cover prices.

Some in the publishing industry predict that e-books will make up 25% of all book sales within two or three years. (The current figure is around 10%.) What will the e-book share of the market be in 10 years? Fifteen years? Will print books be the expensive exception by then – collectors’ items?

The revolution is here. It’s happening. It’s not going away or slowing down. Why are so many people, even those who own Kindles and no longer buy print books, acting as if nothing much has changed or will change?

I have a million questions about the future. I’d like to hear more people talking about these issues, even if we can’t predict the answers with any certainty.

Will big publishers transform themselves into e-publishers just to stay alive?

With fewer print books being produced and sold, what will happen to bookstores? The indies have been dying left and right for years. Most people have already written off Borders. Can Barnes and Noble change enough to stay in business?

When will writers’ organizations, some of which currently have strict definitions of what “published” means, realize they have to adjust their criteria?

When will conferences start giving equal space on the program to e-published writers?

What will the “book room” at the typical conference look like in 10 or 15 years? Will it consist of lines of kiosks where conference-goers can purchase POD copies of books or instantly download digital books to their readers? Will signing times for authors be eliminated when they no longer have print books to sign? 

How do YOU see the future for the small minority of the human population that loves books? What will the book world look like after the revolution?


CJ West said...


I had a similar blog last week at the Stiletto gang. I agree there is no stopping the changes, but it will take time for publishers, conference organizers, and writers' organizations to embrace the new reality.

E-publishing has liberated authors to write and sell the books they want to sell. That will bring diversity and a heavy dose of chaos to the market for a while, but in the end writers and readers will be the big winners.


Elizabeth Zelvin said...

I think a lot of writers are going to drop off the lifeboat, unable to sustain their careers as writers, between the need for intense promotion and distribution efforts and the plunging price of books in the e-world. But a lot of writers have already dropped off the lifeboat due to the "legacy business practices" of traditional publishing. If brick and mortar bookstores survive, they may some day have nothing to stock but the same books you can get in Walmart.

Sandra Parshall said...

Liz, that's assuming that Walmart will have printed books to sell.

I think the mindset of writers themselves may be the last to change. Writers published by big NY houses will have a hard time seeing e-books as equal to printed. Short stories published exclusively in online magazines are already eligible for some awards, but I think it will take longer for e-books to reach that point, and traditionally published writers may be the most adamantly opposed to the change.

Debbi said...

I agree with CJ and don't have much more to add, except to say that the concern about the price of ebooks is a bit overblown.

My Amazon royalties to be paid this month will be in the thousands thanks to the 70% rate plus low price that kept sales brisk.

I would have been highly unlikely to achieve this on my own as a new author before ebook publishing became possible.

Sandra Parshall said...

Self-publishing writers may profit from e-books, but traditional publishers may lose money. Here's a report in Publishers Weekly:

Kaye George said...

B&N is jumping in, late, with its Nook and will soon have kiosks in the stores where you can purchase a book there and load it onto your device. I'd love to see independent stores do this with ebooks, too.

Elizabeth, so many, many writers were never able to get ON the boat. The doors are opening, not closing!

I'm happy to be living in such exciting times!

I have both a paperback coming and an ebook already out and will be interested to see how they both fare.

Kaye George said...

leaving another note so I can get follow-up comments.

Patg said...

Changes will be extreme at first, then they will settle down to something that suits the situations of the time. Right now the woes authors feel are based on not being able to do what they've heard works. Some changes slice and dice at the accepted way of things and such horrific fear is generated and it causes panic. Especially in those who have other people working for them and doing a lot of jobs they really don't want to do.
I sincerely believe the human race will keep reading, just how they do it in the future may not be what we do today.
Think of Jane Austen seeing a car. She could really laugh, never imagine how it could possibly be something the world would embrace. But that's because she wouldn't think in terms of paved roads all over the country, business springing up that has nothing to do with the car itself, much less how people will prosper enough to afford the thing.
Twist your thinking around these changes a bit and you'll see they only lead to other things that writers and readers will embrace.
I won't say 'leads to bigger and better' as those are fighting words to some. NOT ME.

Alyx Morgan said...

While I'm one of those "wait & see" people, I have to agree that I'm seeing a trend, Sandra. Since I prefer reading a book that I can physically hold - my eyes become tired quickly if I read too much via a screen - I hope that brick & mortar bookstores won't go away forever. However, there are millions of people who feel differently than I, so I may be in the minority.

In my "utopia", both sides will be able to flourish. Of course, the POD option might offer the best of both worlds.

See...too many "on the other hand" thoughts. Yep, I'll still wait it out. :o)

Nice post,

jenny milchman said...

Well, first of all, Steve Jobs himself would disagree with the "small minority of people who read" statement. When he said words to this effect himself--right before jumping in with the IPad--he had to eat some crow.

In a country of 300 million, even a small minority adds up to a lot of dollars. And the reports I've read say that more people than ever today are reading, and living tex-heavy lives--in part *due* to digital devices.

I also find a shade a gray in the "indies are dying left and right" part. New York Magazine ran an article about the relatively huge number of indies that opened in the city this year and last. Yes, Joseph-Beth filed for bankruptcy--which isn't tantamount to its going out of business--and Borders looks done for. But first of all, things have come back from the dead before, and second, the unique role an indie can play in the community goes far beyond selling books at the cheapest price.

I think bookstores (and publishers) will have to redefine themselves to a certain extent. I think e readers will have a permanent place in many readers' lives. But I'd be surprised if books go away given how many people love them, and how I see future generations crowding the children's rooms in bookstores, and reading "real" books in schools.

My guess is that technology can live side by side with what is a near perfect form...the book.

jenny milchman said...

Sorry--texT-heavy lives :)

Sandra Parshall said...

Although the number of people who read books regularly is a minority of the population, I think it's true that some individuals are reading more because of digital readers. They'll buy more books, too, if the prices are kept low. If a digital book costs more than the print version -- no, customers won't go for that. If publishers want to survive by switching a big part of their output to digital-only, they'll have to price the books properly and let quantity make up for the difference in price.

We may always have some small bookstores catering to people who refuse to let go of print. It's very hard to make a go of a small bookstore, though, even in the best of times. New ones may open, but how long will they stay open?

It's already clear that big chains won't survive if they remain primarily sellers of print books.

Sandra Parshall said...

One market where low-cost books are urgently needed and wanted is the so-called Third World. Education is essential to progress, and books are essential (in most people's minds) to education. If e-readers are made available on a broad scale, developing countries will be a huge market for e-books -- from textbooks to fiction. American and European publishers can tap into that market.

jenny milchman said...

Yes, that is a great point, Sandra--I do hope e readers are delivered like rice (more reliably than rice) one day soon. Then again, delivering discarded print books would be nice, too.

I don't know about the new ones staying open. The one that opened last year in Brooklyn is thriving so much that authors are backed up trying to get readings in there. My local indie never has less than two or three customers in it when I'm there. And the other indie nearby (so there are two) has eight staff members--including several high school kids!

People haven been predicting the demise of the book since the first one rolled off the printing presses. And while I realize you're speaking about medium, not content, I have the feeling that the playing field may level out somewhere south of 99% digital.

Sandra Parshall said...

A book is the words, not the package, and I feel certain that books will survive in some form. People are discovering the convenience of having dozens, hundreds, thousands of books on one small digital device, and I doubt we'll ever turn back from that advance. The writer's task is to find a way to make sure her/his books are among those thousands. It's always been difficult to stand out in the crowd, and now the crowd is getting bigger by the second.

Earl Staggs said...

Ten years ago, I felt in-store POD would be the salvation of bookstores. That was before ebook readers came along. Now I think a combination of the two in much smaller brick and mortars will be the future. Both print and digital buyers will be satisfied. Distributing, shipping and storing books will be all but eliminated and the cost of maintaining a store will be drastically reduced.

Anonymous said...

I love that line: A book is the words, not the package. I think that's the idea we need to embrace as we move forward. I would say that at the moment, I'm a "wait and see" sideliner. But not for long. Right now my mss. is making the rounds of the Big 6 and their imprint offspring. If we don't find a taker, then I'm ready for a smaller independent and epublishing. What would I have to lose?

Anonymous said...

Dang it. I forgot to check the follow comments box, too.