Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Clowns to the Left of Me; Jokers to the Right

There's been a lot going on in the publishing world over the last few days.

What I find most interesting is the increasing sense of urgency, the feeling that some action must be taken.

If you read Len Vlahos' presentation to the American Bookseller's Association here, you saw his recommendation to his Board of Directors:

". . . we now find ourselves at a critical moment. We can either build on the knowledge base that we have established and use the collective power of our trade association to facilitate the sale of digital content through our member stores, or we can cede this business to other channels . . .

So how urgent is this issue? With a sputtering economy, with an unsettled supply chain, do we really need to worry about this right now?

The answer is yes."
I don't think there can be any question that the present state of the economy is playing into the high anxiety that seems to pervade all quarters of the publishing industry.

Can you blame publishers for feeling jumpy? I don't. They're at the heart of a pincer movement with dying newspapers on one side and exuberant e-book publishers on the other.

It's scary watching what feels like the death knell of the newspaper industry. The closing of the venerable Rocky Mountain News after nearly eighty years of existence was sad to watch--despite the fact that it was inevitable. Two-newspaper-towns are already almost extinct. I learned this seventeen years ago when The Dallas Times Herald shut down, leaving The Dallas Morning News the victor. [Note: As I'm editing this post, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer has announced it is shutting down its physical paper operation.]

In 1920, there were over 550 cities with two dailies; now there are only a handful.

Earlier this month, the New York Times quoted a source from Fitch Ratings, which analyzes the newspaper industry, saying, “In 2009 and 2010, all the two-newspaper markets will become one-newspaper markets, and you will start to see one-newspaper markets become no-newspaper markets.”

Meanwhile, it has to be galling to traditional publishers when a infant industry like e-publishing keeps getting all the press. Especially when the stats served up last week by Publishers Lunch are taken into account:

Based on our rough estimate of Hachette Book Group's total US sales for the year, . . . even with the exponential growth, ebooks comprised less than 0.75 percent of sales. [This] conforms with Penguin USA's recent declaration [that] ebook sales . . . has yet to comprise one percent of revenue . . .

At the same time, think of the proponents of e-books. For over twenty years, they've been telling themselves, "Next year will be our breakout year. That's the time e-books will come into their own." That next year never seems to come.

Advocates of traditional publishing snipe at fans of e-books, who in turn lash out at these masters of the universe. Each side is convinced the other is wrong. The truth is everywhere you look, you see disappointment and disillusionment--whether because things are changing too fast or because they're not changing fast enough.

Saturday afternoon the South by Southwest Conference (SXSW) hosted a panel titled "New Think for Old Publishers." According to Kassia Krozser of Booksquare, about 300 people attended. It was an ugly scene. In a blunt post on Sunday, she described it this way:

Let me be clear. Absolutely clear. Not one word spoken in that session, either from the panelists or from the audience, was new or innovative. The panel, well, we’ve all heard job descriptions before [Note: go here to see a description of the panelists]. The audience? That was one very long line of people saying the same things we’ve been saying to the publishing industry for ten years. And yet the publishing people treated our comments as if they were items to be added to a list.
It's ironic that at the same time the SXSW panel (including Clay Shirky) was taking heat, all over the Internet people were urging each other to read Shirky's terrific post on "Newspapers and Thinking the Unthinkable" here. I'm going to quote Shirky again today:

That is what real revolutions are like. The old stuff gets broken faster than the new stuff is put in its place. The importance of any given experiment isn’t apparent at the moment it appears; big changes stall, small changes spread. Even the revolutionaries can’t predict what will happen.
Readers of this blog know that I am a HUGE fan of Mike Shatzkin. I think the man is simply brilliant. Even so, he said something on Friday that stopped me in my tracks. In reviewing Len Vlahos' presentation to the ABA, Shatzkin said:

“the book business ain’t the music book.” And the subtitle is “anything you think you learned about media consumption through the iPod doesn’t necessarily apply to the Kindle.”
He expanded on this point:

There is almost no benefit to carrying every book you’ve ever read around with you in your pocket.
Obviously, for most of us, Mike is absolutely right.

But not for all of us.

I can think of three exceptions of which I've personally heard:

  • A young writer serving in Iraq. His wife planned to send him a Kindle last Christmas loaded with all his favorite books
  • A physician who moved up to Alaska, planning to work there for three years. Before leaving, he loaded his e-reader with copies of the books he loved most
  • An elderly friend whose daughter hopes her move to a nursing home will be made easier by the fact that she'll have a Sony Reader containing copies of the books she holds most dear

Of course, I recognize these examples are both anecdotal evidence and a very small sampling. But this gets to the point I wanted to make.

Advances in technology are allowing readers to customize the way they access books and periodicals to fit their own lifestyles.

Take me as an example. I'm still buying p-books (physical books). But, after dithering over which e-reader to buy, I decided instead to go with a smart phone. That way, I don't have to carry another piece of equipment, but can still read wherever I am.

As a reader, when I buy a book, I want to have access to the p-book, the e-book and the audiobook so that I can "read" that book in the car, standing on line at the DMV or in bed at night.

There is no way in hell I am going to pay three times for the same book. I'd probably be willing to pay extra for having the book available in all mediums, but I'm not going to pay two or three times the current cost. I can't afford it for one and, more importantly, the very idea offends me. {Shrug}

The publishing world at present is centralized. We talk of the "Big Six" publishers.

However, the world of readers is very diverse . . . and decentralized.

Technology now makes it possible for the reader to devise the experience that's right for him/her. For people like me who want to read all the time, we want the broadest possible experience. That's not true for everyone. For some readers, a personalized experience may mean p-books only. For others, it may mean e-books.

Instead of arguing over which medium will succeed, the publishing industry needs to focus on meeting their readers' needs.

To paraphrase Shirky, the rest will shake out over time.


Kaz Augustin said...

Hey Maya! I mean, it doesn't have to be every book you’ve ever read being carried around with you.

Gail Z Martin and I were talking about this only last week on my podcast. (Sorry about the drive-by plug but it really is relevant.) Gail made the comment that if anybody flies nowadays, they are severely limited by the amount of luggage they can carry. Especially if they are, like Gail and myself, fast readers.

Once you open the possibilities to include people who fly, the case for ebook readers, especially in these charge-'em-for-everything times, becomes an absolute no-brainer, imo. I won't even board a flight any more without an ebook reader and dozens of assorted titles to dip into.

Maya Reynolds said...

Kaz: An excellent point!

I have a good friend who is a Regional Manager. He spends four days a week on the road, flying from city to city. He always has a dozen books lined up to read on his Kindle. He has been the loudest proponent I know advertising the Kindle at every opportunity.



Sharon said...

I like my books in paper form, thank you. I underline, compare notes I've made from book to book, share, trade, and pass on books to friends. I buy second-hand books and periodically join book clubs to get a box of books for under ten dollars. $9.99 per book sounds expensive to me, and how would I make notes in the margins and share the books I did buy? Books hold a social element for me, and I can't envision a way to build that into e-books, which obviously serve a need but, in my mind, would never replace physical books.

The Belle in Blue said...

Another scenario where it would be good to have all your books with you: if you're taking a 3-hour tour on a boat call the Minnow!

Sorry, couldn't resist!

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