Just something quick today; I mean written quickly. Typo alert!
Yesterday, the Wall Street Journal published “Authors Feel Pinch in Age of E-Books“, in which are various observations that appear to verify some predictions we made about the future of reading and e-books. If not verified, then pointing the way towards verification.
- Prediction 1: fewer books. “Priced much lower than hardcovers, many e-books generate less income for publishers. And big retailers are buying fewer titles. As a result, the publishers who nurtured generations of America’s top literary-fiction writers are approving fewer book deals and signing fewer new writers. Most of those getting published are receiving smaller advances.”
Publishers make an average $14 from selling a hardcover book, but only $9 for each e-book. The obvious math is that published will have to sell 55% more copies of a title just to make what they have been making. That is an astonishing increase. Couple this to prediction 2 (next), and we can be nearly sure that the only publishers that survive will be specialty presses and one or two “mega” press that pumps out books that are better left unread.
- Prediction 2: less reading. “The lower revenue from e-books comes amidst a decline in book sales that was already under way. The seemingly endless entertainment choices created by the Web have eaten into the time people spend reading books.”
Anecdotal, sure. We can note that the author chose to categorize books as “entertainment.” We might even prefix the term “ephemeral.” This classification is undoubtedly true for most books. Big “name” authors such as—as he calls him—the “celebrated” Jonathan Franzen still do well with e-books, but only because they are already a “brand.” New writers are having a tough time finding publishers.
In this case, less reading would be a good thing. Anybody that skips reading Franzen is doing himself a favor. Read B.R. Myers’s evisceration of Franzen’s latest in the Atlantic for why this is so.
- Prediction 3: only scholars will read. If “consumers” aren’t consuming ephemeral entertainment in the form of serial words linked in sentences and paragraphs, non-“consumers” still will. William Germano writing in the Chronicle of Higher Education said, “I’m struck by the fact that the designation ‘scholarly book,’ to name one relevant category, is in itself a back formation, like ‘acoustic guitar.’ Books began as works of great seriousness, mapping out the religious and legal dimensions of culture. In a sense, books were always scholarly. Who could produce them but serious people? Who had the linguistic training to decode them?”
I would only substitute “patience” for “linguistic training.” Books will return to their beginnings, as works of (at least intended) seriousness. This does not preclude novels, of course. But “genre” writing will wane as the readers of these works age and die off, not to be replaced by the iPod fiddling young people coming after them.
- Prediction 4: fewer writers; this is a corollary to Prediction 2. Since publishers are selling fewer books, and the books they are selling they are selling for less money, they haven’t the funds to pay authors large advances, advances which in any case the author would have a difficult time making up. Thus, publishers are paying less for a books.
One “author received only a $1,000 advance, typical of the advances paid by small independents. ‘I can’t make a living as a writer, but it feels great to have these stories out in the world,’ says Mr. Lea. The author, who lives in Vermont, builds electric guitars and writes on the side. Jonathan Rabinowitz, publisher of Turtle Point Press, says ‘Wild Punch’ has sold about 1,500 copies, including 150 e-books. He described the performance as ‘encouraging.'”
This situation hurts agents, too. “The smaller advance has a ripple effect. Ms. Daniels, who earns a 15% commission, used to make $11,250 on a big publisher advance of $75,000 or so. Her cut on Mr. Lea’s $1,000: $150.” This can only lead to fewer agents, which of course will lead to fewer authors still.
The authors that are still selling, even in e-books, are those that are already known. These few authors skew the statistics (they make the mean a less meaningful term; get it?). Of course, it follows that as these authors lose readers, or when they die off themselves, there will be nobody behind them to fill their pages.
- Prediction 5: paper books will not disappear. The Chronicle has an odd story of a man who is chopping his books to pieces and then scanning the pages into his computer. I wonder that he did not worry about changing technology.
Scan your books today into, say, PDF, and ten years from now when the PDF format is no more, your books are gone or have to be changed. Anybody with any experience in coding will know that this must lead to the destruction, or other loss, of many files, i.e. books.
Print on demand will ensure that physical books, read mostly by scholars, will continue to exist.