What’s going on?

Do we need to brace for worse?

Are ebooks taking over the world?

Of course something’s happening. We’ve been rabbiting on about the future of the book for most of this century. The discussion habitually mixes up the book as physical object, and the book as the content of that object, but the survival of the second doesn’t depend on the survival of the first.

The most positive angle I’ve heard on the book as container was offered by the keynote speaker at this month’s Interquest conference in New York City.  Bob Young, founder of Lulu and Red Hat, asked us to think of the printed book as just another platform for the content. It’s a platform that has its advantages and its drawbacks, just like any other one. Its big advantage is its archivability. I have several books bought by my father about 80 years ago, and, unsurprisingly, I can still access their content. Do you really expect to be able to read the book you just downloaded to your Kindle or iPhone on that device in 2090? The one platform is not better than any other: it’s just different.

A certain amount of the conversation within our industry is not so much about the survival of the book, as about the survival of our jobs making those books. To put it mildly, book manufacturing controller is not a job category that is expanding. The economics of the business in the future are of course hard to predict, but it is probably unlikely that expenditures on design, copyediting, proofreading, composition etc. are going to increase. People in these jobs don’t have to panic, but they should probably consider the probability that they are going to need to make a career change at some point in their working lives (unless like me they have already put in over four decades in the game). Currently ebooks sell for less than printed books (usually) but of course they cost less to “make” though not to create. Publishers’ revenues are thus liable to decrease, as will their manufacturing and warehousing costs. No doubt ways will be found to shrink plant costs further. I expect people will figure out how to make a decent living off publishing electronic books. But it will be very different. Don’t fall into the trap of thinking that because you do what you do very well, that means what you do is of vital importance. Everybody has to be ready to adapt to new conditions, and new conditions are hurtling towards us. Notice that the printers you deal with are getting into digital printing as fast as they can. I suspect offset is in roughly the same position today as letterpress was when I started in publishing — doomed but still widespread. One of the advantages of digital print technology is the ability to print very short runs, even down to ones and twos, all potentially automatically reordered not by a human, but by the computer.

This link from Shelf Awareness, April 29th, 2011 talks about changes in the way we read ebooks as against printed books.  I do notice that I read The Economist differently on my iPod Touch than I do in the hard copy edition. The short items in “The World This Week” section look much more inviting on the iPod, where they more than fill the screen.  On the printed page they tend to me to look too insubstantial to bother with. I am also less likely to skip when reading on the iPod, where the temptation to look at the last paragraph and leave it at that just isn’t there on the screen. I read books both on the iPod Touch and in hard copy, often switching from one to the other as I go. I find neither mode “better”.  If the book’s good in the printed version, it also seems to be good in the electronic version.

Once upon a time publishing was a pretty low-key literary pursuit. Most people went into publishing for idealistic reasons, because they wanted to promote literature, not because they wanted to get rich. There have always been more aggressive, profit-motivated publishers, but in general the character of the business was less about money than about culture. It was a narrow-margin business, and people who really wanted to make money would be likely to have looked elsewhere. When I started working in publishing, it was a labor-intensive business. Although companies were comparatively small and book prices were low, most companies did fine. There was, it’s true, a post-war boom in publishing, and it often seemed that anything could be sold to libraries. Efficiencies didn’t seem important: as long as you didn’t actually lose money you could keep on publishing important books, and what more could an idealist want? Salaries were not high — they are notoriously hard to measure, but when I started it was believed that the differential between the top salary and the bottom salary was a factor of about 7. Quite a difference from today.

In the seventies or late sixties “business” woke up to the possibility that real money might be made from books. After all if you had a bestseller it could return huge sums in comparison with the origination cost and the reprint cost, and creating bestsellers couldn’t really be that hard, could it? You just needed to hire good people who could sign up the best authors, and sit back and wait for the tills to start ringing. This led to an orgy of mergers and acquisitions as almost all the general publishing companies were consolidated into a few giant corporations. Big corporations need to keep expanding in order to succeed — and acquisitions were a fast way to expand, as we found out that expanding the number of bestsellers wasn’t as easy as imagined. Soon after bookselling followed suit with expansion and consolidation, driven finally by the invention of Amazon.com and on-line retailing.

Bookselling had been even more genteel than publishing. Publishers fixed the discount at which booksellers could buy books, and thus had a lot of influence over the margin a bookstore could make. Bookstores tended to be library-like book-lined rooms tended by book-lovers whose motivation was once again not monetary. The small town where I grew up had two bookshops which closed before I reached adulthood: after years of having none, it has recently gotten a second-hand bookshop. With the development of chain bookstores, booksellers became more powerful and were able to negotiate higher discounts, special promotional payments and of course an ever-expanding stream of returns.

Can we be on our way back to the “good old days” of low turnover, low profitability, and satisfied survival? I’ve always thought that the attempt to make publishing more profitable was fundamentally misguided. Every book, a tiny item in the world marketplace, is a unique project requiring individual ingenuity to create and develop. Books just don’t lend themselves to commoditization and mass production. The best thing that could happen to us might be for the money guys to sour on the whole business, sell out, break up the conglomerates, allow some companies to close and others to shrink, and let a smaller industry get back to muddling along with the occasional best seller to perk up the otherwise uneventful scene. Whether the product gets sold as a print-on-demand book, an ebook or as part of a subscription to an online collection is ultimately much less important that that ideas keep getting into the hands of those who want to know about them. Are the current changes in the world of bookselling perhaps a harbinger of such a transformation?