From Our Windsor.ca:
In 2010 or so I bought my first e-reader. A Kobo. I was intrigued by the idea of an e-reader; I thought it might be convenient. But I equivocated — should I buy a Kobo? Or a Kindle?
Kindle was associated with the growing bookseller Amazon, the Kobo with the Canadian company Chapters/Indigo. Which company would have more books available? Apple released the first iPad at the beginning of the year and sales took off immediately. Technology was changing so quickly I wasn’t sure what to buy. Would it all be obsolete a year from now?
Little did I know then that the questions I was asking would form the crux of what occurred in books over the ensuing decade, in which what we read, how we read and who we read have created industry-wide changes.
Bookstores aren’t dead
One of the hallmarks of the decade before the 2010s was the death of the bookstore, thanks to the proliferation of big box stores selling books plus online retailers, Amazon in particular.
A recent headline in the American newspaper the Grand Haven Tribune asked: “Are bookstores back?” The piece quotes the American Booksellers Association, which says between 2009 and 2019 the number of new shops owned by members increased by 53 per cent. They might not be big, but they are there.
New bookstores have been opening in Toronto and across the country, too. A bookshop can’t live by selling books alone — but they can when the community gets involved. Stores such as Another Story Bookshop in Toronto have increasingly organized author readings; some organize writers’ workshops, book clubs. In other words, bookstores and books do what they’ve always done: contribute to a community of ideas and storytelling.
Print’s not dead, either
The total volume of print units sold in 2018, as tracked by BookNet Canada SalesData, is 54.7 million at a value of $1.13 billion. BookNet’s State of Digital Publishing in Canada survey showed that 18.6 per cent of books purchased in 2017 were ebooks. That was up just slightly from 2016.
But when it comes to Canadian books, the picture looks bleaker. According to the More Canada Report, published in December 2018, only 15 per cent of books purchased were written by Canadians. Part of the problem is that it’s difficult for readers to identify Canadian books. That’s in great part due to the way they are bought: through Amazon. Amazon’s algorithm recommends books to you — but not necessarily Canadian books, leaving Canadian publishing houses and Canadian authors at the mercy of an algorithm that isn’t interested in promoting them.
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The report also found that independent publishers’ sales were down 44 per cent over the past 10 years.
That’s happened as big publishers are getting bigger. The publishing giant Penguin Random House didn’t quite exist at the beginning of this decade — the takeover of the two companies Penguin and Random House by the German multinational Bertelsmann wouldn’t take effect until 2012.
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Self-publishing has also become a way to, sometimes, make a living as a writer and publish books that mainstream publishers might not have picked up. It also allows mainstream writers to capture income in different ways — they become hybrid writers, publishing some of their work in the traditional way under one name and self-publishing under another.
Some, such as the science fiction writer Robert J. Sawyer, have launched Patreon accounts so that readers can basically become “patrons of the arts and of individual creators,” he told the Star in a 2018 interview. Even bestselling authors find the freedom of non-traditional publishing a positive thing. They get to keep a bigger cut of the books they sell and they get the creative freedom to do what they want.
Does all this access to potential audiences work? It depends. Overall, writers are earning less money than they ever have. A Writers’ Union of Canada survey in 2018 found a 27 per cent decrease in writers’ income over the previous three years. Part of the reason for that was copyright legislation in Canada. In the U.K., authors reported in 2018 that their incomes had declined 15 per cent over the previous three years.
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Marketing books changed as publishers embraced online advertising through Facebook, finding the ability to directly target a specific audience and, as the algorithms got even better, specific readers, was attractive. “Influencers” also became a key part of targeting book buyers. With the increasing closure of traditional media outlets came the withering of books sections and an erosion of readily accessible reviews. Instead, reader-generated review sites such as Goodreads proliferated. Some mainstream news outlets, including the Star, kept their books sections going, and many smaller literary magazines began publishing more reviews and stand-alone review sections.
Link to the rest at Our Windsor.ca
As PG and others have pointed out before, stories about the book industry that cite legacy publishing and traditional book store industry statistics are always wrong because Amazon doesn’t break out sales figures for books, including books from traditional publishers, self-published books and print on demand books and, with no denigration of Kobo intended, Amazon sells the large majority of English-language ebooks.
Amazon created the market for ebooks, at least in the English-speaking world, by offering ebooks at attractive prices, building and selling ebook readers at attractive prices, creating the software and commercial infrastructure to build, distribute and sell ebooks efficiently around the world and putting a lot of brains and money into the task of introducing and attracting readers to ebooks. Because old-line traditional publishing promotional tools like book reviews in newspapers and magazines (yet another sinking ship and no friend to Amazon or other online competitors), Amazon acquired and built Goodreads up into a leading (the leading?) online book review site.
Could anyone else have accomplished this task as quickly and effectively and at the scale Amazon did? A hypothetical competitor might have done so, but real-world competitors have not. See, for example, Nook.
PG is not certain whether the Writers Union of Canada welcomes indie authors or not, but most traditional authors organizations are of little interest to indie authors because these organizations focus on topics like improving the standard contract terms that old-line publishers offer authors and flagging the latest fly-by-night publishing scam that comes floating up from the sewers.
PG is not familiar enough with the details of the Canadian bookstore market to know whether a retail disaster on the order of Barnes & Noble has occurred or is threatened, but as he has mentioned before, if Barnes & Noble can’t be saved, a huge part of the world of traditional publishing and bookselling will simply disappear.
If you were counseling a college student nearing graduation about career choices, would you recommend that they go to work for Barnes & Noble? Penguin Random House?
As far as a writing career is concerned, if this hypothetical college student wanted to earn a living by writing, would you suggest s/he complete a quality manuscript, then start sending it to agents or publishers and wait for a response? While working at Starbucks? Instead of signing up for campus interviews with companies who want to hire graduates right away?