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Words Exchanged for Dollars: 5 questions.

filed under , 5 August 2010, 12:08 by

Some see e-books as the death of bookstores and traditional publishing. And I’ll chime in a little later in this essay with my thoughts on that, but I’ll be going the long way ‘round, so go ahead and get that second cup of coffee and settle in.

Every transaction in publishing [Author to Agent, Agent to Publisher, Publisher to Distributor, Distributor to Retail, Bookseller to You – and the many business transactions that shortcut one or two or all of those interactions] is about words being slowly converted into dollars, and then the flow of dollars back to the Author, ideally, though much like the Colorado River that stream often dries up long before it reaches its supposed final destination.

Books are not produced by Amazon. While an author might go directly to Amazon (or an agent might do so, on an author’s behalf, as has recently caused a stir) even then, Amazon is just digital-storefront and distributor of the files. In a fundamental way, this is no different from Amazon selling any other sort of books, and Amazon’s interest in the deal is limited to Amazon’s take. While I’ll concede that Amazon is taking on some roles of the publisher—production and distribution in the case of e-books—it’s only going that far because e-books are digital and these costs are negligible. What is missing is editorial & financial support, and any marketing of the book. Some books only get written because of the advance on royalties extended to the author by the publisher before the book is finished, sometimes before it’s even written. Amazon isn’t offering that. Sure, you might make more on the back end but you as the author are forced to bear all financial risk. You as the author have to pay someone to proofread and edit your book (assuming you value the polish a good editor can add to even the best manusripts) and you as the author are going to have to arrange your own book signings and tours, and submitting the book to awards committees, and getting listed in catalogues (wait, will there be any catalogues if the major publishers don’t exist any more?) so physical copies of your book can be ordered into bookstores, and placed in libraries.

Amazon just wants the e-book, and their cut of its sale. Of Course Amazon is willing to pay the author more in royalties, maybe even as much as 90% of the purchase price, as they did nothing and the book costs them next to nothing. Your agent is going to work a lot harder for her 10%, let me tell you. Amazon is a parasite, taking the finished product away from folks who worked hard to produce it, and offering money back if and only if it manages to sell.

And the same might be said of all retail (and publishing, if your publisher doesn’t get behind the book) — but editors, publishers’ field reps & marketing departments, and yes, booksellers can all do a lot more than Amazon in selling books. Your take is less, because costs are higher. Those costs are higher because people are actually working on selling the book. A link and a listing on an online sales site are not the same as “being published”


90 years ago, publishing worked differently. I’m not usually nostalgic, but it’s the death of the business model of the 1920s & 30s that we’re seeing, and mourning, now.

The book you need to buy (& read) is Jason Epstein’s Book Business: Publishing Past, Present, and Future, isbn 9780393322347.

From the publisher:

“Jason Epstein has led arguably the most creative career in book publishing during the past half-century. He founded Anchor Books and launched the quality paperback revolution, cofounded the New York Review of Books, and created of the Library of America, the prestigious publisher of American classics, and The Reader’s Catalog, the precursor of online bookselling. In this short book he discusses the severe crisis facing the book business today—a crisis that affects writers and readers as well as publishers—and looks ahead to the radically transformed industry that will revolutionize the idea of the book as profoundly as the introduction of movable type did five centuries ago.”

From Wikipedia, Jason Epstein:

A 1949 graduate of Columbia College of Columbia University, Epstein was hired by Bennett Cerf at Random House, where he was the editorial director for forty years. He was responsible for the Vintage paperbacks, which published such authors as Norman Mailer, David Rudomin, Vladimir Nabokov, E. L. Doctorow, Gore Vidal, Itai Guttman, and Philip Roth. In 1952, while an editor at Doubleday, he created the Anchor Books imprint. This was the first of the trade paperback formats, a format which has consistently remained profitable and popular since that time.
In 1963, during the New York City newspaper strike, he co-founded The New York Review of Books, with his then-wife, Barbara Epstein, Elizabeth Hardwick and Robert Lowell.
He wrote a book entitled Book Business: Publishing Past, Present, and Future. In 1979, he and his brother, Zach Epstein were the co-founders of the Library of America which was intended to market archival quality editions of American classic literature. The first volumes were published in 1982, and the company now prints about 250,000 volumes per year.
He has been the recipient of the first National Book Award for Distinguished Service to American Letters and the Curtis Benjamin Award of the Association of American Publishers for “inventing new kinds of publishing and editing and The Lifetime Achievement Award of the National Book Critic’s Circle.”

His most recent endeavour is On Demand Books, the company that markets the Espresso Book Machine, which he co-founded in 2004.

A [possibly ironic, if only in that it exists?] preview of Book Business is available online from Google Books — though currently there are no e-book editions.

You can argue against Epstein’s conclusions in the book [though he backs them with his own money and actions, see ‘Espresso Book Machine’ above] but to say anything about publishing, retail, and digital books without having read his excellent history (& personal take) on the industry you mean to replace is almost criminally negligent. Pitch it as either ‘know yourself’ or ‘know your enemy’ but educate yourself on traditional, 20th-century-style publishing before stepping into this new era.

[and this is just my introduction…]


Words Exchanged for Dollars: 5 questions.

What is a book? What is bookselling? Who is best able to sell books? In an era when some to most to all “books” are files, what does “bookselling” even mean?

that’s 4. And:

Are current players (Amazon, major chains, independents, bloggers) going to be future players? Where is bookselling heading?

5 questions to cover and I might not have the answers. There’s nothing to do but start writing.


1. What is a Book?

Yeah, I know, you wanted business analysis and advice on which stock to buy now, or even just a summary of book retail with a 3-5 year forecast of the industry, retail prospects, and a sideline on digital media as relates to traditional retail.

The last thing you were looking for was a philosophical discourse on the definition and very nature of the term/idea/form “Book”. But that’s how I roll.

Let’s start with what a book is Not: A book is not a collection of paper leaves bound on one vertical edge, and stained on their surface by heiroglyphic marks meant to represent words and ideas. A book is not a digital file of 1s and 0s, which when properly decoded correspond to those same heiroglyphic marks, a translation into digital of that bound collection of leaves. A book is not a collection of ideas, or a physical document. A book is not a history or story, or an argument or allegory, or a manifesto or call to action, or a summation of past arguments, or a presentation of scientific data, or a historigraphic survey of previously unknown culture, or a speculative excursion into the realms of what might be, or a devout and discrete distillation of mystic experience into a concise statement of the divine.

A book can be all of these things, and several of them simultaneously, but at its very base: a Book is nothing but a mess of words. — permanently recorded words, & ideally meant for posterity, but more often collected and presented for economic gain: Words to be exchanged for Dollars.

(Or pounds, yen, shillings, francs, euros, yuan, shillings, cedi, pesos, manats, pesetas, dinar, marks, kronig, lats, shekles, rials, lira, credits, gil, double-dollars, or geekcred – eventually someone may commoditize and monetize our attention, such that revenue from online ads aren’t ‘priced’ at all but are instead treated separately and traded at their own rates on currency exchanges)

A book is a collection of words presented to the public by the author for gain — whether that’s monetary gain [most common], enhanced reputation & recognition, to support other economic activity, or an increased awareness (and eventual sale) of additonal books or other merchandise. Not every use of a ‘book’ requires money to change hands, but if some economic value is not derived from publication (“the act of making something public”) then that mess of words might as well [most likely will] remain a personal journal or private correspondence.

Even if the only economic benefit is “being read by others”, and the author who gives books away for free is willing to take all other production and distribution costs upon themselves in order to obtain that benefit, there is an economic component to sharing: a perceived benefit for a given expenditure.

“Free” books are hardly that: Religious organizations gain converts, political movements gain members, webcomickers gain fans who buy t-shirts. “Free” is great as a marketing strategy, but nothing is ever free, even if it’s only your attention that is being sold (via online ads, or the visibilty/recognition/popularity/notoriety/loyalty gained and banked for later economic benefit — please reference The Attention Economy)

So. By my definition, every collection of words (including this blog) is a “Book”, and all books have costs, and all books are for “sale”

— we can argue that not all “books” are fully equal [which is obvious, as no matter what class of goods we’d care to consider, even substitutable, ‘equivalent’ goods are not equal]
— and while digital costs are amazingly low, for ‘free’ books those costs are still borne by the ‘publisher’ even if that publisher is a blogger and the cost of ‘publication’ is just the annual web hosting fee.

E-books and ‘new’ formats and ‘new’ publication models are in fact nothing new, and can be shown to have easy historical analogs & also fall into my definitions of ‘book’ and ‘publication’ – to me, the argument is not a matter of Publishing Books but instead Publishing Books for Profit.


2. What is Bookselling?

Paper print & publication, and associated retail via book stores and newsstands, have proved more-or-less profitable (occasionally massively so, though losses are just as common) ever since industrial methods were applied to the means of producing books. Costs have fallen, more books are available to more people in more places than ever before, and more people can read even if they don’t bother to. It doesn’t make a whole lot of money as a percentage of costs, but it’s enough to keep the whole thing going, and the whole is a $15 Billion dollar a year business

And profits are a fine side-effect from the need to publish (or perhaps, publishing is a side-effect of the profit motive, though I’d argue there are many, many easier ways to make a buck than writing novels – theft springs immediately to mind, as does digging ditches) and there are so many books and players in the market that we’re tempted to refer to the whole mess as an industry, and institution.

Which is fine.

It’s a great thing, actually, when the sheer volume of books makes one think that books will always be there and that the mass of books published are somehow ‘culture’ or [hang on a sec, let me find my own past wording…] the canon and corpus of all human knowledge.

But there are no guarantees. Even after publication, books only remain in the market if there is money to be made in the sales of new copies, or so long as someone (a library or other academic resource) subsidizes them.

  • and let me note here: that could be money made by the author and original rights holders, or money made by pirates. Both activities—publication & piracy—promulgate additional copies [in the digital age, copies ARE the continued existance of a work, though more often than not the means to produce/procure them are morally wrong]
  • and ‘sales’ refers to the direct paper-for-money transactions, ad revenue to be gleaned from web hits, circulation within a library system that prompts the purchase of replacement copies, or additional copies, or copies for new library branches, old-fashioned bookstore sales and even the new-fangled ‘ebooks’.
  • While this month’s paycheck [and being able to eat] are the primary focus of authors and all other actors in the publication industry, today’s profits are no guarantor of future income, or even a good indication that a popular book will remain in print 10 years from now.
  • Allow me to repeat that: most, if not all books, only get 10 years. After that, editions remain in libraries, used book stores, and warehouses, but new books are not being printed. 20 years out, dedicated readers can find a copy but it is no longer in general circulation or for sale at the original retail price. 30 years on and the last used paperbacks are either stuck in collections or discarded as they deteriorate – 40 years on the hardcover editions are either firmly held by collectors [first-editions, mostly] [if your book is worth anything] while the majority have been forgotten, sold by the library in a book fair, lost in basements and attics, slowly falling apart if still in circulation, and rarely if ever read. After 50 years, you’re either known as a genius and your works classic, assigned to students and subject to reprint in new editions every 8 years, or you’ve been forgotten.
  • We all like to give lip service to the permanence of print, but paper (particularly the cheap pulp paper used through most of the last century) is not a proper medium for archives and even worse: there is only the scarcest minority that even cares: Collectors, historians, archivists, sociologists, and fans — and there are few enough of any of these classes — but past the core [maybe 500 people, total] that actively lobby to preserve the history of print, everyone else discounts ‘old’ stuff and only cares about what’s new — and I’m not just talking about genre fiction, the ‘pulps’ [sci-fi, mystery, noir, adventure stories with lurid covers] but also ‘serious’, ‘literary’ fiction. Literary fiction actually has very few fans. And if it’s more than 20 years old either it’s famous – or it is lost at this point. Print seems permanent, but in practice has proven to be even more ephemeral than radio and early film and television: I can buy a CD box set of the Lone Ranger radio dramas [c. 1933-54], but not only can I not buy any of the top 10 New York Times Bestsellers from 1933, I’d be hard pressed to even know what those books were. The vast, ever expanding internet only takes us back to the 50s [link] and only because some brave volunteer took the time to type those in from historical sources.

What is bookselling? Well, at its most basic it’s the exchange of words for dollars. But bookselling is also the mechanism that keeps books in print. Dickens would be just another magazine serialist, Shakespeare an actor who wrote sonnets to an unknown mistress, Homer a blind poet with an astounding memory, Dante a little known minor Italian politician, Twain a newspaper reporter with an adventurous streak, and the Brontës just three sisters who liked to tell each other stories. We know these authors, and their books, because the books have been sold more-or-less-continuously through the decades, centuries, and millenia since their deaths.

If books were not sold, it would be up to librarians to keep the flame alive. And I love libraries. I love librarians. I like ‘em so much I’d marry one.

But nothing gets books published and distributed quite like the corrupting influence of dollars. Dirty, filthy commerce with profit motives and scamming the marks for two bits. Exploiting authors, skirting the law, ignoring foreign copyrights, out and out piracy on occasion. It’s an occasionally vile business but it puts books on shelves and into the hands of readers.

So long as a buck can be made on the sale of a new or used book, there’s going to be a person [or multi-billion dollar corporation] there to accept your money and keep the books in print.

This is bookselling: exchanging words for dollars. The profit motive is the only motive. Ah, yes, but no matter how base the activity, the main side effect is that new books get written, and printed, and sold. Old books get new editions and the backlist grows deeper every year.

Bookstores may be grossly inefficient compared to e-books and web sites and all that crap, but sex is also grossly inefficient if the only goal you consider is insemination. Sometimes inefficiencies are a good thing. Sometimes they have a value, even an economic value, well beyond what is most expedient or cost-effective. Just because there is something new, doesn’t mean we forget the old; it takes minutes to microwave but hours to cook; seconds to txtmsg but days to really catch up with old friends; A week to read the Bible, or Koran, or Upanishads, or the Tibetan Book of the Dead, but a lifetime to put principles into practice and to truly lead a moral life. [allow me to note, smugly, that religion starts with books] [and atheism, even moreso]

You can use Amazon if you like: it’s quick, and sterile, and over in just minutes.

Books can be sold in many ways, but to me Bookselling means Bookstores, and I like bookstores for the same reasons I enjoy sex.


3. Who is best able to sell books?

Publish or Perish isn’t just an axiom in academia, it’s true for all authors. The best way to sell your backlist is to keep writing new books, minting new fans, and keeping yourself in the public eye. Some authors can get away with only one book [Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind, Lee’s To Kill a Mocking Bird, Sewell’s Black Beauty, Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces] but most will publish at least two, or will also write poetry and plays and essays — a life in print, not a single masterpiece. And for fans of Nora Roberts or James Patterson, the constant output is comforting and affirming: there will [seemingly] always be another book.

And it’ll be a bestseller. There are many ways to consider best-sellers and “bestselling” authors: there is an elite cadre of 80 or so authors, living and dead who have sold more than 100 Million books apiece. This is the height to which we all aspire. More than 1,400,000 different titles are made available for sale each year (at least since 2007) of which three-quarters will sell less than 100 copies. Of the 300,000 or so remaining titles, only 1-2% could be considered ‘bestsellers’, a number that is a scant 3-hundreths of one percent of the total books in print. [2007 numbers: 1.45 Million Books, of which only 483 sold more than 100,000 copies – source: Harpers index].

The odds are slightly better than the lottery, though the cost of ‘tickets’ are higher (you have to write a book first) (and no data on how many of those ‘bestselling authors’ are in fact debut authors, who manage a bestseller right out of the gate; of the 500 bestselling books each year almost all will be from ‘name’ authors working on their 5th or 10th or 20th book. Maybe the lottery is easier.)

My point is that the one actor best able to sell books is the Author, and she can do that best by writing more books. Nothing moves the backlist like a new release.

If Agatha Christie had written only 4 books [pick your favorite 4] she might still be known today but she is recognized as a master of the genre because she wrote so much. Poe, actually, invented the mystery in three short stories [featuring proto-Sherlock Dupin] but few remember Poe as a mystery writer since he wrote so little. [so little mystery; obviously we remember him for other reasons].

While I turn it back on the author, saying, “Well, you are best able to sell your books” it’s not because I have given up my duties as a bookseller, but because it’s true: the best way to sell books is to write more books. You don’t obsess over your debut, and think, ‘I’ll write the sequel once this one is a bestseller’ — you write the sequel and the third book and a fifth and a ninth, especially if they all feature the same main characters, because this is what avid readers love most. Not a book, but a series; not an experience of hours but of days, and waiting patiently over years for the latest book from a favorite author.

Other than the author, friends telling friends about books is the best way to sell books. I can loan you the book, in fact, if I see you often enough and I like (& trust) you that much, but more often I just tell you about a title and leave you to your own devices in finding it. Bookclubs also operate in this friends-telling-friends mode, as does Oprah—in as much as some people love Oprah and take her recommendations with the same weight as they would the word of a friend.

So, dear Author, you can ‘sell’ the books yourself by writing compelling books and compelling sequels, lots of ‘em. Personal recommendations are next-best and most valued, & after that comes book reviews (when favorable) whether found on blogs or in print. Reviews can be hit or miss, though, as it depends not only on the opinion of the reviewer, but of the level of trust the reader has in the source (and on the review running in a publication which is itself widely read).

All other bookselling is in the hands of strangers.

Bookstores can shelve your books, which is a bare minimum. Your title can be faced-out (with cover fully visible) or merely spined, your book could end up on feature shelves, display tables, endcaps, front-of-store displays, or even the “Staff Recommends” display — sometimes with nothing more than a shelf-talker with a quick blurb from an enthusiastic bookseller, maybe moved to the most prominent display next to the bestsellers, maybe in a small stack next to the register or infomation desk.

Obviously, Booksellers can do a lot to sell your books for you. Bookstores specialize in books, and all kinds of books, not just the top 10 available at 50% off the cover price at CostCo., not the 40 books in a rack at the grocery store or the 200 titles at Target or Wal-Mart.

Yeah, sure we charge more. Unlike Wal-Mart, we’re not in the discount goods business: we sell books, dammit.

100,000 titles, Five Hundered times the books at Wal-Mart, Ten Thousand times the number of books at CostCo. Yeah, so maybe they sell more books that I do; which is fine and great. But unless your last name is “Patterson” you likely don’t see any of that and shouldn’t care. How do books become besellers? Through word of mouth, friends telling friends, and booksellers putting books into the hands of customers daily.


4. In an era when some to most to all “books” are files, what does “bookselling” even mean?

I’ve already covered this one once: Rethinking the Box: Selling Books in the Post-Book Era

let me summarize: even without a bookstore, I’ll be a bookseller. I will engage people, talk about books, recommend my favorites, and make readers enthusiastic about authors and titles. I can do that from a blog, if I have to, but I prefer to do it from a physical storefront. And there is a lot to be said for handing a book to a customer: here is the physical object, you can take it home today.

E-books are fine if readers already know they want the book, but there is a much higher curb to overcome if no one has heard of you as an author and is entirely unfamiliar with the book. There is no way to ‘browse’ an e-book. Some samples are available, but how do you encourage people to download them?

Word-of-mouth and friend-to-friend and Reviews & Recommendations become even more important. Expertise and experience becomes even more valuable, not just to sell the books, but to even know what’s out there given the millions and millions of options.

If Amazon kills bookstores, then my role as bookseller (and my experience, as a reader & lover of books) is all the more valuable. I might be out of a job, but with a little hard work I might even end up making more money. Amazon will have relieved me of the hard work of stocking titles, moving inventory, and physically handling books. All that is left is the high-touch, highly personal task of selling books and I can sign up as an Amazon affiliate and take my commission. Instead of selling to one person at a time, I can post to a blog and sell to 50. Nothing is guaranteed, and damn I’ll miss the bookstore, but bookselling isn’t tied to the physical store, and it’s a hell of a lot more than just listing books on a web site. Sales is an interpersonal skill, and so long as there are ways to communicate it will persist in that person-to-person interaction.


5. Are current players (Amazon, major chains, independents, bloggers) going to be future players? Where is bookselling heading?

Anyone with a billion dollars in this game will continue to be a player for as long as they want.

They may not have the same market share, and may be forced to abandon what they used to think of as their ‘core’ business, and maybe they can’t support the same staff, but the brand and the ability to at least try in the new market (whatever it is) is still there.

We’ll still have Amazon, and Barnes & Noble. Borders may end up as just a website with a handful of ‘showcase’ stores, or even just a single location, but they have a strong brand and millions of customers and aren’t going anywhere. Random House, Macmillan, Penguin, HarperCollins, Hachette, and Simon & Schuster will still put out books; the major publishers are either part of mass media conglomerates or are massive media companies in their own right. Publishers make books; the actual printing of books was long ago outsourced — in a world without print there will still be reasons for, and a profit made from, the packaging and marketing of books.

Maybe the current top 10 companies will look nothing like some future top 10, but they’ll all still be there (free standing or merged or bought out by upstarts, but present all the same) — an actual failure and exit from the game entirely will be rare. Yes, some few are going to fail to adapt, but I have high hopes for the industry.

I have no idea where bookselling is heading. But I get up each morning, put on my boots, and take each step, each day as it comes. I cannot see the path ahead of me but I’ll walk it to wherever we’re headed. And can I sell you a book?

[You’ll note that even in an essay on the uncertainty and potential failure of the market, I already ‘sold’ you one. Or did you miss my pitch for Epstein’s book at the top of the post?]


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