Book publishing: dead or just resting?

I’m beginning to keep a mental laundry list of reasons to be pessimistic about the book industry. Admittedly, an odd thing to do as I prepare to enter that industry with my own book.

Among the hypotheses already advanced by others (some of them already rebutted, others contradictory):

1) people don’t read anymore,
2) publishers are crap,
3) the marketers of publishers are crap,
4) people don’t have time. And now
5) people still read but they’re cheapskates bent on ruining authors and publishers.

This submission comes from David Streitfeld in today’s New York Times. He begins with the usual wrap-up of angst–Houghton Mifflin Harcourt not accepting new manuscripts, bookstores closing, and so forth–and then assigns the blame:

Don’t blame this carnage on the recession or any of the usual suspects, including increased competition for the reader’s time or diminished attention spans. What’s undermining the book industry is not the absence of casual readers but the changing habits of devoted readers.

In other words, it’s all the fault of people like myself, who increasingly use the Internet both to buy books and later, after their value to us is gone, sell them. This is not about Amazon peddling new books at discounted prices, which has been a factor in the book business for a decade, but about the rise of a worldwide network of amateurs who sell books from their homes

For readers and collectors, these resellers, as they are called, offer a great service. Lost in the hand-wringing over the state of the book industry is the fact that this is a golden age for those in love with old-fashioned printed volumes: more books are available for less effort and less money than ever before. …

There is, he says,

no longer a set price for a book at any one time. If you want it during those first few weeks when it is new, you will pay a premium. If you can wait, it might be only a pittance.

The book industry is thus in the bad company of 1) the music industry and 2) the news industry. In music, the people who do the most listening are the young, for evolutionary reasons, and they have been sharing music free for years, because they can. In news, they have been doing much the same.

I think there are angles missing from this analysis, so more to come.

9 thoughts on “Book publishing: dead or just resting?

  1. Fascinating topic. If I might be permitted some random food for thought:

    1. There have always been second-hand bookshops. So the selling and buying of books, the revenues for which don’t accrue to the writer or publisher, is nothing new. The same goes for the music industry, since, before the burning of CDs, there was taping. Authors and musicians should embrace this, since it publicises their names and works.

    2. The price of a newly published hardback book – $40 and up – seems excessive, particularly since new paperbacks are around $10 (I exclude trade paperbacks, here). Perhaps, then, the way to go for publishers is to publish only non-trade paperbacks.

    3. It is inevitable that many booksellers will go out of business because, despite that for many readers the amount of reading they do is nowadays is more than ever (as I think you pointed out in one of your postings), more and more is off the internet, and less and less off the printed page.

    4. Book-readers of the next generation may read all their books off electronic readers (like Amazon’s Kindle). Because there will always be a demand for coffee-table books (the ones with big glossy photos, and bought as Christmas and birthday gifts), these may form the majority of printed books.

    5. Novels and non-fiction books (whether or not in printed form) may contain advertising as a matter of course, in the manner of magazines.

    6. Ray Bradbury’s “Fahrenheit 451” has never, today, been more relevant, and, mutatis mutandis, more prescient.

  2. You’ve clearly thought a lot about this topic, Christopher.

    I agree with you on 1), but isn’t the problem today one of scale? Taping was manual. I taped something and gave it to one person. Now the 0s and 1s of the same song can immediately be copied by millions.

    Number 2) contains a fascinating scenario that I’ve heard book types contemplating. This is to go all paperback. Currently, though, authors are likely to resist: Apparently there is less kudos in being published in paperback first.

    3) Yes.

    4) I’ve taken a keen interest in the Kindle, and am on the (long) pre-order list. I also plan to write something about it in The E. I’ve also wondered, as you are, whether that eventually leaves only coffee-table books in paper: what Seth Godin calls the “souvenir effect”.

    5) Possible, but I see the trend going in the opposite direction right now: On the Kindle, eg, you can read the NYT without ads, but you pay for it. So we may see all sorts of “free” reading become paid-for. (esp. if advertising disappears in the coming depression)

    6) I confess that I have not read Fahrenheit 451 and increasingly feel guilty about it….

  3. After posting my comment, I realised I’d forgotten about audio/visual, and how audios and videos are becoming more prominent on websites and blogging sites. And there are now the more and more ubiquitous audio-books.

    Since to produce a video or audio is becoming progressively easier, it may soon be that reading off the net, and from books, will take a back seat to watching and listening.

    In “Fahrenheit 451”, all the book-readers, realising there will soon be no more books, start memorising the great books, so they can recite them to interested groups.

    This, then, became an audio/visual culture which ours seems on the way to becoming. “Fahrenheit 451” is indeed prescient.

    To any who haven’t read “Fahrenheit 451” because you “haven’t the time to”, you can viddie the excellent film of it, starring the wonderful Julie Christie.

  4. What about Google in this whole equation? I think I read somewhere that they now have around 7 million books scanned.

    It’s funny, I was watching CSI the other night and Grissom made some comment about why he ordered print versions of manuals that he could have just accessed online. His justification was a screen forces you to “lean forward”, he preferred to “lean back” as he read, something a book allowed for.

    I don’t know if this will save books and their publishers, but I think what might is treating the creation of the book more like a piece of art. Get back to some of the old ways of printing, treat it as a craft.

    Better yet, get people involved in the creation of your book. Through things like your doing with this blog, which will get people to shell out $30 for the hardcover because they can’t wait. Because they feel like they have been involved in the creation process and want to see what the end result is.

    One other potential idea. Maybe let people create their own copy of your book. Somewhat like how you can customize your Nike sneakers. What if you could create a one of a kind “The Hannibal” book sleeve? Or some other kind of unique concept. Just a thought.

  5. Welcome, non-fiction dad. And kudos for typing with one hand as you’re burping junior. Don’t let the effluvium get on the keyboard, as I have once or twice. 😉

    Good thoughts on books. Regarding “lean-back” vs “lean-forward”: I once asked Amazon’s Bezos about this, and he regards this as one of the break-throughs of the Kindle: It is a lean-back experience. so it’s not like reading on a computer screen.

    Google is an interesting issue. I’m supporting them because, as Tim O’Reilly has said, obscurity is a greater threat to authors than piracy. Google makes contexts within books discoverable, which is what Gutenberg’s technology has always missed.

    Regarding the customizable Hannibal: Er. Hmmm. let me get back to you….

  6. I think it is possible to approach the question of books vs. non-print medium from another angle. You are all talking to yourselves. I found during my 32 years of teaching Juniors and Seniors that each group or class assumed all other students felt and behaved the same way they did. Even though there was compelling evidence that this was not true, to sustain their feeling of superiority they turned a blind eye. I was read to, my children were read to, their children were read to (non-fiction dad is my grandson) and now my great grandchildren are being read to and reading on their own. the FORM IS IMPORTANT. Having a book in your hand is a tactile sensation that many of us crave. I work two days a week in a wonderful book store. We have over 70,000 books, all of which are in good condition, (we are not the book store you can smell from a block away). Our customers are small children to 90 year old’s. They buy everything from Nancy Drew to Aristotle and How to build your own boat. Some buy our audio books for long trips but even most of those folks also buy books they can put their hands on. You are right about the expense of new books. We have many customers who just watch our shelves until the book they are waiting for is on our shelves.

  7. Welcome, Leslie. Yours, paired with non-fiction dad’s, is the first inter-generational comment thread on the Hannibal Blog.

    I agree that “form is important” and that “Having a book in your hand is a tactile sensation that many of us crave”.

    But I thought you were leading somewhere else entirely when you said that the Juniors and Seniors all assumed that the other students felt the same way. They should not assume that, right? So we should not assume that others might not, for instance, enjoy holding an Amazon Kindle as much as we enjoy the tactile sensation of a hardcover book. Have I misunderstood?

  8. You are right that I sounded like one of my students. I should have qualified that, that I certainly understand that others may prefer a Kindle or the computer screen. Point well taken. I just wanted to put the other side out there.

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