Thursday, December 4, 2008

So What Does This All Mean?

Publishers are basically not buying any new books for the rest of the year (this happened after 9/11 too - they are bought up at least two years in advance), staff cuts will be made across the board, imprints will disappear and one of the two major book sellers may close their doors forever.

OK, so here's what I've been telling my interns and my junior agents and all my publishing pals. There are all sorts of economic trends coming to a head at the moment.

We, as a country, are in a recession and publishing is no exception. I believe we, as an industry, have priced books out of the buyer's everyday market. A paperback should cost $5, a trade paperback $10 and a hardcover no more than $20. Only exceptional illustrated books should cost more than that, and I better get pop-ups and die cuts and music, if you want me to pay more than $25. When books cease to be an impulse/feel good purchase, and are something you have to calculate and budget (I'll get the new King this month, and then I'll get the Hamilton out of the library), something is wrong.

And the profit margins in publishing are way too tight. I still find it amazing that in today's publishing economics, the author and the publisher make less on a book than the bookstore and the distributor.

Publishing is in the same transition as the movie and music industries. The younger generation of movie watchers and music listeners have already grown used to getting their movies and music cheaper and faster with downloads. If books are to compete as a source of entertainment, they have to follow course.

Bookstores will have to change too - and they already are. Last week I was pontificating that bookstores of the future will actually be big electronic information stores. And then someone told me that Barnes & Noble owns GameStop. Today I just got a flyer informing me that Best Buy is now selling books. Soon, you will go to an electronics and information store, where you can buy almost anything you can't wear or eat. And that same "store" will have an online presence, where you can download almost anything they sell.

That's not to say that the book as we know it is dead, but it does mean that for books as entertainment, it's a brave new world. In Japan, half the books sold in the country are downloaded to phones. We can't be far behind.

So, what is happening now is the beginning of the shake out that the music and movie industries experienced 5 years ago. Certain kinds of books (I guess, like certain kinds of TV shows and movies and music) just are no longer working in this age of instant information. So we just don't need to publish quite as many books, but what we do publish has to either entertain or inform.

When the shake-out is over, we'll be leaner, but stronger. Book publishing will have moved into the 21st century and will be more responsive to its readership. It won't take 18 months to go from manuscript to book, and authors will get paid on their actual sales in the same year they are made.

4 comments:

Rhonda Leigh Jones said...

I think it's exciting. Evolution is at hand here. The ground is rumbling beneath our feet.

Ryan Field said...

"In Japan, half the books sold in the country are downloaded to phones. We can't be far behind."

Didn't know that about Japan.

Dal Jeanis said...

Okay, just to play with your idea, why is there a need for a physical location if you are selling just the information in the book? Doesn't make sense as a C21 sales channel. Except, of course, to the degree that you are pre-loading it onto a physical media or using the media itself to secure the information.

Suppose, then, that in 2013 you have a store location that will give you this season's "Harlequin" line on a DRM smartchip for your "Kindle 7.0". You pay one big licensing fee that lets you access the entire 30-book fall line or something. It might even have chip-file-date-timing so that the books unlock as the publication dates arrive. You sell the same books individually online at a higher cost, so that the bundle plus chip is cheaper (say the cost of 10-20 books). Thus, you increase sales while dramatically decreasing production cost.

The store might also have to be another kind of destination - food or entertainment venue. [ie sell something to wear or eat - chuckle] As likely to happen at movie theatres as electronic stores, since these are already entertainment-linked.

In fact, having an e-book kiosk at a movie theatre (to download the novelization onto your bluetooth device) seems like an obvious upsell for the theatre.

Of course, Amazon would use its contract clout to prevent you from selling the ebook cheaper at the theatre than Amazon, so you might have to make it a separate movie-only content item; Amazon has ebook with bonus A, Blockbuster has version B, cinema has bonus version C, collect them all and unlock bonus D!

Lots of fun and games possible, although content creation becomes a more complicated activity.

Some questions about your offhand remarks:

What kinds of books and TV shows and movies do you think aren't working? And in what way is it different from, say, the way Westerns went away in the early 70s, i.e. after things are done to death they disappear until reinvented?

How would you describe the 5-year-old shakeout in the movie industry? I understand they've just this year cut their pseudo-indie units, but what happened four years ago?

Also, how would you summarize the shakeout in the music industry?

Travis Erwin said...

Great post. What you say makes a ton of sense to me and actually makes me excited to be a writer with what I hope will be a long future in this time of transition.