Let’s start with some really cool statistics. The first is reliable. It’s based on daily data received from 70 million retail locations all over the United States. Here it is:
In the first quarter of 2013, brick-and-mortar bookstores saw a 27% increase in foot traffic over the same period in 2012. Combine that with the number of independent brick-and-mortar booksellers increasing for the past four years, and you see an actual trend. People are going back to bookstores, including a return to Barnes & Noble brick-and-mortar stores, which moved 8 spots up the list of most visited stores in the U.S. In Q1 of 2012, Barnes & Noble was the 25th most visited retail store. In Q1 of 2013, it’s the 17th most visited retail store. Note, people, that abookseller is in the top twenty of all stores that received foot traffic in the United States. Pretty damn neat-o, huh?
Maybe, just maybe, some of the massive decline we saw in brick-and-mortar retail book sales had nothing to do with e-books. Maybe it had to do with the closing of Borders locations (and contrary to what you believe, Borders closed because it was mismanaged, not because of the growth of digital) and with the recession. As the recession is easing in various parts of the country, consumers have returned to actual stores, including the bookstore.
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In the past five years, e-book sales in the United States have gone from zero to (conservatively) 706 million, with no sign of slowing down.
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About 30% of those e-book sales come from independent (self-published) authors. That’s about 21 million ebook sales that did not come out of traditional publishing. The bulk of those sales, as we all know, came in the last few years, not in the early years.
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Our industry is growing. We are getting new bookstores, new readers, new writers, and we haven’t hit the peak of the market yet. Why not? Because traditional publishers dropped the ball decades ago. Traditional publishersforgot that they sell books to consumers. Instead, they changed their business model to sell books to bookstores. When the independent bookstores declined at the turn of this century, traditional publishers started marketing to the big distributors and to the chain bookstores, which was why you heard such industry-wide panic when Borders went down. It wasn’t because the readers went away; it was because traditional publishers had no idea how to sell their books to people other than the ten to twenty buyers for national distributors and chain bookstores.
In the early 2000s, I had books rejected by big publishers with these comments.We love it, but we know we can’t sell this title to Walmart. We love it, but we checked with the buyer for Borders, and he doesn’t think the book will sell so we must decline. I’m not the only writer who experienced such things. When your business model is based on selling to ten or twenty people who act as the only gateway to millions of consumers, then those ten or twenty people wield a disproportionate amount of power.
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[M]ost non-urban areas within the United States do not have a bookstore of any stripe within 1 hour driving distance. The book suppliers to those places were grocery stores or places like Walmart, which in the last decade, cut back the number of books they carried. Many readers went without new books at all. Some used local libraries. Others found different forms of entertainment.
The brilliant thing about Amazon and other online print booksellers is that they started to tap that unseen book market. Metaphorically, they’re increasing the number of book buyers across the U.S. just like the drop in TV prices (and rise in local stations) increased the number of television viewers in the 1960s.
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If you’re a traditionally published writer, you have already heard about smaller print runs and how that’s “worrisome” for the business. Publishers are asking their writers to take pay cuts, smaller royalties, tiny advances, and draconian contract terms because “the readers just aren’t there.”
Most traditional publishers do not understand how the change in ordering from brick-and-mortar store has impacted their bottom line. They don’t understand why readers have turned fickle and aren’t buying the Big Names in as big numbers as before. Traditional publishers think they need to advertise more or push harder, when in fact, they’re seeing that same leveling that the TV networks started to see in the 1980s.
With the exception of one or two cultural phenomenon books per year (think the last episode of M*A*S*H), few books will sell at the numbers they commanded at the beginning of the century. Yes, the number of readers is growing, and yes, the numbers of books being bought (in all formats) is increasing dramatically, but not all sales will go to traditional publishers.
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I have no idea how to tell you traditionally published writers how to survive this change except to understand that it’s happening. You should also police your contracts well so that you can get out of your traditional publisher quickly. Even if you move to another traditional publisher, you need to make sure that your options are open.
The next two or three years in traditional publishing will see a lot of casualties. Writers will have to take smaller advances. (This is already happening.) Writers will also find themselves without a publisher much quicker than before. Traditional publishers won’t change their accounting practices quickly, and that too will hurt writers. It’s hard to negotiate from a position of strength when you have no idea if your actual book sales this year compare well or poorly to the book sales for your previous titles. Right now, royalty statements aren’t giving you (or the publisher) that information.