Rocket Bomber - article - commentary - publishing - The Future of The Book

The Future of The Book

filed under , 23 July 2013, 00:12 by

Every book blogger* is writing one of these damn “insightful” “thought pieces” on the future of the book.

There are a number of players/factions to consider — Publishers, Amazon, Bookstores, Authors (both established and aspiring) — major changes in technology, and consumer behavior, and minor distractions like whatever motions Apple or Google are making towards this space this year (that will change next year). Pick your favorite horse in this race: with a wealth of information out there, it is easy enough to cherrypick sources that back up whichever conclusion best fits the proclivities of the blogger. What we lack is real data — number of kindles sold, number of (self-published, non AAP-member) ebooks sold, total number of books (e- and otherwise) sold and by how much and how much in each category including the bestsellers —

We are left with “experts” estimates of market share, some incomplete data about how the publishing industry or book retail is doing in aggregate, and a whole lot of anecdotes. (The anecdotes are understandable, perhaps; as a group we do like to tell stories)

“I was just at a Big Box Bookstore in Podunk Adjacent off of State Route Zero, and let me tell you what I saw there…”
“I’ve been self publishing with Swindlepub Digital Editions for ever now, and let me tell you about my sales there…”
“We at Dirty Slabs of Pressed Wood Pulp, LLC, are just a small press compared to the Top Ten or Big Six or Big Five** but not only are we forward-looking, with both a website and a facebook page, we’re also moving forward with ebooks — in about 18 months time. But recently we’ve been stymied by DanubeVolga. Let me tell you about their most recent nefarious plot…”
“Sisyphus & Damocles Books has been open for decades now, here in northcentral Bumblebridge, and we’ve been proud to serve our community. Recently though, times have been harder. Let me tell you our story…”

* (book bloggers as a term including the book/publishing business bloggers, book reviewers, authors, editors, the occasional mainstream-but-web-only magazine writer, and of course: drunk and pissed off booksellers — represent! — who blog in their free time)
** (why does talking about the book business this way make me think of college sports, and for all the same, wrong reasons?)
*** I hearby claim the trade names Dirty Slabs of Pressed Wood Pulp, Publisher and Sisyphus & Damocles Booksellers: Mine! Back off. If I win the lottery this week I’m going to have those incorporated by Friday.

Anecdotal evidence is the worst sort. We all have a story. Why, I work at a corporate chain bookstore where the phone rings off the hook, we’re grossing a good seven figures annually (no, not the number you initially thought of: better than that), and I personally am so overworked it seriously impacts my health. If physical books are dying, maybe they could do it a little faster, before I keel over from a heart attack?



assertion one: “Ebooks are going to completely displace other forms of books because of all the obvious advantages — speed of delivery, lower costs, the advantages of digital storage over the requirement of physical space for books, and (of course) disintermediation: e- facilitates an order-of-magnitude increase in access to markets by authors, and access to works by readers.”

verdict: True. but…

To me, it seems like the revolution already occurred back in 1993 and you all missed it. Every argument made for ebooks is also an argument that could be made about web pages: text served up via html and http actually has numerous advantages over .mobi, epub, and pdf (the current “e book” formats available to us).

A web page is open, active, engaging, and part of a larger conversation. Via hyperlinks, an author can automatically and seamlessly link to sources, whether they are linking to research, to other related works of their own, to maps and images that support the text, to notes in an appendix, or to The Fine Video Version of one of the earliest Musical Stylings of Sir Richard Astley.

Web sites and the related tools we use to access and browse them have already consumed the newspapers, are currently munching their way through the magazine herd (killing off the old and weak), and soon enough will also turn to face book publishing like a hungry predator.

The common objection that would enter at this point is “But, well ebooks aren’t web pages. Completely Different.” Right…

There is absolutely nothing stopping me from publishing a novel on the web. I could do it as a collection of chapters linked from a table-of-contents index page, I could do it as a series of blog posts (like an old Dickens novel, in magazine installments), I could even just put up 100,000 words in a single HTML or text document. Unlike music, images, or video – text is small: the “T” in HTML is text, as is the first “T” in HTTP. Text is web native.

Hell, one could do it in a Reddit thread. [Redditor Prufrock451 has a movie deal. So don’t tell me Reddit isn’t a viable publishing platform.]

Ebooks are, in fact, web pages [right down to the CSS, XHTML, and XML] — it would be trivial to code an ebook reader as an extension to Firefox and Chrome, just as there are currently pdf readers — and the rest is all marketing, and payments.

Payment is what it comes down to, and why so many are so insistent that ebooks are both new and special, as their current income streams are (in whole or in greatest part) dependent on sales via the current channels (primarily KDP, with a nod to Smashwords). Ebooks, as a payment model for authors, are great, fantastic even. Indeed, I thought the old model where we sold books through bookstores was also pretty great, as both a sales opportunity and payment model for authors.

Setting payments and royalties to one side, for now: The function the publishers serve (served?) was only secondarily as a source of ongoing income. Publishers provided advance capital for the production of books, as the party (the only party?) willing to assume pre-publication risks. While books-in-aggregate are a commodity in much demand, selling units in the millions annually, with revenue in the billions, and while also serving as source material for TV Shows, Movies, and mountains of internet fan fiction — each individual book, though, is something of a flyer, a bet on the part of author, editor, and publisher that this one book has what it takes to sell not just a thousand copies, but hundreds of thousands.

A publisher would pay an advance against future royalties, either on delivery of a manuscript or occasionally, a payment before the book was even finished. Indeed, the advance might have been the only thing that enabled the author to actually complete the book, given certain financial realities authors (and the rest of us) face.

After a publisher was done with it, the book would enter the realm of marketing, and the dire punishment of retail bookstores. Bookselling is an awful, soul-crushing business where we tease authors with the likes of Patterson, Grisham, and Rowling but the reality is your book gets 90 days (or less) in a retail store, with some decent placement before customers (assuming customers are browsing bookstores these days: the internet tells me they aren’t) (my personal experience as a bookseller contradicts that) but after the initial release window: well…

Bluntly: you’re screwed. Nah, I kid. No really, though: if this is your first book, unless you win the publishing-and-bookselling-hunger-games, you’re screwed.

As an author your best strategy for publishing is to keep writing – each new release sells the backlist, while your backlist builds the fan base. And This Was True in 1990, 1980, 1970, 1930 — before Amazon, ebooks, the world wide web, and every other wrinkle in the publishing industry since.

At least temporarily, ebooks and the various e-publishing platforms (functionally, as of 2013, that’d be KDP for the Amazon fans and Smashwords to help you pick up all the rest) are an excellent mechanism for payments – if you work at it. But ebooks are not a publishing platform, any more than blogging software is a publishing platform, or a working knowledge of CSS and HTML is a publishing platform.

Given that the web is your future — disintermediation taken to a logical extreme — well then: we need ways of monetizing books on the web that don’t rely on Amazon. Direct sales? Advertising? Subscriptions? A return to the 1400s economic model where people wrote because they had something to say and were copied because what they said was interesting and no one got paid? Because historically, that’s how publishing worked.

…just one more opportunity to link you to my 2009 essay: Form, Content, Copies, Rights, and Plato
[someone remind me to update that – I suppose I could wait for a 5th anniversary, but I think I should get to it before that]

If one is either advocating or defending ebooks, I’d just ask whether your focus is on the potential of ebooks as a new format — or merely on Amazon’s payment model. — you know, both are important (getting paid may actually may be more important) but it would be dishonest to conflate the two.


assertion two: “Bookstores are dead, the equivalent of buggywhip salesmen in an automobile age.”

verdict: False. well, “false” to a point…

I have a much longer post in the works on the social function of bookstores. If all we did was sell books, the fate of bookstores would be much more cut-and-dried, but your local bookstore is a social nexus: more of a coffee shop plus source of fallback (or primary) internet these days.

But even considering only the sale of books:

About once a day someone walks in, looking for a “coffee table book” on whatever topic: Alaska. Amsterdam. Australia. Belgian Beers. Coca-Cola memorabilia. Steam engine memorabilia. Sea shells. College Football. College Lacrosse. [Name your college] – [name the city] – [name the country] – [whatever]

Of Course there has to be one of those full-color, large format books on whichever topic because I, with only 1.5 hours to prepare, suddenly thought that such a book would now make a perfect gift – let me go ask my Local Big Box Bookstore.”

[*expletive deleted*]

(My inability to meet demand — indeed, the inability of anyone to meet unreasonable demands — doesn’t make the demand less important: this is an economic opportunity) (see also: Case Study #5 and how damnably tricky it is to stock “coffee table books”)

Horsepower used to be, well, Horse Power: you either schlepped it yourself, or you got on a horse. There was also a transitional period (roughly, 1810 to 1910) when long-distance travel became steam-powered but local traffic was still by horse. Parallel to that, was the replacement of horses on farms with tractors, combines, and other agricultural equipment. The Horse was once the go-to option for so many tasks, but the internal combustion engine changed all that. …Almost. In the modern age: we have both NASCAR and the Kentucky Derby.

Cars replaced carriages for daily transport and tractors replaced draft horses on the farm, but horses are still used for sport, recreation, and ranching.

…and even in a car-dominated landscape, so many of us walk. Some for recreation, even. [Hell, some people jog and run for fun…]

This isn’t the non-sequitur that it appears to be — I previously wrote on this topic in 2010: Publishing Buggywhips.

The web has had 20 years to totally overwhelm bookselling. In a buggywhip analogy, this would be like going from 1902 to 1922 with the concomitant sociological changes that accompany technological change. Bookselling is actually holding up pretty well, considering.

People today still walk into a bookstore, and then ask me for a book. They’re willing to pay a little more for the right kind of book. Sometimes it’s a book they didn’t even know they wanted, until they saw it at the store — a book completely unrelated to their initial query (the question that actually brought them through my door).

To beat a dead horse: The physical book is a dead as the horse.

But have you thought about how many horses there are, still working? It could be a horse-drawn carriage ride around Central Park, or the once-a-year attention paid to horse racing around the Derby, or Olympic equestrian events, or a rare opportunity to see the Lipizzaner Stallions. Hell, it could be show-jousting at Medieval Times. Even in a car-dominated future without a need for horses, we have both use cases and economic models that prove Horses Aren’t Dead Yet. These are all special cases: some are traditional, others historical artefacts, some intentional throwbacks to a historical age – no longer an actual economic use but sold to the public as a recreational opportunity.

(Books: Not Dead Yet.)

Do I want to live in a future where the only book stores are Book Museums? No. No, I do not.

But if that’s my option, you can bet your ass I’m dressing up as Ye Olde-fashioned Bookseller down at Colonial Barnes & Noble.


assertion three: “Well, *I* buy ebooks and everyone I know buys ebooks and my friends on twitter and facebook and offline buy ebooks and I just don’t see how bookstores are going to be viable in 5 years…”

verdict: So this is sampling bias, selection bias, confirmation bias or some combination of all three.

Let’s say you’re a blogger, writing about the publishing future and ebooks and perhaps specializing in ebook publishing tips for first-time digital authors. The comments on your well-thought-out opinion pieces and e-publishing link roundups all agree with you that dead-tree books are dead (or soon to be so) as are the physical storefronts that sell them, and even the delivery of books (physically) by UPS rather than digitally via Internet is only a transitional phase.

Ebook evangelists are like the newspaperman of 1923 bagging on the last remaining horses. Suddenly one notes the societal changes that have been occurring over decades, one picks the winning side, writes an essay, and then you pat yourself on the back. But there are many disruptions that will take place in the transition, and also future problems and fallout that you haven’t considered yet.

A world of ebooks without publishers is also a world without George R.R. Martin and Game of Thrones, a world without Robert Kirkman and Walking Dead, a world without J.K. Rowling and Harry Potter, a world without J.R.R. Tolkien and hobbits — hell, even a world without Tarzan, Conan, Buck Rogers, Flash Gordon, Superman, Batman, and Finn.

We can sandbag on publishers all day, and not everything done in the name of business or publishing is gold, but if you believe that quality wins out, no matter the hype or the competition, or the handicaps the ‘independent’ faces — then fine: we agree to disagree.

The three legs of the tripod are Books, Film/TV Adaptation, and Fans — remove any one leg, and you no longer have a franchise: Star Wars originated as a film, but I can guarantee Lucas wouldn’t have made the Prequel Trilogy if it hadn’t been for decades of Del Rey Star Wars novels along with the massive collection of Dark Horse Star Wars Comics. Harry Potter was already a book phenomenon, but only steamrolled the teen & tween fanbase after Warner Brothers started making films. Game of Thrones (book fans know the series as “A Song of Ice and Fire”) was a perpetual runner up to Wheel of Time until HBO took Martin’s series under its wing. And while discerning comic book aficionados were both familiar with and (dare I say) rabid fans of Kirkman’s work, it took a TV Show to make the Walking Dead a mainstream fan property.

Lord of the Rings, anyone? How about three, count ‘em, three Hobbit movies? (There was only the one book…) Oh, or Iron Man? Who was an Iron Man fan 2005? …yeah, put your hand down; you’re lying.

What do all of these franchises have in common? Corporate backing, big-name publishers (OK, I’m giving Image Comics a pass here, they are ‘big enough’), fan enthusiasm, and books stocked in bookstores.

Right now, all those mainstream fans of nearly every franchise know about bookstores; there’s one out by the mall, down the street from the cineplex, next to Joe’s Crab Shack. Most of those fans — let’s call them civilians — don’t know or care about ebooks. They may or may not own a tablet, they certainly don’t own an ereader, they own a smart phone but they use it for Angry Birds, to text, and [*gasp*] to make the odd phone call. And they don’t care about ebooks. They buy one, or maybe two books a year. They outnumber you, ebook fanboy. Between the 22% who reported they read no books last year and the 31% that read between 1 and 5 books, That’d be half of everybody.

From the link above: “The shift toward e-book… is being driven by those who are college educated, those living in higher-income households, and those ages 30-49. Those groups disproportionately report they were reading e-books.”

If you match that description, fine. You have your personal anecdotal evidence and I just handed you 2-year old Pew Research data to back up some of your points.

But what about the Hunger Games, Twilight, Beautiful Creatures, Vampire Academy, Pretty Little Liars, Blue Bloods, plus a couple dozen you and I forgot about — Past the first two, I can’t say I’ve heard of any of these properties lighting up the ebook charts. But they sell books, initially sufficient to prompt the adaptation and then like bonkers once comely actors are attached and pictures hit the internet.

Yes, indeed: the internet sells books. But it’s more about teen heartthrobs and Google Image Search, and less about Amazon and KDP.


What we have here is a stalemate: On the one side, we have ebooks. Apparently everyone, even my Mom [true fact], is buying ebooks — and I, the Lone (old-school, physical bookshop) Bookseller Left on the Internet… I’m just a plaintive, fading voice in the e-wilderness, unable to see the e-forest for the e-trees.

I’ve been assured that the digital revolution has already taken place and we’re just taking a decade or two to sort through digital winners and losers, and well: nothing I’ve said or can say will shake your convictions.


“To me, it seems like the revolution already occurred back in 1993 and you all missed it. Every argument made for ebooks is also an argument that could be made about web pages: text served up via html and http actually has numerous advantages over .mobi, epub, and pdf (the current “e book” formats available to us).”

The digital revolution already happened. I’m defending one payment structure: distribution and sales of books through bookstores. Ebook partisans are merely defending a different payment structure, Amazon et al. and the “electronic book” — but both models are susceptible to digital disruption.

“Modern” publishing (I’m going to pick 1836) had a good run, 1836-2007 — 172 years. Over the course of that run, corporations lived and died, business models rose and fell, new and cheaper book formats were born, and at the tail-end of that era: the internet came to prominence. We are now 5 years into the “new” publishing model…

Or, we are 5 years into a dead cat bounce. Are “Kindle ebooks” the future, or merely that last gasp of 200 years of publishing business?

I think the current environment has much more in common with the post-Gutenberg early era of newspapers (1605-1700): we are still figuring out what the platform can be used for, what we want to use it for, and how we can use internet publishing to make money. (I’ll remind you again here: Dickens’ first book was serialized in an 1836 magazine.) Straight, non-DRM web distribution is still the disrupting factor that has yet to be felt in Amazon’s KDP biodome, and however enamored one is of Amazon’s ebook payment structure — the payments have nothing to do with books or publishing. Project Gutenberg predates the Kindle by 37 years, the Internet Archive hosts 4.4 Million ebooks, and facilitates 15 Million downloads each month [hattip] — so, yeah.

Amazon’s e- efforts almost seem like a sideline in comparison.

The book is dead. Long live the book.

And before you come at me as obviously wrong [I am, as always, obviously wrong], ask yourself: “Am I about to defend books, digital distribution, or merely the new payment models that have been laid over the old publishing model?”

and with that parting shot: I open the floor for discussion.


  1. How refreshing with someone who doesn’t yell about how physical bookstores are doomed. It’s just no fun joining those, when you live in a country where many people still don’t know what an ebook is…

    Comment by Michelle Louring — 24 July 2013, 12:48 #

Commenting is closed for this article.



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