The Shatzkin Files

Losing bookstores is a much bigger problem for publishers than it is for readers

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Start with this. You’re kidding yourself if you’re a book publisher who believes the digital revolution has slowed down, that independent bookstores will thrive in the new environment, that ebooks — if not a fad — have reached their growth limits, and that something resembling the book business we’ve known for the past 100 years will survive for another 100 years. Or even for another 20. It might even be breaking down in five or 10.

The obsession with the false dichotomy between printed books and digital ones is beginning to give way to attention for the more important shift taking place between purchasing books online and purchasing books in stores. It has been my concern for years — first elaborated on at length in the “End of General Trade Publishing Houses” speech I gave at BEA in 2007 — that the publishing industry that grew up around 50 years of expanding retail shelf space for books would be seriously challenged by its 10-years-on and continuing diminution. It will not be a happy time, frankly, seeing that prediction being proved correct, and it hasn’t been proven correct yet. But the circumstances that will test the proposition are rapidly being put into place.

The motivation to discuss this subject came from the convergence of a few recent stimuli. One was Bowker’s research, reported by DBW, suggesting that about half of US book sales were now taking place online.

That confirmed that the US market was in approximately the same place that Hachette UK had reported itself to be in the past few weeks.

Next was the hopeful thinking that printed books were holding their own and, anyway, all that was required for publishers to live without bookstores was some pluck and imagination, all capped by a piece in The Times making some perfectly valid points about how much easier it is to remember what you’re reading with print than it is with ebooks.

My two-part hypothesis, from the beginning, has been pretty simple. Online book buying — whether print or digital — takes business away from bookstores. So bookstores close or reduce shelf space. That decreases both their attraction and their convenience, which makes online buying increase even more. So bookstores close or reduce shelf space further. (This is called a “vicious cycle”.) That’s part one.

Part two is about publishers, particularly the big general trade publishers (Big Five plus a few others) but all of them, really, who depend on bookstores for their value. Publishers perform the service for authors of getting their books in front of readers. That has primarily meant, for about 100 years, “we put books on shelves”. My concern was that, without shelves, publishers had diminished value to authors.

The fact that part one is nearing a conclusion was confirmed in Monday’s Times with a front-page story about bookstores turning to charity to stay afloat. If anybody believes this is a sustainable strategy, I’d like to hear the explanation. This is a “Hail Mary” pass and the fact that some bookstores cited in the piece have managed to score a touchdown doesn’t mean the bookstore team is winning this game.

I have to emphasize here — to reduce the future flow of indignant comments — that the continuing decline of bookstores is not something that makes me happy. My first job in publishing, 51 years ago, was in a bookstore. My dad’s career was made on his understanding of the importance of bookstores to publishers and figuring out ways to create more mutually profitable ways for publishers and bookstores to interact. But if about half the sales of books today are being made online (which is probably five times or more the percentage it was less than a decade ago), you’d have to be able to predict a sudden reversal, or at least a cessation, of the trend to see a positive future for bookstores.

I never believed the trend would stop or reverse because I don’t see any end to the “vicious cycle” described above. But my friend, Joe Esposito, has been even more thorough and cogent in explaining why it won’t end. As Joe articulates it, at least part of the print versus digital choice for some consumers is based on price and convenience. As long as stores constitute an important tool for “discovery” — finding new things to read — it will be more convenient for most people to walk out of the store with the discovered book than to purchase it any other way or in any other form.

As bookstores become less powerful discovery engines (fewer of them farther apart and fewer books on display in those that are left), people are forced to find out about books some other way. Many of those other ways are already online (without even counting the suggestions of online retailers). A lot of “word-of-mouth” these days is digital communication (email, Facebook, Twitter, or even a blog).

Since the beginning of the year, it has been frequently observed that ebook sales are not rising very quickly anymore at all. Nicholas Carr just wrote about it again, citing his post from the beginning of the year. (If you care about how the Internet and ebooks might affect our brains and thinking ability, read Carr’s book, “The Shallows”. There’s some digitally-delivered word-of-mouth. I told you it could happen on a blog!) Certainly, part of the slowdown is rooted in the shift from dedicated ereaders like Kindles and Nooks to tablet computers. Books aren’t the only game in town anymore; in fact, they’re competing with real games and videos and music and email and the whole damn Internet on the devices people might read ebooks on these days. And, at the same time, the later device-acquirers are also lighter readers to begin with. Heavy readers had more financial incentive to switch from the beginning.

But, in fact, is ebook sales growth slowing? Maybe not. It depends on how you look at it. Author Nathan Bransford, who probably has as much to contribute to publishing houses with cool analysis as he does with content, did an excellent post a couple of months ago demonstrating that the smaller percentage increases don’t indicate a decline at all. In fact, Bransford does the math (and the graph) to show that ebook sales continue to rise, at pretty much the same pace they have been, in real unit terms. And this is despite the fact that self-published ebooks, which were credited with 12% of the market a very short time ago are not counted in these numbers!

So it is actually a myth based on a misunderstanding of how percentage increases are affected by a change in the base on which they’re calculated to claim that the ebook switchover is slowing down.

Esposito’s post cited above was making the case that it is publishers that have much to fear from the decline of bookstores because it robs them of their prime value to authors. That is a point we’ve made often in this space. But some of those objecting to his point of view did so by making the case that many books don’t “port” to digital very successfully. Certainly we have seen very few successes with digital illustrated books of any kind.

In fact, there was false hope created that the children’s book market — which is largely illustrated — was going digital about 18 months ago. It turns out that, really, this was a misreading of reality. What made it appear that way was the massive sales of “The Hunger Games” which, although categorized as young adult reading (so tallied that way; thank you, metadata) is actually straight narrative reading that was not just read by kids but also by many adults.

Yes, it is absolutely true that ebooks haven’t “worked” (commercially) yet for anything except narrative reading, books that you start on page 1 and read to the end. We are where we were when I wrote in my first post of 2012 that the problem hadn’t been solved yet  and then worried out loud a few months later (more than a year ago) that this was an existential problem for illustrated book publishers.

So objecting to Esposito’s argument by pointing out that some books don’t work as ebooks is a non sequitor. Bookstores can’t continue to exist because there are some books being published that don’t work as ebooks; that’s even less of a sustaining proposition than asking for shekels in a digital tin cup.

Logic and facts tell us some immutable things. They can be ignored or papered over with wishful thinking, but anybody with a commercial interest in the book publishing value chain is probably making a big mistake rationalizing them away rather than confronting them.

1. Narrative books, those read from beginning to end, are being increasingly read in digital form.

2. Both because of that, and for several other reasons (bookstores being less ubiquitous and stocking fewer books, a wider range of actual choices making the odds of a bookstore having what you want even lower, and a general propensity for all consumers to shop online more for all things), online purchasing of books is still taking share away from brick stores.

3. Books that are not narrative books don’t have the same natural opportunity to have their sales migrate either to ebooks (because the format doesn’t work as well for them) or online (because they often have to be seen and touched to be purchased).

4. The single biggest reason (aside from a fat advance payment, which few get) for authors to work through a publisher is to get the distribution of printed copies to many stores.

5. As the number of books grows that have commercial appeal but which are published so far outside the conventional trade that their sales aren’t even captured in industry data, it further weakens the legacy publishing ecosystem and further encourages both established and aspiring authors to work around it. Aspiring authors every week see books on the NY Times Bestseller List that are either self-published or have imprint names they’ve never heard of. When conventional publishing requires an agent to get a deal (which it does, and which takes time), then you have to wait for publishers to make a buy-or-not decision (more time), and then put your book out on a trade publishing schedule that usually wants to give Barnes & Noble and other retailers months of advance notice (still more time), it can seem ever-so-much-more appealing to just skip the wait and go straight to self-publishing, which will put books on sale right now (more or less).

6. What you will need to do as a publisher to survive longer in this increasingly hostile environment depends on what you publish.

* If you do straight narrative reading, your books may continue to sell in equivalent or even better numbers than they did previously, but both your authors and your retailers will be looking hard at what you take and wondering if they can go around you. Your challenge will be to continue adding enough value to be worth enough of a share to have a business. How? Digital marketing at scale is your best bet.

* If you publish children’s books, you have a launching pad to get into the world of licensed products and video (which some are doing), which promises a rosier future but brings with it a slew of powerful new competitors.

* And if you publish anything else (art books, instructional books of any kind, travel books), you’re looking for a new business model. We’re believers that being vertical makes the most sense (don’t publish all over the lot; stick to audiences you can know and grow). But “being vertical” is not in and of itself an adequate strategy. Professional publishers have had an edge here; professional needs can be satisfied with content and services that aren’t delivered as books, and, in general, the relevant publishers have responded sensibly to that.

The challenges to publishers in the US are only just being felt in markets outside the English language. But ultimately, they’ll be felt everywhere. That sums up the perspective of our Publishers Launch Frankfurt Conference, which will take place on October 8. We’ll be looking at markets in transition, getting views from Amazon and Nielsen about which markets are showing signs of a digitally “tipping”, as well as a scan of the developing world from Octavio Kulesz. We have a great panel of industry leaders from Germany to discuss whether that market is about to look like an English-speaking one, with diminishing bookstores, scrambling publishers, and increasing numbers of do-it-yourself authors. We’ll hear from Goodreads, Wattpad, and Scribd about how international their large communities of reading-centric people are. We’ll have presentations about Big Data from Ken Brooks and DRM from Micah Bowers that I promise won’t repeat things you’ve heard anywhere else. And some very sharp CEOs — Charlie Redmayne of HarperCollins UK, Rebecca Smart of Osprey, and Marcus Leaver of Quarto — will be on the program as well. Michael Cader and I will try to cover the subjects that are hardest to talk about, including the growth of Amazon and the power of the new Penguin Random House.  If you’re in the neighborhood on October 8, this will be a show not to be missed.

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  • Thanks for the mention, and great post!

    • Laura K. Cowan

      You do seem to be lighting up the web on these subjects lately, Nathan. I’ve seen several mentions of your take on things in the last week. Congrats for getting out there and thanks for your insights.

  • Mark Warner

    Fantastic post. One question:

    “Certainly, part of the slowdown is rooted in the shift from dedicated ereaders like Kindles and Nooks to tablet computers. Books aren’t the only game in town anymore; in fact, they’re competing with real games and videos and music and email and the whole damn Internet on the devices people might read ebooks on these days.”

    I have heard this sentiment often as of late, but I’m not sure it holds up. Certainly it is true that within the Tablet ecosystem there exists great competition for the attention and dollars of the Tablet Owner, but haven’t competing forms of media and entertainment been around for decades? In the 80’s I could by a hardcover book, music cassette, VHS movie, or Atari game with my money – and spend my time and attention enjoying whatever I had purchased. Tablets allow us to enjoy a wide variety of types of entertainment on a 7 inch screen. I think readers are always going to read, regardless of other media/entertainment options. I think your second comment in this paragraph hits the nail on the head:

    “And, at the same time, the later device-acquirers are also lighter readers to begin with. Heavy readers had more financial incentive to switch from the beginning.”

    Also, thanks for sharing the insight from Bransford. Good stuff.

    • Chris

      Mark – I think the difference now is that in the 80s your VHS/Atari whatever might distract you from a book when you were at home. But when you left home to travel or whatever a book was a useful companion. Now if you take a tablet you are taking the VHS/atari distraction with you.

      • I wouldn’t say “*the* difference”. But I sure agree that it is “*a *difference”.
        And an important one.


      • Chris

        I stand corrected – ‘a’ difference.
        Another one is that in the 80s you also weren’t distracted by a whole lot of free entertainment (content) – emails, facebook, twitter, youtube etc – ad infinitum, ad nauseam.

      • Agreed.


      • Mark

        One of the reasons I still read mostly paper books is that I’m too easily distracted on my Kindle Fire. Twitter, Facebook, and the rest of the Web are just a click away and they pull me from my novel. Reading a paper book gives me just enough distance from the Web to keep focused.

  • Kristina Makansi

    As a traditional small press publisher, a self-published author, a provider of author services, and a bookstore lover, this post really spoke to me. Thanks!

    • Laura C.

      Wait, Kristina, you publish traditionally for others but self-publish for yourself? Why?

      • Kristina Makansi

        That’s a great question and one I get asked all the time. The lessons learned and skills I’ve acquired over the years — I’ve been writing, editing, and designing since desktop publishing programs were first developed — gave me the confidence to start Blank Slate Press. Our goal was/is to “discover, nurture, publish and promote” local St. Louis authors. We’re a “nano” press, but we’ve had the privilege to introduce some great authors to the world–one of whom signed with WME and just inked a contract to publish his reworked debut novel with Picador. In the meantime, I’ve learned a tremendous amount about the nitty gritty of the business of publishing, and I decided that, based on my previous experiences designing, editing, and promoting other people’s books, I was ready, willing and eager to put in the time and effort to publish my own books. Luckily, my amazingly talented co-authors (my daughters) agreed. We come from entrepreneurial stock and we relished the opportunity to embark on an “adventure in publishing” together. Whereas for many authors, the business of publishing is a distraction from the art of writing, for us it was just another part of the challenge. We’ve just embarked on our self-publishing journey, and we’ve found it can be aggravating at times, but we’re enjoying every moment.

      • So it might be said that you publish yourself and others. The imprint distinctions are really just a distraction. That makes it seem much more logical and intuitive and not a contradiction.


      • Kristina Makansi

        Yes, you’re right. But I’m careful to make the distinction about the differing imprints because of the number of people who react with a bit of a frown when I talk about publishing my own work. They’ll say, “You’re not going to publish under Blank Slate Press, are you?” The impression is that by publishing my own work under the same imprint used to publish others, I’m somehow tainting the legitimacy of the press. Indeed some organizations won’t allow you to be listed as a legitimate publisher (thereby eliminating the chance for a book to be considered for an award) if the owner/editor/publisher also publishes his/her own work. The stigma against self-publishing lives on, and, so that my BSP authors are not somehow “punished” by affiliation with my own work, I make the distinction. Of course, the only people who care about the distinction are those in the publishing industry. I have yet to meet a reader (who isn’t also a writer) who cares whose logo is on the spine.

  • John Andrews

    I think part of the problem for illustrated books is that many of them are bought as presents, or for libraries, and that an electronic gift seems less of a gift than a physical gift. Maybe the future is specialist books selling illustrated books as gifts.

    • Bruce Triggs

      Curiously, illustrated books were among the first presents in modern consumerism. Back in the 1800s, “gift books” for Christmas were often the very first consumer product people bought or received that they didn’t actually need. So certainly making some form (ebook or otherwise) of gift-able product will always fill a niche. [See Stephen Nissenbaum’s fantastic The Battle for Christmas for more on early gift-giving. Makes a great gift.]

      It occurs to me that what is happening is that publishers are finding it harder and harder to “discover” customers. Customers aren’t having trouble finding books. At the library or a bookstore I use to internet to remember what authors to look for. The net is I think the best book finding tool ever. So if they aren’t playing a key role in getting customers to discover their books, what is the publishers’ role now? As a writer I only half-jokingly tell people that I haven’t tried to get a publisher because I’m waiting to see if they still exist when I finish my book.

      The customers will be there to read it when I get done in a year or so, but what does a publisher offer me or the customers that we can’t get another, cheaper way? I hope to be able to do readings at my local bookshops and libraries, but I just don’t imagine a publisher having much to offer me.

      • Let’s remember that half the sales of books overall (although not of straight narrative books like you’re probably writing) still take place in stores. And reaching them without a publisher is a serious challenge.

        I believe digital marketing at scale is one thing publishers can do that would answer the rhetorical questions you pose satisfactorily, but this, as well as the theory that they’re not needed, remains to be proven.


  • Peter Turner

    While I tend to agree with you, what data is there (or could there be) to support the assersion that discovery is not a problem for readers? Porter Anderson, I, and others were debated this just now over at Publishing Perspectives (

    The whole notion of discovery has different dimensions that aren’t always clearly acknowledged. From the POV of publishers (and authors!) discovery is a big problem, especially as curated physical spaces (over which they have a lot of control) diminish and discover, instead, occurs in ways they don’t control (and don’t even strongly influence). But for readers–while it’s certainly true that it’s never been easier to discover books, I’d argue that the quality of what one discovers must be diminishing. The curated space of a physical bookstore is a “smart filter” (however much authors who aren’t represented there might disagree) that assures quality of discovery in a way that simply is not replicated (or on the horizon) on the web. The problem is that it’s very hard to assign value to something that only very gradually and incrementally affects both the quality of our experience of discovery and what we come to discover. And there’s no way to assign data to any of this either–it’s inherently subjective and anecdotal. It’s a little bit like what’s happened to physical retail in general. Once corner shops were ubiquitous and now we’re stuck with Home Depot, Walgreens, and Wal-Mart. Is the quality of what we discover in these environments better? Reasonable people might disagree. But if you’ve never been in a good hardware store, for example, you don’t know what you’re missing when you go to Home Depot.

    • MichaelPeck

      Google figured out how to index the Web and surface search results better than anyone who tried it before them, and because users are happy with what they’re shown, Google thrives. The Web will do a much, much better job of it than any physical bookstore because “quality” is a subjective term. No one wants to have standards for quality dictated to them; they want to find what will make them happy. Those two things aren’t necessarily the same and often aren’t. There’s plenty of room for curation on the Web. It’s already being done, and will only improve. The rest is allowing people to find what they like, whether someone else calls it quality or not.

      • If the implication is that Google is all that is needed for book curation, I am not sure I buy it. But, either way, the cost of delivering recommendations in person in a store loaded with inventory will be very hard to make work commercially.


      • MichaelPeck

        Not Google as it stands today, but a Google-like approach, at least in terms of a first cut at scalable curation. Before Google, you had to go to Yahoo and see what human beings chose to include in a list of, say, movie sites. If a better site existed that the humans hadn’t listed yet, users didn’t see it in the list. (Crawlers came along, too, but the quality of the results was mixed at best.)

        Google beat everyone else because it allowed a scalable (albeit programmatic) approach that took into account how many other sites linked to a movie site in order to determine which movie sites were best—external voting. (This is a simplification, of course.) The search results were more up-to-date because they didn’t rely on humans, and they were of better quality because the algorithm was smarter than those used by previous crawlers.

        It was a very difficult challenge, and people were having a hard time cracking it—until someone did.

        What I’m getting at is that many bemoaning the loss of gatekeepers, whether agents/publishers or bookstores, seem to be saying that the world will be flooded with crappy writing, and the literature landscape will sink beneath it, making it impossible for anyone to find anything good. But if Google could crack the Web, then someone will crack books and literature. (Amazon, Goodreads, etc., are already trying.)

        That gets you a good part of the way there in terms of weeding out the garbage and allowing people to find something they like. (And again, what they like might not be what others consider to be good, and nobody will care because there’s no cover to advertise to everyone else on the subway that you’re reading the latest version of “50 Shades.”)

        Yes, this can be gamed, and, to Peter’s point, people are gaming Google results. But it’s in Google’s best interests to defeat that gaming, and it’s gotten a lot better at it. (And bookstores are gamed, too, via co-op and other pay-to-play schemes that the average customer may not know about.) Whoever is the Google of literature (it doesn’t have to be Google) will need to do the same.

        Other, more manual, forms of curation get you the rest of the way there, and it remains to be seen what those are. It could range from review sites to libraries, which may benefit in a big way from the coming need for that and the community lost if bookstores close. (I think that makes more sense than indie bookstores being able to survive on those things alone.)

        Curation doesn’t have to be done by the people publishing or selling the books. (I’d argue that it shouldn’t be.) And even if it did, that’s no longer a viable business when you’ve lost control of the pipeline.

        As I said when tweeting about this article, it seems to me that publishers and related interests have a tough time distinguishing between the industry and the reader, and that’s because they haven’t had to before now.

      • I think we largely agree. After all, the point to this piece is that the loss of “bookstore discovery” is much more of a problem for publishers than it is for readers. Readers really don’t have a hard time finding what to read next. It’s just that publishers without bookstores have to find whole new ways to influence it. Pete McCarthy has invented a lot of those ways and the publishers who learn them will have the equivalent of the large sales force in the era of many bookstores.


      • Peter Turner

        I don’t think Google is a good analogy. It’s not an impartial index. SEO (both kosher and gamed) and paid placement directly effect what results are returned to any search. And since it’s a list of results only the top few are really ever considered. It is, practically speaking, a curated search not open index.

  • Jim Nuttall

    I aways love your posts. This one is great. I’m a retired educator and psychologist. Last year I self published a short book on Dyslexia. 150 copies sold at Amazon in four months. No big publisher would come for a small author like me. But self publishing gave me a chance. Now I’m writing a second book on Reading Srategies for Students. Then on to a third about Writing Strategies. My market is for parents of dyslexic students. I’m not in the statistics. My royalyies take me out to dinner two a month. But I am loving what I am doing.

    • Thanks. It sure sounds like you write about practical subjects and books that won’t date, so they can stay alive for years. If you promote what you do, I think your income may grow over time to be substantial. Since you’re enjoying it, I don’t have to tell you to “keep at it”. But in a few months or years it might be buying you a lot more than a couple of dinners a month.

  • Inquisitor97

    This is certainly an interesting analysis, but it feels far too confident in itself. The obvious analog is the music industry.

    The music industry has faced terrible issues: arguably some of the worst collective management; broad scale piracy; a shift towards renting (in the form of Spotify, etc.); and the collapse of their large retail channels. They’ve looked deader than Blackberry for a long time, yet they march on and still control the hits. Chain record stores are gone, but indie shops are plentiful. The decades-dead format of vinyl has had a serious resurgence. If music shows us the future of books, the big six will downsize, but remain the major force in the industry.

    Another potential problem I see with this analysis is that publishers offer writers more than just promotional opportunities and access to bookstores. The self-publishing model works only for artists who both are willing to spend money up-front to get their books on the market, and have skills in a broad variety of non-writing areas. Many writers will chose to have publishers take on the financial risks of publishing at the cost of waiting even if they won’t have access to (no-longer-existent) bookstores. How much does several rounds of editing with a top-notch editor cost? More than the advance most writers get, I’ll wager.

    There’s also branding. If you’re particularly good, you can get your novel noticed without a publishing house. But self-publishing will always contain a disproportionate amount of bad works—things rushed to the market, badly edited, badly designed, possibly even dysfunctional as software. Customers who get burned tend to turn towards mainstream sources, which means branding. Quality indie authors will come up with ways to segregate themselves from the dilettantes, but the filters of bookstores and publishers will be hard to beat, no matter how problematic they are.

    Finally, bookstores are figuring out how to live in the current buying climate just the way record shops have. They may be fewer in numbers, but they have found new ways to engage with their customers. My local book shop, the Book Cellar, offers comedy events and functions as a bit of a wine bar/coffee shop.

    None of that makes your argument wrong, but it makes it far less certain than you portray it. eBook sales may plateau and even decline; bookstores may find new ways to entice customers; publishers may come up with terms that seduce authors who might otherwise self-publish; the DOJ might sue Amazon. The future of the book has yet to be written.

    • I don’t think the Big Five diminish to nothingness.

      And I agree that the very biggest authors, who can benefit the most from bookstore distribution, may continue to be Big Five authors.

      But there is a big difference between the book business and record business. In the record business, most deals are for many albums, often seven. In the book business, most deals are for no more than three books, even for the biggest authors. So movement to independent status can happen much more rapidly in the book business.

      And book publishers depend much more on physical retail for awareness of their output than record companies did on record stores.

      Your observations are not invalid, but I think my perspective is more realistic than the prevailing industry perspective. Time will tell.


    • Desperately Positive

      Having worked both in music and publishing, I’d say the analog is not perfect. Music costs much more to produce and usually involves several people. Making movies even more so. Writing in comparison is a very simple process.

      • Music *can be* simple: one guitar and a voice attached to the same body, for example. And even a band can do amazing things without much outside help. But, in general, your point is right and even more so about movies.

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  • ahoving

    bookstores –> literary-themed cafes; libraries –> patrons buy-and-donate to digital collections; authors –> self-publish text-based print and ebooks; publishers –> innovate new models for presentation and sale of interactive content

  • rh1985

    I’m a customer only and I am going to be so depressed without bookstores. I really love being in bookstores and I won’t read e-books at all. It horrifies me my children may grow up in a world without bookstores. I am a customer who is just never going to understand the appeal of buying online unless a person lives in the middle of nowhere. If I have to buy online because I can’t get to the bookstore or they don’t have the book I buy from B&, at least then the money goes to a company that still has bookstores…

    • Desperately Positive

      Our generations have memorized the emotional and intellectual “discovery” of reading in connection to physical books. So we tend to think that Pbooks are the “right way” of reading. This will change for younger people. And even I have changed from p to e.

      But I’ll also miss the bookstores and libraries.

      • We’re in the same place on that.


      • rh1985

        Well up until my kids go to school and get to a grade with actual reading/textbooks, they will be getting paper books only – I don’t like little kids having their own electronic devices anyway. Maybe that will make an impression since it’s how they will learn to read. We’ll see. I value books so will do everything I can to pass that on.

      • Well, in fact, more and more kids in schools are reading on devices. Schools are bureaucracies, so things happen slowly, particularly at the beginning. But when they start switching from paper to digital, it will happen fast. In batches.


      • rh1985

        Yeah, unfortunately I can’t control what they will get in school (ugggh…. I loathe anything e-book SO much) but at home and up until that point they will be exposed to print only. To me there is a great deal of value to books as physical objects and there is something lost with e-books so… all I can do is try my best.

      • Most of what I see “lost” by switching from print to ebooks is a lot of weight that I don’t have to carry around anymore. Oh, and the nuisance of not being able to fall asleep in bed reading because there would with a print book be a light to turn off and the device puts itself to sleep after a while of inactivity.


      • rh1985

        I hate reading anything longer than a few paragraphs from a screen, but I also just love the look and feel of a book, being surrounded by books, holding a book and turning the pages. I think it would be a horrible shame to lose something that has lasted for so long – a cultural loss, even.

        *shrug* but that’s just personal preference, and me being a bit biased because e-books don’t work for me and if print goes away my reading will drop to whatever I have in the house and never got around to reading

      • Print will never “go away”. Print on demand works. You don’t need a press run to print books for people that want them.


      • rh1985

        Maybe POD will improve but I am not a big fan at present. The covers and paper seem cheaper (despite often costing more than a comparable “regular” paperback) and there is no hardcover option.

      • There *is *a hardcover option of the POD is done by Ingram’s Lightning. And the paper and covers can be better too. POD is a developing technology.

      • Desperately Positive

        rh1985, I thought like that five years ago. But for me content is king, and I don’t care about the platform anymore. I love reading.

      • rh1985

        I imagine there’s a whole range from people who easily switch to e-books and can read just as fast and absorb just as well from them, all the way to those who will probably never be able to read as fast or absorb what they read as well from an e-book. I suspect I’m pretty far over towards the second group. Everyone is wired a bit differently, after all.

      • Print books are a fixed point. They have been perfected and won’t get any better.

        Ebooks get better all the time. So do screens. I am pretty certain there is an ebook version that would be right for you now.


      • rh1985

        I’m not sure why you are so resistant to the idea that there may be some people out there who will never be able to read e-books as well as they read print books?

      • There may be “some people out there” who will be just about any way you think they might be. But the number of people who will find print preferable to screens will diminish over time because screens will get better and print won’t, and because people will get adjusted to something that now seems a bit strange. I am sure there were some people who had real trouble adjusting from scroll to codex too. There’s a school of digital thought that thinks we should go back to continuous scrolling in digital. But here’s something for you: digital gives you the choice! (Just like it gives you a choice of font style and size!)


      • Kevin

        Content can be lost too, Mike. Content from your so-called ‘digital library’ can be altered or erased by the publisher any time after you’ve purchased it. In 2009, copies of (ironically enough) 1984 were removed from
        e-readers without any warning or explanation offered.

      • This matters in what percentage of the cases? If you read 20 books a year for the rest of your life, what are the odds that it will happen to you?
        What you say is true, but in the cases of just about everybody, not really relevant.


      • Kevin

        It happened to 100% of the readers who had purchased that particular Orwell title from Amazon in 2009. And, yes, the open-invitation we’ve extended to publishers to edit our private libraries at will is enough to give me pause — even if it only happens 1% of the time. When was the last time you’ve had an actual book recalled?

      • One percent of the time? Now, THAT, which you thought was minimizing it, is a wildly inflated statement. You need throw a few more zeroes in there before the integer after the decimal point. Do you refuse to go outside because you might get struck by lightning? It’s about the same thing.


      • Kevin

        When it comes to an issue as important as censoring my library, I’ll stick with 1%.

      • LisaGraceBooks

        Much is lost with ebooks—dust, silverfish, mold, book bindings falling apart, pages yellowing, sticky kid fingerprints…

    • LisaGraceBooks

      I live forty five minutes away from the nearest bookstore—and I’m not alone. Readers who live in bigger cities or college towns forget that bookstores are not accessible to everyone. With Amazon, you can flip open an ebook and read a sample of the book (10%) for free, right away.
      Many books will let you download the ebook for free if you order the paperback. Amazon is great about getting you the physical book within a day or two.
      For those that live in small apartments or dorms, ebooks are a blessing. You can download all the classics for free, and have a library instantaneously.
      My daughter devours ebooks on her iPod, and she’s not alone. We have a generation growing up that will not be opposed to reading books on a machine.
      Wear glasses or contacts? You don’t have to when reading on an ereader, just increase the font size, or have your ereader read out loud the book to you.
      My seventy+ mother loves her Kindle. You can take your library with you everywhere.

      Those opposed to ereaders seem to have never used one. Once you do, it’s hard to go back to print only. I now do most of my reading on my Kindle because I can take it with me everywhere, and not be limited to just one book at a time.

      • rh1985

        I have a tablet, but I don’t like reading on it. I couldn’t even get into an e-book advanced copy of a book I was dying to read that wouldn’t be out for months. It now gets used for game apps mostly.

      • Don’t know what your specific problem was, but a lot of the display can be changed, including the brightness. Or you may just be one of the unusual people who actually find this transition difficult in ways that aren’t entirely psychological.


      • Thanks. Plus one!


  • Rudy

    How many bookstores existed per, say, 10,000 people in 1950, 1960, 1970, and so on? I grew up in a relatively small town (less than 100,000 people) whose main business is a major public university–so highly educated population. Before the big shopping malls came in during the 60s, this town had ONE general interest bookstore–which also sold gifts–plus a college bookstore that sold textbooks plus a bookstore in the student union that was actually the best bookstore in town but didn’t have much of the bestseller and general nonfiction type of book. There were book sections in the two department stores. Then the shopping malls came, with actual dedicated bookstores–Waldens and Little Professor to begin with. That took us into the 70s. Book discovery was done in libraries (the university has one of the biggest and best libraries in America). Then came Borders. Then came amazon. The wonderful indie bookstore everyone is hoping to save seems to me to be a largely urban phenomenon. (I have lived in other places, both small and large, but I was nurtured on libraries, not indie bookstores, so I never developed the habit.) That said, I’d hate to see traditional publishing die because it adds something of value beyond marketing, and that’s editing–any definition you want to give it. Experienced professional writers who self publish and have any sense hire editors and pay attention to their input. The inexperienced ones tend to think they know best or don’t know good editors or…You get the picture.

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  • bafreethy

    Very interesting article. I appreciate that you mention the fact that many analyses being written about the book industry completely leave out self published books. I’ve sold over 3 million ebooks in the last 2 years and I know many other self publishers who are in fact selling more books than some small traditionally based publishers. Yet these numbers are never factored into any equation about ebooks. How can industry publications continue to ignore this incredibly fast growing part of the market?

    Because self publishers aren’t allowed into the bookstore ecosystem, they aren’t able to support print the way many would like to. While they can provide POD books, it would be great to see distributors and others take an interest in this untapped print market and find a way to get best selling self published books into widespread distribution. Many self publishing authors did well in print but no longer have that option unless they work with a traditional publisher.

    • Well, in fact, S&S did a distribution deal with John Locke and the books, apparently didn’t sell well in print.

      I really don’t think it would be hard for any successful indie author to find trade book distribution. The issue is that you have to print books and take an inventory risk. But if you’re willing to do that, I think most of the significant distributors would be quite willing to explore a relationship.


      • bafreethy

        I am aware of the limited print deals that have been done, and I’ve also spoken to several distributors, and from what I’ve heard, they are locked into traditional publishing. What I don’t think is often pointed out is that many established authors are now self publishing. John Locke had never been in print. However, what about authors with 20 years of a publishing career behind them who are now self publishing? Their print market didn’t just evaporate when they decided not to sell to a traditional publisher. For people who want to see print succeed and for bookstores to have more print books for their customers to choose from, it seems short-sighted to ignore this part of the market.

      • Teresa Medeiros

        I completely agree with this. I’m a multiple New York Times bestselling author who has recently gone indie and started her own e-publishing company. My print readers didn’t just up and disappear because I made that choice, but it’s not financially viable for me to keep selling my e-book rights to New York for 25%-40% of the net profit. My print readers are still out there so it seems a little short-sighted for the “Big 5” to not find a way to offer “print only” deals to bestselling authors.

      • Teresa, the first print-only deal of from a Big 6-now-5 house that I’m aware of was the one S&S did with Hugh Howey for Wool. The deal was struck nearly a year ago, the book came out in March, and I believe it has done very well in print for them. I can’t believe that somebody isn’t going to turn this into a little industry at some point. There are certainly plenty of ebook-only authors with the need.


      • Teresa Medeiros

        We’re definitely in a transition phase right now, Mike, which makes every day a new publishing adventure!

    • LisaGraceBooks

      Barbara brought up a very good point. My sales numbers are good, and they’re not “counted” on any official list. How many thousands of self publishers, and how many millions of ebooks are not being included on the official numbers?
      My numbers were good enough to get a movie option on two books, (which was exercised, and the project is now in development) yet the sales aren’t counted on official lists.
      This makes any official “guesstimate” more of a “gu-ass-timate”. Ebook numbers of estimated sales are waaaay off the mark—by millions. My bank counts the sales money as “real” and my readers certainly think my books are “real.”
      Funny, only traditional publishing lists of ebook sales don’t think they’re real.

      Because of the movie deal, I do now have an agency shopping the print rights around.

      • There is SOME counting of indie sales. I did a blog post recently about Anybody Press, which was built on the 12% of bestselling units (as reported by Digital Book World) that were indie.

        But any reporting that is publisher-dependent is likely to miss those books.

  • Kevin

    Y’can’t sniff a Kindle. ‘Digital library’ is an oxymoron. Digits are numbers or fingers; you can’t library ’em. It’s like turning ‘library’ into a verb: You just can’t do it.

    Frankly, it’s disgusting how anxious our society seems to abandon its crowning achievement (the printed word) in favor of some toy. Reminds me of a bumper sticker I want to trademark: Ray Bradbury’s Dead.

    • Must have been hard for you when we went from scrolls to codex since, obviously, the words are secondary to the format in which they are presented. Good thing these transitions only take place every several centuries!


      • Kevin

        I do believe that a book is more than the content pressed between its leaves, and that the act of reading is far less pleasurable on an electronic device. Have you never bought a different edition of a favorite book because you preferred the typeset or the cover art? Just a glance at the colorful spines of my books winking at me from their shelves fills me with a sense of joy and possibility that no computer can hope to inspire — not even with its vaunted promise of ‘interactivity’, whatever that means. Sure, I understand that progress is inevitable and that we are currently approaching the outer eddies of a sea-change. But to divest each book of its unique physical presence by pouring its contents into some collective, forgettable ether/’cloud’ seems less an egregious mistake than it does mass cultural suicide.

      • We’re all 1-of-a-kind, Kevin, and the commercial question when you generalize from the specific is how much of the population is like you in any particular way. While there are definitely many people like you — who really prefer the printed book as a form, for any variety of reasons (although the qualitative ones you raise actually confuse the issue: some people prefer print whether or not they notice or like the typeface, and ereading actually gives you the ability to adjust both the font selection and the size to suit you) — there are also many like me who don’t care about the form and for whom convenience beats all. And that means read on the device you already have, which for me is an iPhone.

        And the problem for the book loyalist, of course, is that the display and delivery system for print is much more expensive than for ebooks, quite aside from the manufacturing cost. So while I think you’ll be able to read just about anything you want in printed form forever, you will soon be in a world where costs are allocated fairly, and you’ll pay a lot more for your reading for the privilege. And find things harder to get.


      • Kevin

        Most consumers don’t realize what they want until their neighbor has it first. They’ll jump on the latest innovation simply because it’s popular. And I wouldn’t call them ‘readers’. (As my high school history teacher used to say, “The masses are asses.”) Ereaders have all the hallmarks of a consumer trend, not an industry-wide revolution. They’re a fad — slightly more endurable than the Pet Rock, perhaps, but nowhere near as lasting as the adjustable, four-wheel roller-skate.

      • Kevin

        Just checked out some other links on your site and realized what a pioneer you are in this emerging field. I don’t want to be the spoiler at your party, so will concede that digital publishing definitely offers rich possibilities that traditional print media can’t begin to cover. There are important authors already emerging in the digital arena who wouldn’t have voices otherwise. That alone does genuinely excite me about the potential of digital publishing. I just wish there were a way that it could remain an alternative to traditional publishing rather than its successor.

      • The two will live in parallel for quite some time.


      • Time will tell you how wrong you are. It only matters is you’re in the business of selling content. You will not in any way be penalized for your mistaken beliefs as a reader.


      • Kevin

        I actually do realize I’m wrong, Mike — but there’s a reason they call it a ‘revolution’.

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  • o2scott

    Yes, there is a paradigm shift going on for books. The question is whether it is a disruptive or complementary shift.
    I recall what has happened in music. For decades we had vinyl, then 8 track (short-lived), then cassette tapes, then CD’s and now MP3 downloads. You can still buy vinyl and CD’s though.
    To speak of something being “disruptive” is to speak of making the old obsolete.
    I ran a seminary bookstore for three years in the 1980’s. I was told then that with digital publishing that it would be passé soon. It is 30 years later and bookstores have not fully bit the dust yet.
    Interestingly I was told by the professors from the two seminaries to not stock theology because it wouldn’t sell. I didn’t listen. it was my best profit center for open stock. Theology and spirituality were my best selling books in quantity sales for open stock. Bibles, commentaries, and church history were dogs. Bibles and commentaries were planned buys where people would buy through a discount mail order house.
    I read in the ABA mag. that 80% of book buys were impulse. Oh? Also European bookstores apprentice their clerks for 6 months before permanently hiring them. Unheard of in America.
    A few years later I worked for a vertical computer reseller. We went to one of his customers. While he talked to the boss, I talked to the secretary. She told me that she went to buy Sendak’s, Where the Wild Things Are. She was told it was out of print. It wasn’t. Most likely it wasn’t listed in the wholesaler’s catalog. Ignorance and/or stupidity with perhaps laziness lost a sale. A single copy could have been ordered through ABA’s STOP order program from the publisher.
    A lack of knowledge, adaptability, love for books, love for people and solid customer service that is willing to go the second mile is what will kill off bookstores in general. Human contact and a person as a relational resource cannot be replaced mail order.
    Big box bookstores as we have known them will become rare if not extinct unless they perhaps become a combination of a new and used bookstore. Ebooks probably are a death knell for fiction in print media except perhaps a small market, like vinyl music, that will still want it.
    It is not only the publishers that will suffer. It is also readers that will as well.

    • Answer to “the question”? It is both complementary and disruptive. it becomes more disruptive as digital grows and bookstore shelf space shrinks. That’s when the ones selling the “other” books, the ones that don’t port well to digital, will really some different business model than the one they’ve always had. When will that be? I’d actually say THAT is “the question”.


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  • spot on

    The fact remains that ebook sales are slowing. All that matters are those numbers. Will the trend continue? You don’t know.

    • Actually, the fact remains that* the percentage growth of ebooks is slowing*. And since it was well over 100 percent for about three years in a row, that would sorta be inevitable. And, in fact, we know that it will continue to do that. The math demands it.


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  • Nice post , I Appreciate the info . Does someone know if I might find a fillable a form document to complete ?

  • S Zamara

    my work colleague came accross a sample NYC RPIE-2010 Instruction copy at this place