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The Reading Renaissance

3 May 2012

From the New York Times Opinionator:

Satan in Seattle, as the walking wounded of the book business describe Amazon.com, continues to expand from the shores of Lake Union here, with nearly a dozen new office buildings housing the global nerve center of earth’s largest online retailer.

By contrast, a few miles away is lovely old Town Hall, a sanctuary for the written word. On any given night, hundreds of people show up to hear a novelist tell a story, a poet turn mush into sublime rhyme, an essayist make narrative sense of messy facts. Town Hall is one reason why the Northwest is known as a touring author’s paradise.

We hear that one culture must destroy the other. It’s inevitable: the books-to-the-barricades defenders of ideas printed on dead trees will lose all that they love to the soulless digital monolith on Lake Union, with its 164 million customers.

. . . .

But surprise: the apocalypse already came and went, and look who’s standing. One technology, the e-book, the biggest new invention in reading since Gutenberg cranked out a Bible with movable type, changed the world — most likely for better. We have more books, more readers, a bigger audience for words, on pixels or paper.

The problem, for those who are purely reactive, is that publishing as we know it will soon die. And so will bookstores that are no more nimble or creative than a socks ’n’ things in the mall.

. . . .

There are two big questions about the future of books and technology. One is: are people reading more and, by implication, buying more books? The answer is yes. In their annual report last August, the Association of American Publishers reported that overall revenues, and number of books sold in all formats, were up sizably in three years since 2008. Without e-books, the numbers would have been flat, or declined.

. . . .

Well then, what about the second question: the fate of the independent bookstores, those imperiled isles of words? The headline from a release by the American Booksellers Association during last year’s holiday buying season was telling: “Indies Defy Conventional Wisdom as Sales and Locations Continue to Increase.” The release quoted Oren Teicher, head of the association, as saying, “An array of factors are fueling the resurgence of independent bookstores.” Among those factors are sales of e-books by indies.

. . . .

If Amazon wasn’t inventing the future, somebody else would. And Bezos makes a good point in his annual shareholder letter when he notes that the Amazon Kindle e-book list is full of self-published authors represented by small presses. Many of those writers would never get their shot, defying publishing’s gatekeepers in New York, without the new format.

One author, A.K. Alexander, who wrote the thriller “Daddy’s Home,” says in Bezos’s note that she made more royalties in a month on her Kindle sales than she did in a year with traditional publishing.

Link to the rest at the New York Times Opinionator and thanks to Cheryl for the tip in her comment.

Passive Guy doesn’t know if he’s quite as optimistic about the future of indie bookstores, although he would like to be.

Amazon, Ebooks, Indie Bookstores

12 Comments to “The Reading Renaissance”

  1. Independent bookstores are going to have to embrace the independent, self-published writer. That’s all there is to it.

    Indie bookstores understand that there is a long-tail factor, and they do go after the small press crowd — but they still don’t understand, as Amazon does, that the wannabe writer is their most enthusiastic customer. They have to cater to the writer.

    Or change their business from books to something else.

    • They could become the “critics” or the “filter” for indie publications.

      This would fit in with their branding as “community hubs”.

      • Oddly, I think that’s their biggest mistake. They are too busy being the “filter.” That just turns away customers.

        What indie booksellers need to do is embrace the new paradigm — be a face-to-face version of what people get on the internet. Their only filter should be that they emphasize local. (And I mean emphasize, not exclude — they should have best sellers if they want to cater to local book clubs.)

        Which isn’t to say they should be neutral. They can provide “op ed” in recommending some things over others, but if they’re going to survive, they’ve got to include, not exclude.

        This is completely antithetical to the way most local booksellers think, though. Sure, they may reject the commercialism of NYT bestsellers, but that’s just because they consider such things trash, and they want to support The Arts!

        That’s only successful if your “In Group” is big enough to sustain your business model all by itself.

  2. You know, I don’t really know why we can’t have both: giant money-making enterprises like Amazon that enable more authors than just a chosen few to finally make a real living off their work, and tenderly cherished temples to the fetish for paper books and the Author-As-Priest institutions like this town hall thing. People who want stuff will find a way to have it. No one is holding a gun at the heads of indie paper book stores and meatspace author tour audiences and telling them to close up shop and go home and read only e-books.

  3. I’m optimistic about the indie booksellers. I’ll be even more optimistic when B&N dies. The indies have to make enough money to survive, but in my experience, most of them exist because of owners who love books. People seem to forget these days that it was B&N and Borders opening up huge, comfy stores with coffee shops right down the street from the flourishing independents that really killed them. With those stores gone, it opens up space for places that are more like art galleries — instead of chain buyers, the books will be hand-selected to suit the taste of the local audience, the retailers will be knowledgeable book lovers, and the shoppers won’t be dropping in for the latest bestseller and a quick coffee but browsers planning a quiet, pleasant hour shopping to discover something new. I do slightly suspect that those stores might have Amazon involvement: I can imagine a future where the books are on the shelves, but readers are encouraged to buy the ebook version at a much lower cost, which would solve major problems in distribution, warehousing, managing shelf space, etc. but still provide a hands-on book browsing experience.

  4. William Ockham

    I think the question of where people will buy print books, say, 10 years from now, is actually quite interesting. People will still be buying new print books in 2022 (and in 2222, I suspect). The question is will they be buying James Patterson’s latest (or robot/zombie James Patterson’s latest in 2222) in print.

    Let’s speculate (U.S. market only):

    The price of an e-ink e-reader will be less than the price of a hardback, that’s certain. So, no market for books at the airport or the supermarket. I would expect them to switch over to preloaded ebook devices which would appeal to the Big Six. B & N will have gone out of business (NewCo may or may not still be around).

    Bestsellers won’t be able to support a bookstore as a shopping destination. Paperbacks could survive as POD, but they would be sold mostly in places like Starbucks. So, adult trade books (25-30%) of the market will be mostly digital (e-books and POD).

    We will be looking at the print trade hardback book as a luxury good. They will be very expensive and offer an experience you can’t get from an e-reader. This is already happening. Books will compete on the quality of the paper, typography, and graphic design. They will occupy a niche market, probably larger than the niche that vinyl occupies in the music market (about 1%). Bookstores will have to create snob appeal. I would expect to see bookstores at about the same market penetration as antiquarian bookstores today.

    I wonder what the peripheral markets will look like. Religious materials, (at least the Christian ones that I ame familiar with, Bibles, hymnals, Sunday School lessons, etc.) are likely to stay mostly in print because the dynamics are different there. I teach my Bible study class off my iPad occasionally now, but I’m not really typical…

    The education market will have mostly moved to digital by 2022 (over 30% of the market). Scholarly books will probably remain mostly in print, but that’s less than 4% and not a very profitable segment. The professional market segment will probably be predominantly digital, but the parts that aren’t will be the ones that have the same requirements as the luxury trade book segment. Children’s books will likely still be largely print for the earliest years and be sold in toy stores, but chapter books will move to digital.

    Altogether, I would expect the print book publishing industry to be less than half the size it is today. Bookstores will be rare indeed.

    [All predictions are merest speculation on my part based on absolutely no inside information of any kind.]

  5. Something a lot of folks seem to overlook (and they did a few years ago when the eBook was that goofy device no one really talked about) is that the audience is changing as well. Those who prefer physical books, for the most part, grew up with them. The newer generations are plugged firmly into their devices and the following ones will be even more so. Just replace Timothy Leary’s “Turn on, tune in, drop out” with “connect, download, read book” for the generations to follow.

    • I’m not sure about that, as somebody who has just started to use reading glasses (sob) being able to change the font size is a big selling point.

      • Not to mention, when you change the font size, you don’t change the weight of the e-reader. If you change the font size in a book, it tends to have more pages, and pages are wood, and wood is heavy. >_>

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