As an author and a reader, I feel anticipation tempered by abject terror when I contemplate the changing face of publishing. Recent media bytes from Dorchester and Medallion Press announcing their plans to scale back on or eliminate print publishing altogether in order to embrace the e-book as the future have me wondering how those creating the product publishers sell (aka writers) will be affected.
I’m not Nora Roberts. I’m not Dan Brown. I’m not Stephenie Meyer. Those authors have a huge foundation of readers who will find their work, regardless of the format in which it is presented. Me? Not so much. My recent royalty statement tells me that the bulk of my sales come from bookstore shelves, not e-books. While the number of electronic copies sold of my books has increased with each subsequent statement I’ve received, those same numbers still make the argument that there would be no perceptible momentum in my career as a novelist without the sales of physical print copies.
How do we bridge the gap when a prospective reader can no longer take a book from the bookstore shelf, read the cover blurb, peruse a few pages, and make a buying decision largely based upon impulse? While it’s true that today’s readers are already accustomed to reading online book reviews, blogs, Amazon ratings, and so on, the e-book as the wave of the future scenario is more suited to the author who already has name recognition value. No one is likely to research a book or an author they’ve never heard of.
I personally love the experience of scanning bookstore shelves, taking a book in hand, and discussing books with store employees and even strangers I happen to meet in the aisles. I’m hard-pressed to imagine how a virtual storefront could replicate the experience of having an enthusiastic bookseller, librarian, or reader recommend a book to me by placing the book in my hand and making an impassioned speech to convince me to buy it.
What about the substantial number of readers who cannot afford an e-reader? While the price of e-readers has dropped steadily and is likely to continue to drop, do we run the risk of turning into an elitist society where those who own e-readers will have more reading choices available to them than readers who buy only second hand mass-market paperbacks? Will the e-book licensing model expand to accommodate the age-old practice of loaning a beloved book to a friend? As an author, I don’t want to turn away anyone who might have interest in reading my work. I don’t turn up my nose at library copies, paperback swap sites, or any form of book-sharing. Yes, it’s true the author receives no monetary compensation from these; however, the goal in writing a book in the first place is to have someone read it.
Will we eventually have a universal reader that can accommodate all e-book formats, or will the devices splinter into different factions of proprietary software, like the Amazon Kindle? Will the reader who has purchased a proprietary e-reader device like the Nook from Barnes and Noble simply be out of luck if the seller goes out of business and can no longer support the products it sold? Will there be any form of quality control in place? Will the readers available from places like CVS, Best Buy, Macy’s, and so on, all be required to meet a minimum set of standards, and if so, who will set those standards?
Where will book recommendations come from? What will happen to booksellers? Will booksellers embrace emerging forms of technology or will they become the one remaining place where print books can be obtained, infusing them with a new purpose and supplying them with a unique customer base? Will the independent bookstore disappear like a dinosaur following a cataclysmic event? Booksellers have always provided so much more than books stacked neatly upon shelves. They organize events, they create book clubs, and they read their inventory so that they can make recommendations to customers looking for their next book purchase. Most important of all, booksellers love books and they spread the love of books to others. Can anything fill such a void?
In my view, word-of-mouth will continue to be a critical factor in the success of a book. Review sites and influential bloggers may become even more powerful, although some may claim that some sites wield too much power as it is, while others may argue that review sites have no real influence at all on book buying decisions. I worry about a future where a negative review on an influential review site could effectively shut down a new writer’s career. Even ball players are allowed three strikes. On the flip side of the same coin, the e-book format might actually become a boon to new authors because without mass-market production, printing and warehousing costs, the margin to achieve profitability is substantially decreased. Ergo, more times up at bat for that new writer on the block.
Creative marketing will be required, stretching the boundaries of imagination in order to find innovative ways to connect readers with writers. How will the approach for launching a debut author differ from that of the task of reaching the vast readership of an author whose work consistently hits the bestseller lists? Will the advertising dollar hold sway, with publishers using online ads to promote their titles and readers buying a novel after being bombarded with so many strategically placed banner ads that they assume “everyone” is reading the book? The perception that a book is a “must-read” will place it on thousands of virtual to-be-read stacks. That same strategy is successfully employed today to a degree.
The dark cloud staining the e-book silver lining is piracy. Hundreds, if not thousands, of sites currently offer pirated content available for free download. Just as quickly as sites are closed down, new sites replace them. Everyone loses as a result of piracy. The publisher loses when their profits are consumed by legal fees while trying to close down the pirate sites. The writer loses when their work is given away for free. The reader loses when they learn a favorite author is no longer writing because writing has become a pointless exercise when there are bills to be paid and no money coming in from book sales. Another aspect of the piracy issue is the need for education. Although people who download free content from pirate sites must certainly be aware they are doing something unethical, many seem to be ignorant of the fact that they are also committing a crime. Copyright and content laws must be respected and enforced, no matter what publishing format is in vogue.
We are certainly living in an era of major change, and it will be fascinating to see how it all plays out as what was once portrayed as science fiction becomes a part of everyday life. My version of utopia would be a consumer-driven marketplace where e-books are more reasonably priced than they are at present (reflecting the reduction in production and warehousing costs) and those who still want to savor the sensation of holding a print book in their hands can request a print version of any book and it will be available via print on demand technology. Why not wish for the best of both worlds?