Now that we’ve had a week to digest Dorchester’s decision to move to a digital first followed by trade paperbacks, there seem to be two basic reactions:
1. The Dorchester situation is unique because it was driven by serious financial problems that have been building for some time.
2. The sky is falling in traditional print publishing and this is merely the beginning of the end.
As I said in my post the other day about digital royalty rates, I don’t think the Dorchester situation is unique, but neither do I think that print publishing is on the verge of complete collapse. I do, however, think that the digital reading revolution is upon us, and it behooves both readers and writers to think now about what we’ll gain from the new landscape rather than cry crocodile tears over what we think we’re losing.
But first, what are we losing? In my humble opinion, the first thing we’re losing, clearly, is brick-and-mortar bookstores. This is not to say that there won’t be physical stores that sell print books; it’s just that they’re going to be the Walmarts, Targets, and CostCo’s of the world that stock a limited selection of the most popular/marketable books. We may continue to have a limited number of book “superstores” in big cities and a precious few indies may survive, but for the most part, sales of print copies of “rarer” book will migrate to Amazon and other online retailers. This is due to practical realities. As the number of print book sales decrease and digital book sales increase (the trend for the past several years in most sectors of the book market), the cost of shelving a wide variety of books in multiple retail spaces so that customers can pick them off the shelves and buy them is too high. It’s much cheaper to warehouse the same books in one or several locations and ship them to customers when they’re ordered online. If you think it’s not going to happen, all you have to do is remember is the gradual demise of record stores a decade or so ago. It’s exactly the same dynamic at play.
Those of us who love bookstores feel sad about this; I know I do. But when I look at my own book-buying behavior, I realize that I’m as responsible for this as anyone else. While I do still go to a bookstore about once a month, I often leave without buying anything and when I do, it’s usually books for my children; my own reading habit is largely sustained by digital books and Amazon/Book Depository/etc. This is because I’ve stopped being as much of an impulse buyer as I once was. I’m not buying books because I happen across them on the bookstore shelf and decide they sound good. I already know before I go to a bookseller’s site which books I want and why.
Now, this isn’t to say that the average reader has migrated to this method of bookbuying. But the “average” reader isn’t buying most of her books in a bookstore, anyway. She’s buying them at a discount at the aforementioned big box retailers. Oh, sure, there are vocacious readers whose tastes can’t be adequately met by the books that the chain retailers are offering, and they’re still going to bookstores. It’s just that there are fewer and fewer of them, and they are also the readers who are most likely to adopt ebooks, especially as the price of ereaders drops.
So, where does that leave the print book market? Well, my suspicion is that, within the next 5-10 years, we’re going to see the majority of publishers going to the Dorchester digital-then-trade model for their midlist and “niche” books, although they may choose to do simultaneous ebook and trade releases rather than staggered ones. They’re not going to do this because they have any great love for ebooks, but because there won’t be enough places for them to STOCK those midlist and niche books. They’re also going to do it this way because the profit margin on trade paperbacks is so much higher than for mass market paperbacks. (There’s already a noticeable shift toward trade paperbacks in the romance genre. The reasons are obvious–it doesn’t cost much more to print a trade paperback than a mass market paperback, but the cover price is nearly twice as much, and trades don’t get stripped and pulped. It’s pretty much a no-brainer for the publishers to prefer this format, provided, of course, they can get readers to buy them.)
The bestseller titles that are ordered and stocked by the large chains will still be printed for a long time to come. There will probably continue to be a mix of hardcover, trade paper, and mass market paperback formats for these books. But these books are likely to become the exception rather than the rule.
Okay, so, that’s my prediction. What does it mean to us as readers and writers? Well, ironically, I think in many ways, it’s probably a good thing for all of us.
For both readers and writers, I think it’s on balance a good thing because the model allows for a lot more innovation and variety in the types of books that are published. The rise of digital-only publishers over the last decade has already given those readers who were willing to read ebooks a much broader choice of reading material. Topics, genres, and styles that aren’t mainstream enough to appeal to publishers who are risking huge sums of money on printing and distribution are now getting published anyway. That trend should continue and expand to more publishing houses, because the large costs of printing and distribution will be eliminated for these books. Contrary to bringing about the death of the midlist, the digital revolution may well be the midlist’s savior, and provide writers with many more opportunities for publication (including going the indie route).
Of course, there are downsides. There are already, arguably, too many books published. The digital revolution will likely lead to more books, not fewer, and this means correspondingly fewer readers for each book published. (Garrison Keillor said we’re heading toward a publishing environment where every book published has eight buyers, all of whom are members of the writer’s family. I don’t think it’s THAT bad, but I do think there’s a grain of truth in there.) By the same token, the chain retailers, who already exert a huge degree of infuence when it comes to picking bestsellers, will become even more powerful. Get into the chains, and you’re pretty much assured of big sales numbers. Fail that, and you’re going to be more or less on your own when it comes to bringing readers to your books.
But these are all things we need to think about TODAY, whether we’re readers or writers. As readers, how will we find “our” books? As writers, how will we find “our” readers? As writers, how will we negotiate our contracts today with the knowledge that, in as little a few years (or overnight, if you were a Dorchester author), you might discover your book is coming out only in digital when you were expecting a print release? It’s going to take a lot of foresight, but at the end of the day, I feel we’ll all be better prepared to truly take advantage of the brave new world of publishing if we start now.
In other words, to quote REM, it’s the end of the world as we know it, and I feel fine.