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