The Way We Are Now

by wjw on October 25, 2011

The Association of American Publishers released figures for last June, showing that sales of adult trade paperbacks were down by no less than 63.8%.  (And my latest book was released in trade format!  My joy is unconfined.)

Adult hardcover sales were down by 25.4%, and mass market paperbacks by only 21.6%.

Revenues from ebooks were up by 161% over the previous year, but the increased e-revenues were not enough to make up for the losses caused by print books.

Borders has collapsed, taking with it nearly 50% of the North American retail market for books.  And to make things worse, Barnes & Noble— instead of, say, trying to get itself a piece of Borders’ business—  is reducing the amount of floor space in its stores devoted to books.

Why, you ask?  For one thing, their profit margin is bigger on games and stuffed animals.  For another, they may be getting ready to go toe-to-toe with Amazon in selling lawn furniture:

With these new partnerships, B&N will be offering free shipping on a number of its new product offerings through the holiday season. The partnerships have also led to five new categories at Marketplace: Home and Gift, Consumer Electronics, Arts and Crafts, Toys and Games and Baby.

Well, Mr. Barnes and Mr. Noble, good luck with all that, because when I hear “Barnes & Noble,” I totally think Playskool, 1500-thread-count Egyptian cotton sheets, and yarn and needle crafts.  I hope you stay in business.  Somehow.

In the meantime, Amazon is marching on.   They’ve become a publisher, and not merely of ebooks.  They’ll shortly have a line of print books, which they’ll be marketing through Amazon and, I guess, Barnes & Noble.

That’s going to be an interesting war.  Because Amazon is well-known for its cutthroat tactics, and of course its business plan, which is to completely corner the book market by driving out (first) the independent bookstores, and then (second) the big chains.   Remember that last year Amazon refused to sell books— any books— by Macmillan on account of a pricing dispute for ebooks?  Just in case you’ve forgotten how ruthless they can be.

Of course publishers have competed with one another for years.  But while Penguin Group competes with Harper Collins, it doesn’t actually plan to destroy Harper.  (For one thing, it can’t, because it doesn’t have sufficient dominance in distribution.)

Amazon plans to destroy its enemies, sack their cities, turn the population into beggars, sow the ground with salt, and groove on the lamentations of their women.  (Which was also the business plan of Barnes & Noble and Borders, except Amazon is nimbler.)

Amazon is known for being long-term greedy.  They will take a loss on a product for years in order to achieve dominance in the marketplace.   They can sell their own hardback books for $4.99 and take a whopping loss on each one, which is more than Penguin Group of Harper or Macmillan can do.  This is exactly what Amazon is doing with its $79 Kindles, taking a loss in order to earn the money back by selling content and by crushing the competition.  Apple can’t afford to match that kind of pricing by selling the iPad at below cost, because they don’t create all their own content.

What may frustrate Amazon’s plan are the customers for books, who are notoriously cranky.  I don’t know a whole lot of people who actually buy books based on price (though maybe Amazon does).  When I buy a book, it’s because I want to read Maureen McHugh or Elmore Leonard or Vladimir Nabokov, not because the book is priced at $2.99.  (I might balk at a really high price, that’s true.  But I’ll make a point of looking or the paperback.)  And while Amazon boasts a number of writers who sell zillions of books for $0.99, I don’t hear anybody praising the quality of the fiction.  None of those $0.99 books are going to change anyone’s life.

I might plump for a new writer if the price is a bargain, but only if I’ve heard good things about that writer anyway.  My reading time is limited, and life is too short to read bad books, even if they are cheap.

When I view all this, I’m inclined to start planning for my retirement— that would be the retirement wherein I live in a cardboard box and dine off cat food.  Because that’s where it’s heading.

And then, just when I’m trying to think how much I can get for my old college textbooks on eBay, I read an essay by someone like Catherynne Valente, who reminds me why I’m in this business.

I didn’t dream of being a writer so I could spend my time discussing file formats and what Author X (even if X= me) did to sell a whole bunch of copies. Maybe it’s stupid and romantic, but I got into this because I loved books. Because stories were the most important things in the world to me, and I had so many of them to tell.

Stupid and romantic, that’s me.  That’s why I’m here.

Ralf The Dog October 25, 2011 at 6:18 am

Long term, I would think, the authors that are just in it for the money will be the ones in the cardboard boxes munching on Cat Chow. Those who write because they love to write (and have talent) will create the stories people will love to read.

The great artists tend to be most loved long after they die. If you could just get one of your future fans from 500 years in the future to put a few hundred gold bricks in his continuum transfunctioner, I am sure he could send you back quite a bit of money (I will take some too).

The sad thing is, many readers can’t tell the difference between a good story and a bad one. “I don’t care about the characters and all that stuff, I want big explosions.”

Oz October 25, 2011 at 11:00 am

That was a good post by Ms. Valente.

Wm. Bainbridge October 25, 2011 at 12:59 pm

I’ve been buying a lot of Kindle books lately–I guess I’ll be re-thinking that now–even though I don’t own a Kindle for two reasons. One is that they do a much better job of guessing what I’ll like and dangling it in front of me than anyone else, and the other is that their software does a good job at syncing where I’m at in a book between devices. Barnes and Noble hasn’t gotten it together on either count. This isn’t rocket science, but it does take a lot of competent programmers and an investment. Do you know of an emerging solution for either or both of these that is more friendly to authors?

Mkiel October 25, 2011 at 2:30 pm

interesting points. Who would believe that someday we may not be able to go into a book store to buy a book. My concern with these wonderful gadgets it what if you lose it or it no longer works? Did you just lose your whole library? While it is good practice to keep your kindle and/or ebooks synced with computer how many stay on top of this?

DensityDuck October 25, 2011 at 5:50 pm

Seems to me that the ebook market is going to end up being like the videogame market–there’s “lock-in” in the sense that a file bought for one reader won’t work on another reader, but there are files available for either reader. There won’t be many “reader exclusives” because there’s simply too much money in the market for exclusives to be worth it (game consoles have a few exclusive “flagship” series, but there are just as many marquee titles that come out for all three markets–Xbox, PS3, and PC.)

Wm. Bainbridge October 25, 2011 at 6:47 pm

There seems to be at least some interest in standardization among some vendors, and it’s an area where it could work quite well, except that it’s in the interests of major players to stay proprietary, and there really is a need to protect the IP of authors and publishers. Given that publishers are under threat from Amazon, it would be a decent idea for them to form some kind of consortium with open standards for e-book formats and a protocol for distribution and syncing, as well as some kind of listing and sale outlet that could track preferences in a way similar to Amazon. Assuming that there aren’t patents that would make nearly everything impossible without a license from Amazon.

wjw October 26, 2011 at 12:07 am

All the vendors (except Amazon) have standardized on .epub, and it’s easy enough to convert from .epub to .mobi, which is Amazon’s preferred format. (I don’t know how easy it is to convert the other way ’round, because I’ve never had to do it.)

A protocol for syncing all your .epubs should be damned easy, but it’s typical of these guys that they make it hard.

The EPUB 3.0 standard has just been released, and various voices are urging us to standardize upon it, but the description does not mention syncing at all.

Wm. Bainbridge October 26, 2011 at 2:16 am


2.3 Linking

The new EPUB Canonical Fragment Identifier (epubcfi) Specification [EPUBCFI] defines a standardized method for linking into a Publication.

Required support for this scheme in Reading Systems means that EPUB now has an interoperable linking mechanism, one that can, for example, facilitate the sharing of bookmarks and reading locations across devices.

So yes, it should be technically straightforward. The challenge would be to set up a solid infrastructure with accounts, document storage, and management of link information (as well as annotations, probably, which the standard also seems to support), and then put together client apps for the major platforms, or leverage and extend apps that already exist, all of which would need to be economically sustainable. It’s hard to imagine that more than one group of people connected with the open source community aren’t already looking at this. Google apps has lots of similar models for things like project and contact management that start out as free for some amount of storage and then have subscriptions for more capacity. Google’s not so great about having stuff like this work offline when there’s no connectivity, and that would have to be supported, but it does look like the pieces are there, so at some point before too long, they’ll probably get assembled in a usable and conspicuous way.

Wm. Bainbridge October 26, 2011 at 2:34 am


Bookworm looks to be primarly EPUB, and Calibre seems to support it and other formats. Both look like they have some degree of syncing. O’Reilly is a monster tech publisher, and would have resources to sustain this kind of thing. But it sort of looks like most EPUB implementations are for non-DRM books. Does that square with the important goal of making sure authors get fairly compensated?

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