These are scary times for writers and publishers. Whereas it’s never been easier to get published, conversely it’s never been harder to sell. This great divide is expanding exponentially. Take a look at the Al Gore demonstration at Mike Matas: A next-generation digital book. All of this seemed pretty whiz-bang a year ago. Now my smart phone can do most this.
The Great Divide Paradox is easily explained.
Major publishers are down-sizing, and guess who goes first? The B-list. With fewer staff, publishers are publishing fewer books. Perhaps only the best-sellers will enjoy print books from the majors with no or little mid-list. It does make you wonder where publishers will find the next generation of best selling authors. They’ll undoubtedly get some from best-selling self-publishers, such as the recent EL James (50 Shades of Grey) and of course this has been happening for a while – Matthew Reilly (Contest) springs to mind. And there will be a proliferation of these authors with the availability of lulu.com, Lightning Source, etc. Even Dymocks has a platform for vanity press at dpublishing.com. I think the self-publisher has replaced the agent for assessing the slush pile for major publishers.
It’s an illusion that distribution is now easier than it has ever been. In fact, for print books, it’s never been worse. Many large publishers have slashed their sales or editing teams and one publisher has recently sacked its entire sales force. Booksellers will now have to scour the publishers’ website if they want to stock their shelves with books from THAT publisher. And don’t think for one moment the book sellers will be purchasing books by authors they’ve never heard of. They’ll be purchasing the frontline books like cook books, gardening books – anything with a proven track record.
It’s true that the ebook revolution has enabled global distribution. Anyone can publish their own book either in e-book or print-on-demand, upload it to numerous online booksellers like Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Sony, etc. But the trouble is there’s a lot of noise out there and it’s hard to get heard. How is your book going to be seen? Authors more than ever will have to be their own marketing force.
Cory Doctorow has picked up a reputation as the writer who gives away e-book versions of his novels for free. He believes that by doing this he’s creating an audience his work wouldn’t normally have had. So far he’s had 700,000+ downloads of his novel Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom – 30,000 of these came on the first day of release.
So brick and mortar booksellers are suffering from all of this, and not just from print on demand books and e-books, but online sellers like the UK’s Book Depositary – they offer free postage with a minimum order. And chain stores such as Big W, Target and Kmart buy books from publishers at such a big discount that they’re selling the books at the same price – as loss leaders – that independent stores are buying them at; and unless booksellers change their focus from the print book they will soon disappear. These department stores are selling about one third of books sold in Australia.
But there is a fight back for the printed book and magazine. Reading material such as magazines and newspapers will soon have digital watermarks embedded into images enabling readers to be directed toward digital resources offering further information. An obvious outcome here is for advertising. See a photo of someone in a magazine or newspaper wearing a piece of jewellery or a jacket that you like – run your smart phone over the image and it’ll take you directly to the online seller with a shopping cart. Pertinent to books, especially non-fiction, you’ll be directed to websites with all the extra information you could possibly want.
The science fiction part of me predicts virtual reality bookstores. Your avatar will head off to the bookshop where the bookseller will have all the relevant and perhaps not-so-relevant information on you. The more info you upload to your avatar the better the service you get from the store. An avatar bookseller will approach you and the conversation you have will be exactly as though you’re visiting your local shop where the sales staff know you quite intimately. You’ll purchase books in any language, on any subject, and basically have millions of choices. But like I said before, you’ll either need to break through the “noise”, or hope your avatar bookseller really is in tune with your metadata and point you directly to the books that you’ll almost definitely like. Otherwise there could be huge scope for error – you could wind up with 50 Shades of Grey while looking for Isobelle Carmody’s Greylands. People might even have fun. Say you upload the metadata of a psychopath. The bookseller avatar would understandably approach you very warily . . . book choices would be very interesting!
On a more serious note, a recent survey in the US concluded that the typical e-book user read 24 books in the past year, compared with the 15 books reported by typical non-e-book users. The survey also found that e-book users are more likely to buy their books rather than borrow them – all of which is good for the economy and certainly good news for writers.
Whereas e-books will miss out on spontaneity sales that brick and mortar shops enjoy, I see the new generation totally taking to the digital era. Currently we have compatibility problems, but Apple readers can now upload Kindle software and read Kindle titles, Kindle also works on the iPad, iPhone and computers. So I think compatibility across all major platforms will soon be the rule of thumb. After all, who wants to own the next Beta for books?
Under development are:
- A next gen e-reader called The Page that is as thin as a sheet of paper, folds up and has an e-ink screen that can display text and images.
- A bendable touchscreen display that is shatter and crack proof
- A computer with a holographic screen you can fold up and wear on your wrist (this will be on the market in 2020, we’re assured!)
- A solar-powered e-reader and a Braille e-reader for the visually impaired.
In conclusion, I pose a question. After viewing this sample app, tell me at which point does the “book” cease to be a book and become a game? An interesting term has arisen: “lean-in”, which is where the user is working with information on a screen, and “lean-back”, where they’re watching for entertainment. If books become too lean-back, will they have simply become movies?