When it comes to disruptions in the book publishing landscape, we may be monks swimming for the Under Toad.
What the heck do I mean by that?
In John Irving’s greatest novel, on visits to the beach Garp’s son Walt continually receives warnings to watch out for the undertow. It takes years for Garp to realize that Walt’s mishearing of the word has led him to conjure visions of “a giant toad, lurking offshore, waiting to suck him under and drag him out to sea. The terrible Under Toad.”
In a similar vein, Malachy McCourt’s entertaining memoir A Monk Swimming takes its title from his youthful mishearing of a line in the Hail Mary. “Blessed art thou amongst women” becomes “Blessed art though, a monk swimming.”
People mishear things, misread things. Sometimes they just put the emphasis in the wrong place, based on partial knowledge, past experience or personal preference. I wonder how much analysis of book publishing these days falls prey to these problems of false perception or sheer intellectual laziness.
I have observed, for example, that most people who pooh-pooh the electronic book future don’t own ebook readers. These people talk about the benign feel and smell and heft of paper books and associate e-readers with the eye strain that they get from the computer screen. They may have heard about electronic ink, but they haven’t experienced it. Yet I’ve never met a person who wasn’t crazy about his or her Kindle, even the clunky early version. Everyone I know who actually owns an ebook reader purchases most or all books on the device. So what’s going on here?
Nassim Nicholas Taleb might have a thing or two to say about the syndrome. In The Black Swan this great truth teller and exposer of charlatans relates a story told by Cicero: “One Diagoras, a nonbeliever in the gods, was shown painted tablets bearing the portraits of some worshippers who prayed, then survived a subsequent shipwreck. The implication was that praying protects you from drowning. Diagoras asked, ‘Where were the pictures of those who prayed, then drowned?’ The drowned worshippers would have a lot of trouble advertising their experiences from the bottom of the sea. This can fool the casual observer into believing in miracles.”
Taleb calls this “the problem of silent evidence.”
In the echo chamber of book publishing, the reader’s voice is being heard not because anyone bothered to ask her but because she voices her preferences with her wallet. And guess what? Prognosticators have grossly underestimated the sale of ebooks for three years running. They keep missing the silent evidence.
That great unseen and rarely heard beast is the undertow, folks, not the Under Toad. It’s amongst women — and men, too. It will drag all in book publishing to the bottom of the sea, but some will survive. And won’t those people have a tale to tell.
15 Predictions for the Future of Books
1. Superstores as we know them will disappear.
I believe Barnes & Noble’s superstores will hang on for a good long while, but in ten years you won’t recognize them. Internet stores are more comprehensive than any brick-and-mortar building could hope to be. Even if B&N survives on the strength of its ebook store, the company will have to find ways to build traffic at retail, which means they will migrate to a broader selection of merchandise. What kind? Who knows? Alas, it will not be more books.
2. Independent bookstores will survive.
In cities niche bookstores may continue to thrive, places like Partners & Crime in New York and The Writers Store in Los Angeles. Also, major independents may continue to do well. But in order for this to happen they will have to go into the experience business (see my last post on “8 Predictions for the Future of Bookselling”), offering paid appearances by authors and intellectuals, live shows, classes, etc. Any store not following this impresario model will not get out of this decade alive. It will wither under the ebook onslaught.
3. Publishers will learn to sell direct to consumers again.
There is a place for channels of distribution and may always be, but publishers can not thrive in the 21st Century while maintaining blissful ignorance of their end users.
4. Ebooks will dominate the market.
The Yankee Group projects that ebook sales will explode from $313 million in 2009 to $2.7 billion in 2013. I’m sure someone paid them a lot of money to crunch the numbers on this bold projection and I’m equally certain that this estimate is absurdly low. Consider that the American book market was $23 billion in 2009, according to the Association of American Publishers. Ignoring inflation and presuming zero growth, the Yankee estimate therefore has ebooks growing eight-fold to a 12% market share. But consider just one point of real recent data (not a projection): according to the New York Times, at HarperCollins ebooks made up 25 percent of all young adult book sales last month, up from six percent in 2010. That’s a four-fold increase in just one year! Skeptics may note that it was off a small base, is just one category and just one publisher, yada yada yada. These skeptics are whistling past the graveyard.
Another statistic: sales of ebooks on BN.com are already exceeding sales of print books, according to B&N. That is astonishing growth considering that the Nook e-reader has only been out for 16 months.
Based upon these data points alone, it should surprise no one when ebooks claim a majority share of all book sales no later than 2015.
5. Hardcovers will become instant collectors’ items.
Whither our old friend, the hardcover? I see convergence between hardcover production and the collectors’ market, whereby enhanced hardcovers (slipcases, leather bindings, fold-out maps, etc.) sell for higher price points to readers seeking trophies for their shelves.
6. Print on Demand may replace offset printing, but it won’t matter.
When P.O.D. met the Internet, it was love at first sight. Suddenly self-published authors didn’t have to fork over tens of thousands of dollars to get the offset presses running, and Amazon gave them market access. But most of these books have an audience of 100 people. The real advantage of P.O.D. is that it enables publishers to keep backlist books in print longer, giving them incremental revenue.
P.O.D. quality has lagged the quality of offset printing, but the gap seems to be narrowing. By the time the two technologies produce interchangeable products, however, it may not matter because print will have been reduced to so small a market share.
7. Publishers will publish more titles, not fewer.
Publishers thus far have mostly responded to market uncertainty by narrowing their lists based upon perceived quality or their own market expertise. The big challenge has always been amortizing fixed costs against the numbers they are likely to move. This problem won’t go away, but the market uncertainty will eventually decline to a manageable level again. When it does, publishers will bulk out their lists again — and many of these titles will only be available as ebooks.
8. Ebooks will carry advertising.
There’s already a great deal of speculation about this. The problem with potential advertising in printed books has always been their small (and uncertain) circulation. But someone soon (hello, Google?) will figure out how to aggregate the ads across related books, pumping up the eyeball count. The big question will be where this revenue goes — to authors or publishers. Of course, it will end up being shared, and standards will develop. This revenue, if managed properly, will enable publishers to expand their lists (see No. 7) and may promote a virtuous circle, getting more good writers into “print.”
9. Better royalties will replace advances.
I’ve said it before: the royalty structure as we know it was not handed down by God. Advances and royalties are about the distribution of risk. In capitalism, he (or she) who takes the most risk usually reaps the biggest reward if things work out. The days when publishers front-load their risk (by paying everyone an advance) may be coming to a close. But if the author takes on more risk (because he’s not getting paid an advance) he or she will rightly demand a greater share of the revenue. If he doesn’t get it, he’ll go rogue.
10. Agents will have their own imprints.
Agents exist for a couple of reasons, of course, but one big one is to relieve authors of the time (and bandwidth) burden of wading into the business end of things. Most authors just want to write — and spend their idle hours on the set of Oprah and The View (or, barring that, The Nervous Breakdown). While barriers to market entry have fallen and will continue to do so, most authors don’t want the hassle of self-publishing. Yet they’re not making any money from that unsold project languishing in the drawer, either. Enter the shrewd agents.
11. There won’t just be one way (or two).
Self-published. Mainstream published. Big publisher. Small publisher. As the market changes, authors and their agents may choose to pursue multiple strategies at the same time. For those not pulling down major advances, non-compete and next-book contract clauses may fall by the wayside.
12. Writers organizations will stop discriminating against authors who bootstrap.
As it stands, organizations like Mystery Writers of America are happy to take a writer’s membership money but won’t lift a finger to help her unless her publisher is on the “approved” list, which consists of those publishers who will not take a nickel from the author (among other requirements). One can understand that any membership organization must discriminate in some way in order to define itself, but persisting with this policy is tantamount to keeping your country club restricted or racist when society long ago moved on. As the lines between publishing models grow fuzzy, writers organizations will have to choose between promoting writers and promoting the status quo. I think they’ll ultimately pick the former.
13. Book clubs will rise again.
People mostly read what someone else tells them to read. We get advice from the ever-shrinking book review section of the newspaper, from friends, from bloggers — but it’s not always enough. And some people find the Amazon recommendation engine downright creepy. That’s why social networks of readers have evolved (o.k. — one of them’s owned by Amazon) and will continue to do so. They will go increasingly niche, I think, and these expert-driven or peer-to-peer environments will be book clubs in all but name.
14. Marketers will rescue book publishing.
I attended a liberal arts university. We had majors like economics and English, not marketing and communications. Then I went into an industry that is staffed largely by those who majored in the humanities, smart people, earnest people, but people with certain predilections. Generally, they resist change rather than leading it. They enjoy more the thrill of discovery than the hard work of invention. They value words more than numbers, anecdotes more than hard data. I’m painting them with a broad brush, of course, making unfair assumptions. If it’s any consolation to those I’m offending, I consider myself to have the same weaknesses.
When W. Howard Lester bought Williams-Sonoma, the company was being run by Chuck Williams, who was good at buying merchandise but not so good at the other aspects of business. Lester, who knew how to build a business and a brand, kept Williams on to do the buying, and together they grew four stores into a $3.4 billion behemoth.
Book publishing needs its humanists and its tastemakers the way Lester needed Williams and Steve Jobs needs electrical engineers. But book publishing also needs marketing visionaries. Ebooks — and other changes — are washing over the industry like a tsunami, setting authors adrift in deep waters. If we are to avoid the Under Toad, a marketer will lead us.
15. Storytelling will be reinvented.
O.k. This last one’s a kind of cheat. Storytelling will be reinvented the way it’s always being reinvented: creative writers finding ways to make it fresh. But it will also remain the same, as dependent on rhythm and structure and conjuring empathy as it ever has been. There’s a reason we still read Homer today. Whether we listen to it as the spoken word or read it on paper or via electronic ink, we are a story-telling, story-hearing species, and we will always heed that siren call, no matter the medium. That won’t change much.