Monday, August 23, 2010

Is the Bookstore Extinct?

Last week, I was asked by a reader (writer?) to comment on a recent Wall Street Journal article titled, “Get ready for the bookstore massacre.” Sounds pretty scary, huh? I can just imagine floors running with ink, pages fluttering in the wind blowing through broken windows, dismembered novels crying for help.

Before I respond, let me start by saying that I have a little personal experience with the internet taking over traditional, brick and mortar stores. A little over ten years ago, I was the CEO of a two-hundred person internet company. The technology we created allowed internet users to compare features for a product (say a TV) by all kinds of cool metrics, price shop, and order, all on-line. Not that revolutionary now, but at the time it was pretty cutting edge.

One afternoon, I met with the CEO of a company called eToys. It was an interesting experience. There was a six foot tall Etch-a-Sketch in the lobby, employees rode scooters around the halls, and a puppet show was taking place in a conference room. I later used some of these elements in my first published novel, Cutting Edge. eToys was a giant at the time. They had recently gone public and were valued in the billions. They were poised to blow the doors off of every other toy store in the US. In fact Toys-R-Us, was so frightened of them that they offered eToys the chance to be the on-line site for Toys-R-Us. And eToys turned them down. (So they had to settle for some upstart book reseller called Amazon.)

Have you heard of eToys? Have you bought a toy from eToys lately? If you did, you bought a product from the company that bought the domain for dirt cheap, because the original eToys didn’t stay in business long enough to let any of its employees even cash out their stocks. It was going to drive Toys-R-Us into the ground because we were all going to buy our toys on-line. Why wouldn’t we? They are cheaper. There is no sales tax. They can carry a bigger inventory. Very smart, very savvy investors—including the kind of people that write for publications like WSJ—were sure your local toy store was going out of business. To state the obvious, they were wrong.

I mention this story to make a point. Just because a lot of smart people say something is true, doesn’t make it true. In the past twenty years, I’ve seen more scary headline than I can list. We were all heading into another ice age back when I got married (the world, not my wife and I personally!) When my now married daughter was a baby, Meryl Streep came on 60 Minutes and urged to me to pour all my apple juice down the sink because I was poisoning my baby with a pesticide called Alar. You can’t watch a promo for the nightly news with hearing at least one “dire” warning a week.

I’m not saying that there aren’t environmental concerns. I’m not saying that I want a ton of pesticides on my food, or that Alar was 100% scare. What I am saying is that while journalists are paid to make informed decisions, they are also paid to get readers/viewers. Unfortunately headlines like, “Bookstores likely to sell fewer books,” don’t draw the same kind of attention as, “Get ready for the bookstore massacre.”

If the past has proven anything, it’s that trying to forecast—even five or ten years in advance—is a crap shoot at best. You can look at trends. You can make informed decisions (or uninformed decisions.) You can do polls. You can make graphs. But you cannot say with any degree of certainty that X is going to lead to Y. So let’s look at some of the things being forecast and see what’s likely, what’s possible, and what’s out and out hyperbole.

1) In the next five years everyone will be buying their books electronically. Imagine a world in which your book is smaller, lighter, and more portable than a traditional hardback. You’d snap it right up, wouldn’t you? You’d never buy another hardback again. Um, yeah, it’s called the paperback, and it’s been out long enough for the Beatles to make a song about it. In fact isn’t that basically what the penny dreadfuls were shooting for?

The point people seem to miss when they talk about paper books disappearing, is that hardbacks are collected. People like them. While it’s true that many more people would buy paperbacks if they came out at the same time as the hardback, it’s also true that hardbacks would have disappeared a long time if no one bought them. Publishers make hardbacks because they can make more money on them and people buy them. Reality is that the world is changing. Twenty years ago, nearly everyone subscribed to a newspaper and about a dozen magazines. Now most people read their news on-line. Especially with younger generations, the idea of reading a hard copy of something that is available on-line is far less appealing.

E-book sales are skyrocketing, and with the dropping price of readers, it’s unlikely that trend will slow for quite some time. However, just because e-book reader sales keep going up, it doesn’t mean books are going away. Don’t believe me? Electronic documentation has been available to office workers for over a decade, and yet paper usage is higher than ever. I think it’s very likely that e-books could take a huge bite out of paperback sales. But, as long as people still like hardbacks, I don’t see them going away any time soon.

2) Bookstores are going the way of the way of the dinosaur. If I am wrong about point 1, then I think point 2, could happen. One thing the internet did prove analysts right about is that if you can create something that can only be done (or can be done exponentially better) on the internet, it can succeed. Think about E-Bay. It’s essentially a world-wide garage sale, a model that only works on the internet. Think Amazon, no single store could carry that kind of inventory at that kind of discount. But . . . other models that looked just as promising failed miserably. How many of you order your groceries on-line and have them delivered to your door? It was available, and actually cheaper, and much more convenient, than having to go to the store. But people didn’t use it.

The thing is, just because something is cheaper or even more convenient, does not mean everyone will use it, as long as there is another option. Predicting the demise of brick and mortar doesn’t take into account the people shop for a variety of reasons. The fun of browsing. Stopping for a book after going out to lunch. Getting a gift. Getting out of the freaking house and seeing something other than a computer screen. Lots of people like to go to stores and shop. If it wasn’t for the interaction—the fun—of shopping, Indie bookstores would have gone out of business a long time ago. It’s not all about price and size.

The other thing being left out of this equation is that many books don’t easily fit into the e-book model. Picture books, coffee table books, kids books. Yeah, I know you can out all of these on e-books, but I don’t believe for an instant that families are going to buy e-book readers for every kid in the family. Or that flipping through the pages of Hungry Green Monster will be the same, even on an I-Pad. Yes, I know, e-readers can add even more stuff. Videos, music, animation. All of that has been available on computers for years. I have a really cute Little Critter book on the computer that I’ve had since my big kids were little. But I still didn’t replace their picture books with a laptop.

It’s entirely possible that the look of bookstores may change. You may download an electronic book while you browse paper books. At the BYU bookstore I recently saw a print on demand machine. Want a paper book we don’t stock? Great we’ll print it for you. But I don’t see bookstores disappearing the way some people are forecasting.

3) E-books will make publishers and agents obsolete. Of all the predictions, this is the one that proves to me prognosticators don’t have a clue. Who knew that all we needed was mass distribution to make publishers obsolete? It actually makes perfect sense if all your publisher does is distribute your book. But if you really believe that a publisher and a distributor are the same thing, you don’t know the industry at all. What does a publisher do?

Well, let’s start with quality. Go to Amazon. Download their free reader app. Then randomly pick a few of the free, or even 99 cent self-published books. I’m not talking about the stuff that has gone out of copyright. That actually had an editor. I’m talking about Jimbob Farklecker, who tried to publish his book, failed, and self-published it in e-book format. Or even better, just browse the internet for novels people are publishing on their blogs, or web-sites, or forums. I’m not saying Bob’s book is bad—although it is. What I’m saying is that even if Jimbob’s story is great, it still needs a professional editor. It still needs direction. And, yes, it still needs a net to weed out all the crap, and take what’s good.

Now, I know all you self-published authors are screaming at me. Your book is good. You either don’t need a professional editor or hired one before you published your books. You’ll also remind me of all the great authors who started out self-publishing, or even moved from traditional publishing to e-books. Richard Paul Evans, Christopher Paolini, JA Konrath. And those are the norm right? Or even a majority? A decent-sized minority? No, using these examples to say that publishers are going to be obsolete is like saying that every traditionally published author will make millions of dollars because just look at Meyer, King, Grisham, etc.

The fact of the matter is that the huge majority of self-published books are not up to the quality of traditionally published books. Even when the authors are good, they don’t get the necessary feedback and editing required to make a really good read. And this is a shame because all the crap out there puts such a stain on the group as a whole that the good books become hit with the same paint brush. I know that a traditionally published book had to make it through probably an agent, an editor, and a committee, before hitting the streets. That doesn’t guarantee a good book, but would you take your car to be fixed by a guy that had no certifications or professional training? And it’s only going to get worse as more people realize how easily they can “publish” their book. If anything, I think there is going to be so much garbage spewed into e-book stores that people are going to be scared of downloading anything self-published, unless it’s gotten great reviews from people they trust or they know the author already.

And that’s just quality. There is so much more a publisher does. For a really good read, check out this article.

There are many more things being suggested. Oh, no, all your e-books are going to be filled with ads! Read this for a reality check of what is happening, what might happen, and what is unlikely to happen. Soon authors won’t be able to make any money because books will be copied freely back and forth! Yep, look at all those poor rock stars begging on the streets now because of MP3s. Agents are going away! Publishers are gone! Bookstores will be empty by Christmas! We’ll all be driving flying cars by 2010! Oh , wait looks like we missed that one.

I’m not saying things won’t change. Sometimes for the better, and sometimes for the worse. What I am saying is that ten years from now, things will have changed in a way that almost no one predicted. And many of the things people did predict will be wrong. In the mean time, I’m writing the best book I can. Getting the best agent. Hoping for a big publisher with a great editor. And looking forward to heading down to the bookstore this weekend to see what’s new. But hey, that’s just me.


Dave Cebrowski said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Dave Cebrowski said...

I am the most electonically plugged in person I know. Almost everything I do is connected somehow to the virtual world. But there is one thing I will not give up - fictional stories in print.

I love reading fiction, what's more I love having a book collection, my own library that, barring a fire, will last a long time. Electronic formats may not last more than 5 years unless you keep changing storage mediums.

Non-fiction books - I will gladly read online. But not fiction.

Brooke from The Bluestocking Guide said...

I won't give up print books.

J.N. Future Author said...

I love huge posts like this! They give me a lot to think about!

Honestly, I would way rather stick with paper-back! I have a real problem with Digital copies of books.

I was hanging out with a friend that had Ebooks on his Iphone. at first I thought it was kind of cool. But as I used it, I realized there were a few things that really bothered me.

1) Books do not have battery life. Books shouldn't have a battery life. There was nothing worse than when I was at the climax of the ending scene, the fight between good and evil, the part you have been waiting for, and the phone shut down. We didn't have a charger with us, so it was just gone.

That really bothered me. With traditional books there really is no limit to how far or often you can read them.

This leads me to something that bothered me even more than battery life

2) His Ebook had a limit of pages you could look at!!! if you had a 100 page book, you could only look at 400 pages. So you could read the book 4 times, or you could look at one page 400 times.

I was really put out with that. I don't want my book to have a limited amount of views. I want to be able to read that book through 27 times if I want to. It was also troubling if I was reading a book with puzzles in it. The kind where you go back a few pages to reexamine it.

Personally, I will always stick with paper books. While E-books are a good idea, traditional is always better

(Exception on Textbooks)

Christy said...

So true. Most of it is media hype. This is a great time to be a writer, there is so much going on and in flux. I'm just going to keep sticking my butt to my chair and plugging along.

BTW, I'm your 100th follower!