Saturday, December 19, 2009

Is Fear of the E-book Killing Book Stores?

No, it's the economy, silly.

Evergreen Review posted what could have been a wonderful essay on the closing of San Francisco's beloved bookstores. Unfortunately, the author was bitten by the 'Nazi' bug along the way, leaving much of the essay incoherent and over-emotional.

I quote a passage discussing the $9.99 price tag for a digital novel: "One wonders why Nourrey cannot simply advise E- Book to go fuck itself and produce high-quality reasonably priced books, even if in smaller numbers. But the truth is, Nourrey, like Bertelsmann, like most American book publishers, are linked to twenty first century, late-stage hypercapitalist imperatives predicated entirely upon ceaseless expansion, the inherent belief in Darwinian obsolescence and succession as the lifeblood of successful economics and societal advance."

Ahh – there may be a pony in all that horseshit, but good luck finding it.

"Late-stage hyper-capitalist imperatives" I believe he's talking about the Big Six and their marketing paradigm. Since 'business as usual' was profitable in the middle of the last century it will be profitable in the digital age. (Ask the Auto Industry how mid-century business tactics worked for them. Not!)

Perhaps we can translate as follows: 'big print runs for big book stores' mentality meets Wal-Mart's volume discount book purchase policy. The result is lower profits for everyone.

As I wrote in a previous blog – my Theory of Publishing – the Big Six rely on print runs of thousands of books.
These printings are warehoused – then shipped to a 3rd party distributor's warehouse. The bookstores buy from the distributors, not from the publishers. The fly in this quaint 19th Century ointment is the 'return' policy. The physical books aren't returned, only the covers. Return credit for the wholesale price works back up the chain to the publisher. Alas, since the publisher doesn't get books back, they have to print more books. (Authors are charged for returns against their advance.) The reader goes to the bookstore, paying $28, plus tax, minus any discounts for book. (Author makes less than $2 per book.)

The printer and distributor win. Little old ladies buy coverless books from the flea-markets by the box, for pennies each. (Grandma bought coverless books at the Florida flea-markets by the bag full in the 1970's.)

Which is why all of the independent publishing companies rely on 'Print on Demand.'

This theory cuts out the distributor and maybe the bookshop: Reader hears about book on blog. Reader follows link to Book Site. Reader purchases book online. Book is printed and shipped by PoD company. Reader, author and printer all win. Bookstores can order too, they just need to have demand for the book.*

Now cue the theme from 'Jaws.'

This is the monster: Kindle, E-book, i-Phone, Blackberry or Nook owner hears about book on Twitter, Facebook, or My Space. E-reader goes to website, pays low, low price of $9.99 for the $28 book. E-reader curls up in corner, taking his/her library of 2 million books with them. Author and reader win. Publisher may or may not be involved in the process. Distributor closes. Bookstore closes. Author in San Francisco loses mind and rants about Nazis.

There is considerably less money exchanging hands in the E-book scenario. The author will get advances against the print books but no advances for the e-book. There is no distributor, or bookstore, just someone hosting a website and a bunch of files. (The Author makes about $2 per book.)

There – it's been spelled out without mentioning anyone from World War II.

Does it have to be this way?

As long as the Author -> Agent -> Publisher -> Distributor -> Bookstore -> Reader (Minus returns) model is in effect there will be less profit for everyone. E-readers, in that case, are the monsters cutting out the middle-men.

If print on demand publishing is going to be the answer, it is up to the publishers to change the game.

Innovation is not part of the Big Six publishing process.

Innovation belongs to the independent publisher.

Back to the Evergreen essay.

But where does the closing of the San Francisco bookstores fit into this?

Don't know – this was the author lost their facts and was bitten by the 'Nazi' bug. Here, too, I quote: "Such was the methodology of the SS who forced their prisoners to run naked races round and round the barracks yard in the Polish winter, a race that no one was meant to win."


If everyone in San Francisco had an e-reader the Evergreen author would be right about e-readers killing his beloved bookstores. However, no one has sold enough e-readers to flood the markets of San Francisco (population 800k.)

The Kindle expected to sell 300k units this December, for a total of 3 million units world-wide. Sony isn't telling. They'd be crowing if they had sold more units than Amazon. We can assume they sold less than a million units.

*Marketing is the elephant in the room of e-book, self-publishing and independent publishing. Marketing is a science unto itself. Yet many agents expect the writer to present a marketing plan right along with their synopsis.

I feel a marketing blog coming on.


5 comments: said...

This was the first time I've seen a pro-e-reader argument that made sense. Thank you. I haven't tried one yet and am not sure I'd like it, but it does seem like a good idea. No one wants to give up the dream of big advances, though...and I'd suspect that's where the fight begins with authors who are against it all. I'm on the fence over the whole issue, but loved to hear your take on the matter.

Ms Kitty said...

Thank you!

I've always been interested in tracking the impact of technology. Growing up before the computer age, I've seen it first hand.

Now the latest wave of digital readers (including cell phones) is changing the book publishing industry from author, to publisher to distributor to bookstore to reader.

Technology has created the Evil Empire of Amazon (rolling eyes) and Createspace.

I have no idea where this will all lead. But somebody has to write about it, minus the hysterics.

The e-book has the potential to save trees - make a new 'mid-list' and kill the book stores. It bears watching.

Agnieszkas Shoes said...

Yes, I saw that Nazi article - I believe I spat feathers in the comments section along with several others - adn there was collective feather-spitting on twitter too.

I'm always amazed that those in the publishing industry talk as though the end of the world is coming and we need to shore them up to help authors and readers and bookstores. Such is the double-face of industry self-interest. I'm sure the end of the world IS coming - but for the publishers. Authors and readers will continue just fine - as will editors, printers, and designers.

Oh, and to some authors the marketing's the fun bit - it's where we get to get out of our studies and on teh road and finally meet the readers - the people it's all for!

And to further add to your sense that the cool things happen in the UK, on the subject of indie presses you might want to check out my recent posts on the amazing To Hell With Publishing, and their branches To Hell With Books and To Hell With First Novels - the coolest indie outfit I've come across.

Very best

Ms Kitty said...

Hi Dan,
Sorry I didn't attribute you as my source for the link to Evergreen. I got so caught up in blogging myself.

I'm developing a harder heart for the "Sky is Falling" shrieks coming from various portions of the publishing industry. They dodge the facts.

a) The economy sucks.
b) Some people don't read vampires - which leaves out 75% of what's in my local bookstore. Which means that I'm not buying books like I used to.
c) When I do buy books, it's from - because they have a bigger selection.
d) If the book store doesn't stock the right books, their business is going to suck even worse than their vampire books.

It certainly looks like the indie book business is going strong over 'yonder' in England. I'm happy for y'all - and wish I could come visit some day.

Merry Christmas!

Ms Kitty said...

This post is an oldie but amazingly popular, still. I looked it over, to see if it needs to be updated - however it stands up well.