Stop Press: Print Is Not Dead!

stanley__livingstone_the_hague_travel_bookstore1Front-page “trend” piece in the Times this morning by Alexandra Alter, with some rare good news for the embattled trade book industry: by some measures, the initial excitement over digital publishing at the putative expense of print may have crested, at least for now.

E-book sales (trade only, not counting self-published titles) fell 10% in January-May 2015. Bundled subscription services, allowing e-reading from a library of titles, are struggling and failing. Sales of dedicated e-readers (like the Kindle or the Nook) have plunged. The reports of print’s demise seem greatly exaggerated. Yet this trend may not be as clearly delineated as it seems at first glance.

There is one piece of incontestable evidence for a resurgence of print bookselling in Ms. Alter’s story: in the last five years, the number of member bookstores of the American Booksellers Association has increased from 1,410 in 1,660 locations to 1,712 in 2,227 locations. The local independent bookstore — one key component in a community’s healthy cultural life — is experiencing a mini-renaissance. Nobody can argue with that, and those who care about books and reading can only hope this trend keeps up.

Trade publishers all over New York — and elsewhere — are smiling at this article today, but it’s not because of any healthy cultural life in any community. Print books, particularly new or “frontlist” titles in hardcover, are the industry’s high-margin cash cow, even after all the costly editing, printing, shipping and distributing is done. And those margins are completely under the control of the publisher, which can and does print any price it wishes on the front left flap. Common sense tells us that a digital copy, which costs next to nothing to distribute once the first one is made, should fetch a far lower price. But that, reason the publishers, would cannibalize the sale of a juicy hardcover copy. Therefore, e-books are a disruptor, an enemy. Meanwhile, we await the first $50 trade hardcover; it shouldn’t take much longer now. (Before MISS SAIGON, $100 Broadway tickets were considered gluttonous. Now they’re a bargain.)

The arrival of electronic books as a real market segment dates from 2008 and the release of Amazon’s Kindle. While many booklovers spurned the new technology, I jumped in and have been an avid e-reader ever since. As I’ve written before, there are three kinds of books: those in which I have no interest, those which I want to keep in the increasingly precious space on my bookshelves, and those I’d simply like to read and discard. This last kind is the perfect e-book. (A fourth kind, the bulky doorstop in which I’m nevertheless interested, is also much easier to read electronically.)

But there’s an important difference between the present-day consumer and the 2008 version. I don’t depend on a physical Kindle any more.

I’m not surprised at all that sales of “dedicated e-readers” have fallen, because you don’t need a Kindle to read Kindle editions. You still need an Amazon account, but there are free Kindle-reading apps for any smartphone, tablet or desktop you can whip out. I own a Kindle Paperwhite, the single best e-reader available; its screen can automatically adjust for bright sunlight or a dark room instantly. But I only use it on plane flights or other long reading-friendly trips. My doctor’s-office or line-waiting device is my smartphone. Here at home, maybe a tablet to make the pages larger. I can skip among them at will; the software always remembers my place. Among dozens more, I’ve read all of George R. R. Martin’s mammoth SONG OF ICE AND FIRE books this way and didn’t miss a thing. Having a dedicated e-reader is no longer necessary.

Secondly, since the publishers wrested pricing power back from Amazon, which was selling Kindle editions as loss leaders (the same thing bookies did during World War II to create a later lucrative mass market), there has doubtless been some sticker shock. Speaking only anecdotally but including friends who feel the same way, I’ve quite often decided against buying a read-and-discard book at all because of the high Kindle price. When it exceeds the paperback reprint price, I really get frosted. And I repeat, I’m not alone. No wonder sales are slipping. The goddam things are too expensive. But boys, at least from me you didn’t gain a hardcover by overpricing your e-book. You lost a frickin sale altogether. Unless I still want to read it — and remember that I once wanted to — some day in the future as it falls into the “backlist,” the low-margin mines which actually kept traditional publishers alive for decades. Maybe I’ll buy it second-hand, in which case you get zippando.

Book publishers do not like change. They have responded to this disruptive technology the same way the movie industry has viewed every perceived encroachment: network radio and television, pay TV, home video, anything that tips the business model. And each time the industry has eventually been forced to embrace them as potential new revenue streams — in home video’s case, the very saviour of the movie business for almost twenty years.

Trade book publishing (that means books sold by the “book trade” as opposed to academic or self-published and distributed titles) has yet to cross that line. E-books are still the enemy, sold only grudgingly if at all. But let’s return to those self-published titles. While there is without doubt a cornucopia of dross out there, a few prolific category authors — fantasy, science fiction, mystery, erotica — have managed to carve out day jobs by selling serial novels at $1 or $2 a pop. FIFTY SHADES OF GREY was self-published. So was Andy Weir’s THE MARTIAN. So was Hugh Howey’s series WOOL, about cities packed in silos (don’t ask). In fact, when Howey sold the rights to a trade publisher, it was a print-only deal: he gets to keep all his online money.

The point is that breaking through from the ground up may certainly be improbable, but it’s no longer impossible. And the e-book figures cited by Ms. Alter do not include sales outside the book trade, which is a world whose boundaries are unknown to us. God bless every new independent bookstore, and good luck to them all. But technology is not going to quit chipping away at the hegemony of the Big Five.

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