Final Chapter for Books?

The New Yorker paints a bleak picture of publishing today. Borders is facing bankruptcy. There have been massive firings at Random House and its subsidiaries. Simon and Schuster cut thirty-five jobs, Thomas Nelson cut 54. Harcourt halted acquisitions of new manuscripts, and Penguin froze salaries for anyone making $50,000 or more. More bloodshed and consolidation is certainly on the way, even at smaller houses. The article included this quote from an editor at Farrar Straus Giroux:

We’re privately owned and not quite as massive as houses like Random House. We’ve definitely been feeling the burn with shorter print runs and a tightening on what we can buy, and we’ve had some really bleak editorial meetings.

14 thoughts on “Final Chapter for Books?”

  1. I think it may be the final chapter for the book industry in its current form – but as long as people like to read, someone will sell books.
    Reminds me of the Lawrence Block story about the short-story markets, “Ten Thousand Dollars A Word”.

  2. Incidentally, I just read an interesting article that reminded me of one important difference between newspapers and books: newspapers are essentially given away free – the price only covers printing and distribution costs, not the creation of the content. They make their money from advertising, especially classified advertising, and this source of revenue is drying up.
    Books have a higher intrinsic value. People are willing to pay for them, and I don’t see that going away.

  3. The fact that Borders has been in financial trouble for some time does not spell the death of the book industry. That would be like saying because the Big 3 are in trouble, it’s the end of the automotive industry, but we all know people are still going to buy cars.
    If anything, I’m surprised there haven’t been more reports of belt-tightening. These are tough economic times across the board, and to carry on as though the market dynamics aren’t changing would be ridiculous. That said, there are some book sellers that are holding their own, whose sales aren’t down this year. This is about smart business sense – something the book industry hasn’t always had in abundant supply. Anyone can open a book store and make bad business decisions that will force it out of business. It’s not necessarily about books, but about the capabilities of the people running the show.
    Borders let go of purchasing staff a while back. In the summer, my SO went looking for a book, and it was around the time of one of those blockbuster releases. The big ticket book was in hot demand, with person after person asking staff if they had it. No, they had not purchased the book, so they had none in stock, and were directing customer after customer to Barnes & Noble. Borders has been trimming stock in stores for a long time, putting more books face out. Problem is, when you go to your local Borders and they don’t have what you want (and this is common for us, because we read a pretty varied selection and don’t read the bestseller lists) you stop bothering. I realize Borders was trying to stop the bleeding financially, but they lost some of their market in the process.
    Publishing has to evolve, like everything else, in order to stay viable. It can do this successfully with good business sense and the support within the industry. We need to hold up the successes more to point the way for the publishers/booksellers that are struggling to stay afloat.
    (And personally speaking, I think at a time when advances are allegedly down, salary freezes make sense. Authors can tighten their belts if everyone else is, but authors don’t want to take the financial brunt alone.)

  4. I think like any business in tough economic times, publishers are pulling back. Does that mean they’ll go away? No. There won’t be as many books out there to choose from for a while. Is that a bad thing? Not necessarily. Perhaps publishers will now focus on quality over quantity. Let’s face it, we complain about the book business but there have been more crime fiction published in the past few years than there used to be and not a lot of it was good. This economic downturn perhaps will allow publishers to really look at their business model and improve it.

  5. According to my crystal ball, here’s what we’re going to see in the next ten years:
    1. The demand for paper books per capital will increasingly decline, particularly in non-fiction, how-to and informational books, as people will increasingly tap the internet. It’s on the lines of what Wikopedia did to Encyclopedia Britanica.
    2. Fiction reading will decline. New generations will see it more as a waste of time. Others will not have patience for an 8-hour read; they want sound bytes, which never have boring chapters.
    3. E-books will explode.
    4. Amazon will get a major competitor, the same way yahoo got google. It won’t be Sony, Borders, BN or BAMM, though; who can’t even follow, much less lead. It will probably originate from three guys with a computer and vision, drinking beer in a Hong Kong bar.
    5. Brick and mortor bookstores will continue to exist, obviously. The collective physical footprint, however, will decline. Stores will make non-inventory items easy to find and order.
    6. Publishers will have less manpower to read new MSs, meaning the gatekeeping duties of literary agents will become more important. The agents who are able to find and present the MSs that publishers are actually looking for will flurish. Those who show they are wasting the publishers time will no longer be read and will disappear.
    7. Self-publishing will explode; and for many, the explosion will be both successful and lucrative.

  6. “It’s on the lines of what Wikopedia did to Encyclopedia Britanica.” Except the Encyclopedia Britanica has REAL information and genuine facts… while anybody with an Internet connection can add whatever b.s., rumor, mis-information, or out-right lies they want to a Wikipedia entry. Wikipedia is an encyclopedia of b.s. for morons. What you’re saying, essentially, is that people are going to become stupider as time goes on. I’d like to think you’re wrong.
    “Fiction reading will decline.” It depends on the fiction. Kids don’t read much today, but they read a lot of what they like (ie HARRY POTTER, TWILIGHT etc. are monumental bestsellers).
    “E-Books will explode.” …if the technology becomes as elegant and sexy as the iphone and not as clunky and unattractive as the Kindle.
    “Amazing will get a major competitor.” In the book biz? Unlikely. Bigger folks have tried and failed miserably.
    “Publishers will have less manpower to read new MSs, meaning the gatekeeping duties of literary agents will become more important. The agents who are able to find and present the MSs that publishers are actually looking for will flurish. Those who show they are wasting the publishers time will no longer be read and will disappear.”
    Um, that’s already the case. That’s hardly a big prediction.
    “Self-publishing will explode and for many the explosion will be both successful and lucrative.” Only a self-pubbed author would say that. The fact is that the primary audience for self-published books remains the self-published author himself. That hasn’t changed even as the vanity press industry has expanded. Readers simply haven’t embraced POD, self-published books by unknowns and there’s nothing on the horizon that’s likely to change that.

  7. The downturn for books may be similar to the traditional downturn in box office and live concert receipts in times of economic uncertainty. At first, people don’t spend money on anything, then they spend money on entertainment as a diversion. Books are,of course, the best entertainment investment. For one purchase price, they may be enjoyed over and over again, with no late fees or due dates. The reality of the situation is made painfully obvious, however, by the size of our royalty checks.

  8. I don’t know how the entertainment landscape is going to shake out 10 years or so down the road, but I know what’s happening in Guelph, Ontario, Canada, to a certain degree.
    First, the price of books is too high, and this alone is sending persons to the libraries. Library use is up 40% over the past 5 years and a new library building is being built to extend the service. When new copies of bestsellers are acquired, huge long waiting lists occur. For instance, Guelph loves Robert B. Parker. The library buys 10 copies of the latest Spencer novel and there’s a waiting list of 10 to 20 per copy. I had to wait months to borrow a copy of the DVD of “Raiders of the Lost Arc.” Prices are driving the trends in Guelph.
    But one thing that puzzles me is, why read a book if the same information, and more, can be formatted onto a video game, where you can interact with the information and have so much more fun learning it, and learning the information so much more intimately? Why read Spenser when you can BE Spenser? So I think a whole new range of products involving INFORMATION and STORY will arise in the future, and that these will give WRITERS huge opportunites for creating new types of products with their stories — just like radio and TV and features created unbelieveable opportunities for STORY-TELLERS (and huge pay-checks for them!)
    So although I can’t see very far ahead, I’m opptimistic that the opportunities are expanding rather than contracting. If future readers want books with quick “sound bites” of prose, then I’ll write one-page chapters. And if they want it in a video-game or audio format or e-book or DVD, then I’ll format my stories accordingly. The audience is KING, I would argue, rather than the rise or fall of any particular outlet or technology.

  9. Books are obviously never going to ‘end,’ barring the end of humanity or some similar cataclysm. In 100 years a bound paper book may be as much of an anachronism as a gas-based wall sconce is today, but people will still want to read Shakespeare and Raymond Chandler and new stuff too. That being said, the publishing industry probably does have to reorganize itself to become leaner and adapt to a very different world of readers than it had 50, 30, or even 15 years ago. Books have to compete with a lot more media than they used to. 30 years ago riding on a plane or train meant you needed a book to pass the time. Now there are iPods and sophisticated videogames, cellular telephones, laptops with Internet access etc… Some people love to read, but those who don’t no longer HAVE to read the way they used to. Look at what the invention of MP3s and the iPod have done to music, another very old past time. The product is essentially the same but the delivery methods and business models are very different. The important question becomes, then, whether enough authors can make a living in whatever the new business model will be, and what will happen during the painful transition period.
    Oh, and to the commenter who asked why you’d read a book when you could play a video game, I’m not sure how you can ask that question if you’ve ever read a book and played a video game. They are very different media with many different things to offer. There are maybe 2 video games out there with enough plot and characterization to match the depth of an airport paperback, and none that come close to good literature.

  10. Ben H. mentioned iPods. I would not be terribly surprised if audio books keep getting more important, since technology has made them a lot more convenient to listen to.
    (Having said that – I don’t listen to audiobooks.)

  11. Ben H said: “Oh, and to the commenter who asked why you’d read a book when you could play a video game, I’m not sure how you can ask that question if you’ve ever read a book and played a video game. They are very different media with many different things to offer.”
    The commentator’s name is Dan.
    But the point is, at one time people liked to listen to Homer reciting “The Iliad.” Great poetry, great story, great literature. Now movies have come along. So why sit and listen to the poetry when you can see the movie? Yes, they are two different experiences. Yes, the poem is the greater creation. But for whatever reason, the movie experience is preferred by the audience by far (which is why poetry has all but died out and movies are still on the rise.)
    Similarly, my question compares “the reading experience” with “the videogame experience.” I love books. I love reading. But to me, reading is a slow experience while playing videogames is fast and very involving and just cool, for whatever reason. If it turns out that the audience prefers the videogame experience to the reading experience, I have no problem with it, I’ll just write videogames. Stories will never die out. But it’s cool that now writers can write videogames, something they couldn’t do 20 years ago.
    (And the last name is Williams.) 🙂

  12. To DAN WILLIAMS, then,
    Poetry has, in fact, not died out. It’s not as popular as it once was, but there are still many many poets and many consumers of poetry. There are, in all likelihood, more live poetry readings today than in the days of Homer (Not per capita, obviously, but in terms of raw numbers.)
    Yes, videogames compete with books for people’s attentions. I openly acknowledged that Nintendo Gameboy has supplanted the novel for some people as a portable source of entertainment. I also would never dream of discouraging your writing for videogames. What I took issue with was your “If the same information and more can be formatted into a videogame…” Comment.
    My response was and is:
    A) It can’t. Or at least it hasn’t, and there’s good reason to believe it won’t in the future. Videogames serve up a very different experience than books and are strong at presenting different scenarios. You brought up Spenser as an exemplar. Well there aren’t many (any?) good private eye videogames, and those that do exist get by more on atmosphere and the thrills of combat than on mysteries and characterization. Videogames, as you mentioned, are a fast medium. They don’t have time to slow down and flesh out characters like Hawk and Susan Silverman. They’re good at the machinegun and boxing scenes, but such scenes are a small portion of the Spenser experience. Spenser cannot be easily reduced to a videogame. Even serial television shows, to name a medium much closer to a novel, have a hard time with the internal stuff. There’s not a ton of internal stuff in Spenser (and his story made for good television, especially when written by the ultra talented Lee Goldberg) but even there the television show has subtly different strengths than the series of books. It’s great at relationships, great at action, not so good at putting you in Spenser’s mind and perspective. That’s something a book can do better than any other medium around.
    B) And that segues into the answer to your question about why READ when you can BE. Videogames don’t really help you BE the character. They allow you to simulate acting like a character. You can run like Spenser, punch like Spenser, even talk like Spenser (with pre-recorded dialog) but you won’t understand how Spenser thinks and his motivations like you will with a well-written book. You’ll still be you, just doing the things that Spenser does. In a book you can see how he thinks, his background, all the things that make him Spenser. That’s something that no other medium does as well as a good book. That’s something reading will always have to offer.
    Now we can differ on our predictions about the future popularity of reading and the publishing industry. The truth is that nobody really knows, and we’ll have to see how it plays out. But Dan, I disagree with your argument that videogames can supplant books in terms of artistic merit. They may be able to equal (Some day) but they won’t supplant because they have different strengths and weaknesses. That’s what I took issue with.
    I think there will always be reasons to read, and there will always be tens of millions of people who want to buy and consume books. The market may shrink from its peak, but I believe it will always be there. Now you want to write videogames and 1 page stories? Be my guest. I hope you produce good work and are very successful.

  13. Thanks for your comment, Ben H. I see your point. It’s a dizzying entertainment landscape and you make a good distinction between what novels can provide and what videogames can provide.
    Interactivity is another factor that is playing out. The audience seems to want CONNECTION and INTERACTING with material. Maybe e-books of the future will provide this.
    Anyway, I hope you and all of us are successful!


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