The Continuing Debate Over the Death of Books

This morning, I read Laura Miller’s article (see here) on the future of print books and the survival of traditional publishing. She referenced Evan Hughes’ story in Wired magazine, “Book Publishers Scramble to Rewrite Their Future”. While she believed his story was factually correct, she disagreed with his interpretation that traditional publishers could be up a creek. The premise of her article was that books – print books – are still the majority of the book market and that a large number of authors still see the advantage of print books and traditional publishing. She basically said – stop the presses – books are not dead. She has some good points.

One comment she made struck me as particularly accurate. She wrote, “By the time a self-published author has made a success of his or her book, all the hard stuff is done, not just writing the manuscript but editing and the all-important marketing.” Ms. Miller is so right. The majority of self-published books that succeed did so because the author wore a lot of hats. The author did the work (or hired someone) to do what would have been done by an agent, an editor, a publisher, and a publicist. This is all in addition to writing the actual book. Whew! She argues that these same successful self-publishers are willing to listen when traditional publishers come knocking. Her point – they’re tired and after all, who wouldn’t want someone else to do all the work?

Traditional publishing does have it’s advantages. It’s still more about the print book than the e-book. It’s the best avenue to put the author’s print copy in a physical bookstore in addition to just being saved on a virtual shelf. I understand that desire. I’m a self-published author who has made her book available as an e-book and as a paperback. My book is available at every on-line book retailer. Still, that doesn’t mean I wouldn’t want to walk into a Barnes&Noble and see my book on the largest and most prominent table. I’m not crazy!

But…

While Ms. Miller is right that the print market is currently still 75% of book sales and I believe her when she says that independent bookstores are having a resurgence, those numbers are likely to change in the next decade based sheerly on demographics. The youth of today are digital. Those of us in my age bracket (we don’t need to get specific) like to think of ourselves as digital but we’re only kidding ourselves. We are digital friendly only. The kids, however, don’t know anything else. The news that they can read a book on their phone. Ancient news. Why do they need print? My children don’t have textbooks for all their classes. Their world is always a touchscreen away. I’m a book lover and I love turning the pages of a favorite book, but I see the print market share dwindling – not going away – just dwindling a bit as future generations of buyers make the term ‘tech-savvy’ seem quaint.

What I don’t think Ms. Miller addresses fully in her article is that authors who are not best-sellers don’t get the same level of services they might have in the past. I know traditionally published authors who have had success but when follow-up sales were less than expected, the marketing and publicity dried up. The best-sellers get the lion’s share of the marketing money, the mid-listers get limited, short-term support, and the rest often get nothing. In fact, I hear more stories every day about traditionally published authors being asked to take on more of the marketing of their books and their brand. Publishing is a business – plain and simple. The inequities will continue and this will drive many authors away. As Mr. Hughes points out, “The publishing houses stay afloat only because the megahits pay for the flops, and there’s generally enough left over for profit.”

What makes the debate interesting is that both sides are right. Print books are not going away and neither are e-books and self-publishing. But the dynamics of how each business will look in 5 years, 10, or 20, are completely unknown. One thing is for sure though, change is constant.

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