The Future of Publishing?

SF Signal has an excellent topic this week for their mind-meld, a gathering of experts in the field who commentate on a common subject. This week’s topic looks to the future of a field that’s central to the speculative fiction genres: Publishing. The responses are well worth looking at and reading over, especially for those who are interested in writing professionally, or for fans who are wondering where their fix will be coming from next.

The short answer consensus seems to be that publishing, books, stories and everything isn’t going anywhere, but the field will see major changes in book distribution and creation, not to mention the publishing rights of authors. eBooks and dedicated readers seem to have thrown most everyone through a loop as they scramble to figure out just what’s going on, and trying to make their best guesses on where the industry will step next, which is in turn dependent on a number of factors outside of the publishing industry’s control.

To be fair, books have had their own share of issues throughout recent memory, although the challenges here are a bit bigger. The 1980s and early 1990s saw a massive amount of consolidation of bookstores as major chains worked their way into existence, causing quite a lot of soul searching and closings of independent bookstores as a result. The bigger stores seem to have met their match as Amazon.com roared past them, because it could do things differently, and better than a physical bookstore. With eBooks, the troubles come as established markets find that their models for selling books is potentially undermined by an entirely new way to sell books, bringing in a number of new challenges and opportunities to the publishing world.

Every single online conversation about books seems to turn to the eBook market, with people coming down on two sides: “I LOVE EBOOKS, I READ SO MANY OF THEM!” and the “I LIKE THE SMELL OF PAPER AND THE WEIGHT OF THE BOOK IN MY HANDS!” crowds, both of which miss a major point: all that the platform does as function, whether physical or a computer, is content delivery. The same book exists in both realms, and as Lou Anders points out: “… it’s always been about the content, not the delivery mechanism.” Publishers have an extra option that just didn’t exist in any major way, and they are slowly waking up to the possibilities that electronic books will allow. The popularity of eBook readers is a good thing, I think.

The move to electronic formats does allow for a split between hard-copy ‘traditional’ books, and eBooks in ways that really hasn’t been touched on yet. When I attended ReaderCon, one presenter, Leah Bobet, noted that there are impressive things that electronic books can do: interactive features, links to relevant content and ways to read books in very different ways than we can now. Cheryl Morgan notes the very same thing this time around: essentially special features that can get tacked on to what you’re reading. With that line of thinking, books are poised to change a lot: multiple editions of the bigger books, with stripped down text for those who just want the story, or special features for the top of the line products. Some books already have these sorts of incentives: interviews with authors, reading guides, and previews of upcoming novels.

Despite this, I don’t think that hard-copy books will go away any time soon. There is enough market demand for hard-copy books, and the medium has had a long, long head start on the eBook revolution, which is still working its way through its early days. EBooks are certainly popular, and will grow to be even more so as the market shakes out the big obstacles. I suspect that we’ll see the end of dedicated eBook readers such as the Nook and the Kindle (sorry, Barnes and Noble and Amazon), in favor of multiple use devices such as the iPad, or dedicated eBook readers such as the Sony Digital Reader as a universal format is adopted by stores and publishers alike. The ability to read a book on multiple devices, I think, will be more important that the actual proprietary hardware that we have now. This is a lesson that online magazines are finding, and I suspect that while the Kindle has a good run right now, it’ll become a bit more open and accepting of other formats.

While e-readers might become a bit more open, I can see exclusivity remaining, becoming a major factor in how stories are sold, coupled with how chain stores might try to stay in the game. A couple of years ago, Borders released an exclusive book through their stores. I was a bookseller at the time, and this was a book that had been pushed quite heavily, and through the company’s efforts, it did fairly well, although I can’t figure out what the title of the book was or who the author was. The experiment doesn’t seem to have been as much of a success, because I haven’t seen anything like it since then (although I’m not quite in the same loop as I was before), but I think it’s an idea that has merit, and that it’ll be experimented with again.

There’s little doubt that major book sellers are having their own issues at the moment: too much stock, not enough of it selling, and it’s likely that we’ll see Borders fail in the next couple of years, if not sooner. Amazon and Barnes and Noble, I suspect, are going to be far better off because of their own efforts to integrate web sales and ebook readers earlier than their competitors. These are large organizations that nobody wants to see fail: the loss of a major bookstore is something that authors and publishers don’t want, because of the potential to reach a large number of loyal customers, and the companies themselves don’t want to die off. The chain stores are here to stay, I suspect, despite the swan songs of their demise, simply because they have the potential to sell a lot of books to a lot of people. They might be facing some major changes, but I would doubt that we’ll see the current companies die off, or at least not without some sort of replacement in one form or another.

If there’s anything that the Kindle has demonstrated, it’s that exclusive things do work: the Kindle’s done quite well, and where Borders has attempted their own exclusive things, I would predict that the major bookstores, in their efforts to stay relevant, will move a bit into the publishing field. It makes a bit of sense: they have experience with the market and the books that they know work. The only piece that’s missing is that they are only an outlet. Moving to begin selling their own books (Barnes and Noble already sells its own editions of a number of classics) would allow them to drum up a reason for people to come to their stores. Imagine if an author such as John Grisham or a similarly well-exposed author came out with a book that only sold at Barnes and Noble, published exclusively through them: it couldn’t be sold through Amazon.com or other competitors, and would get a fair amount of visibility through internal marketing and so forth. I can imagine that there would be a bit of anger from other authors, author groups and other stores, but large groups of dedicated readers would buy them. The trickle-down effect would be slow, with other authors jumping on if it works, and other bookstore chains copying the idea, slowly opening it up to more and more people, splitting the market up a bit, and giving the chains a bit of an edge over juggernauts such as Amazon.com.

There are a lot of assumptions here: the internet might not be the same, and as some people noted, the idea of net neutrality is slowly dying and the internet is changed radically. I don’t know that it’ll be as bad or as better than what people are imagining now, but major changes in how the internet works will spell major changes in how books are sold: another reason why physical books might remain longer than expected from those already writing their obituaries.

But, as has been stated already: the mediums in which books are sold are merely content delivery systems that bring the stories to the reader. Regardless of how that plays out, there is plenty of demand for books, and as such, I’ve little doubt that there will need to be in place editorial and distribution elements for the serious efforts. One thing is for sure: we’re in for an interesting ride.

eBooks & Value

Last week, Amazon.com and publishers started going head to head with the business model that Amazon.com has set up for their Kindle eBook store. With the recent release of the Apple iPad, new alternatives have been opened for publishers. With it, there has been a flood of problems and statements from all edges of public opinion about not just the power that Amazon.com seems to be able to field, but also to the very nature of the place of e-books.

The background of the story lies with Amazon’s preference for a lower price for an e-book on their Kindle device. Typically starting at $9.99, one of the major publishers, Macmillan, went to Amazon with new proposals for how to sell their books. From how I understand it, it would introduce a graduated pricing system, starting their new books at $15.99 and gradually dropping the price as demand falls away. This is something that’s already pretty well established in the book industry, with hardcovers of the really big books starting off at $25 to $30, before dropping down to trade paperbacks (Around $15 each) going to or going directly to mass market paperbacks, generally around $7.99 each. There’s a new, taller book (I’m not sure what it is called) that typically runs around $9.99 per copy.

A big part of the issue is that profits that go to the publisher, and eventually, the author, have been cut into, as it is a cheaper way to distribute the book. This made a lot of sense for Amazon.com, because after purchasing a multiple hundred dollar device, because it helps the more economically minded consumers actually use the device. While it’s just a little more than the mass-market paperback, buying a new release book that would normally be $30, for something between $9.99 and $15.99, makes a lot of sense, especially for the consumers who really matter – the ones who buy hundreds of books a year.

This makes good for the consumer, for sure, but it does impact other elements down the publishing line, and indeed, the bookselling line. Pundits, for years, have been predicting the demise of brick and mortar bookstores with the introduction of online bookstores such as Amazon.com, and with the slowly growing rise of e-books and the Kindle, it’s coming back, and for good reason: bookstores are getting hurt by this new competition. I recently was laid off from Borders when they closed down 200 of their smaller stores in order to consolidate to their larger ones. While there are other issues at stake there, it is clear that people buy far more off of the internet than from in a store. When given a chance, I’ll do the same thing – I can pick up other books cheaper from Amazon’s used bookstore, but also from used bookstores around the area.

This is all part of a larger consumer culture that seems to be pushed along by giants such as Amazon.com, Walmart, Home Depot and other stores: consumers want to pay the lowest possible price for what they want. Bigger stores can make that happen, and we’ve been conditioned to respond to that sort of thing. One of the problems, however, is in how the consumer values the product that they’re intending on buying, and how much the creator, whether it’s a publisher or manufacturer, and there’s a growing gap that’s pushed forward by these larger stores. It’s good for the consumer and good for these stores in particular, but it’s not good for the manufacturer of whatever good you’re trying to buy.

I’m not sure that that is a good thing, because eventually, the manufacturer’s ability to produce will have to be decreased due to lack of profits. In the publishing industry, forcing a publisher to take a smaller cut for their books means that less money could make it to the author, who will either need to sell more books or negotiate a better deal with their publisher. This is even more of a problem when stores, such as Amazon.com sell a majority of your books, and where your entire publishing company has been taken off, as is the case with Macmillan.

I think part of the issue is addressing just how much a publisher should value their e-books, and making customer expectations meet that. Books have a lot that go into them, from editing, layout, marketing and so on, and in a consumer culture where expectations towards lower and lower prices are pushed as well, that particular detail is going to be lost. It would seem that the publishing industry has reached a level where they don’t want to move any further.

How exactly does one value an e-book? I can say with certainty, that I will typically go with the price on the back of the book for a majority of the books that I purchase in a year. I try to find something with a discount, and made use of my employee discount, but once purchased, I know that the book was mine. When it comes to e-books, there are a whole lot of other options, especially with Amazon.com, which essentially sells you a license for the book, which can be revoked at any point. (This happened, somewhat ironically, with the book 1984, recently). This is the same with music and software, and has been around for a while, so I’m not sure why everyone is raising a fuss about it now. Thus, people purchase a product that they cannot transfer or resell as they could the physical product. Even if it is cheaper, I think that even $9.99 isn’t a good value for the consumer, as opposed to my feeling that $25 is a very good value for a physical book in some instances.

Who’s at fault for this? Well, everybody has blamed everybody. The publishers have been blamed for distrupting Amazon’s plans, the consumers have been blamed for wanting low prices, the publishers for demanding too much, and the authors have been blamed for whining and complaining about this. This has always been an issue with business, because there are numerous people who get different cuts, and everybody wants a larger piece of the pie. Personally, I think that the publishers are well within their rights to set the books at whatever price they want – how they value their product – because they are primarily in charge of the creation. Amazon has just enough leverage to force their own prices on the publishers because they account for large portions of the sales. Authors, I think are largely blameless in this, because they simply have no control over how these books are sold, marketed and edited. Consumers, I think, need to have a more realistic value in their heads for what they buy.

The bottom line that I see here is that this row isn’t the end, but in this instance, it’s not unreasonable for a graduated pricing system, as publishers want. While Amazon.com is looking to entice people to their Kindle, I think that there is sufficient momentum on their part for moving people to digital formats. People aren’t necessarily going to be scared away by higher ebook prices, because these higher prices will still be better than the alternatives. Just as casual readers will wait for a year for their favorite author’s book to come out in paperback, the buyers who really matters, the repeat customers who buy a larger volume of books will buy the books as they come out, generally at the regular price, or at the sales price that drops that just a bit. Unfortunately, as Amazon.com has moved to punish a publisher, the authors have been caught as collateral damage.

This, more than ever, just reinforces my desire for a hardcopy book, rather than an e-book. The tactile crap that a lot of people go on about just doesn’t figure into it. When I buy a book at a bookstore, that is my property, not just a piece of data that can be revoked by a company as it sees fit, and I can sell it and return my losses as I need. Plus, I don’t need to worry about a battery for any of the books that I own.