Chris Meadows at TeleRead tells us that nobody wants printed books any longer. Misery loves company, so take heart, it’s the same with old clocks. Apparently members of the younger generation “only need their smart phones and a place to sleep”. Not the ones I’ve observed, though it is true that they tend to like sleeping and texting quite a lot. It’s also true I don’t know any teenage clock collectors (nor of course did I when I was a teenager, or adult for that matter). And while I don’t know any book-collecting teens, I do know plenty who read books, almost exclusively in print form.

Tristan Foster seems worried that the trade novel is dying. (Story via Literary Hub.) I guess if you read lots of them that might be something to think about, but having them become e-books and self-published rather than appearing as a print books issued by a Big Five publisher doesn’t really seem to me to make it across the threshold of serious cultural concern.

It could well be of concern to a trade publisher though, and I wonder if trade publishers are in fact being kept awake at night by this possibility. I do think that as trade publishing is mostly about entertainment, it may well be vulnerable to a disappearance on-line. And once you get on line it’s so easy to self publish that trade publishers may find it harder to compete. Of course getting your novel up on-line is one thing: getting it to sell is a horse of a different color. If trade publishers, as they do, have some expertise in marketing, this should allow them to survive. The problem may be that such expertise is available to all, and on-line indie publishers no doubt also have it, or could certainly acquire it. The large, powerful publishing house controlling access to the market is a survival from print days, and I believe that in consolidation we’ve gone about as far as we can go. When the only way to publish was to print thousands of copies and distribute them to bookstores around the country, it was rather difficult to break in to the business. Now there are NO barriers to entry. You want to be a publisher — welcome. You’re a publisher. Of course becoming a successful publisher does require a little more, but a large pile of money is no longer one of the requirements.

No sooner had I drafted this than Publishers Weekly sent the news of the Obamas’ book deal with Penguin Random House. Two books, and according to the Financial Times, worth $60 million. Two books for an advance of $60 million implies to me a belief that they can sell something like 10,000,000 copies of each in the first year or so. True this is a world-rights deal, so that some of those sales will be for lump sums from overseas publishers, but 10 million copies is quite a pile of books. Wikipedia lists about* 150 books with sales of over 10 million, though those are life-time sales. Of course the $60 million number is only a guess, but even if it was one tenth of that, the ability to sell a million copies of each doesn’t shout “industry in crisis”.

The Obamas might in fact be better situated than anyone to do a self-published book. The ex-president has over 85 million Twitter followers, while Ms. Obama has a more modest, but still immense 7.36 million, so they do have a lot of people interested in what they have to say. They might have no problem selling multiple millions of books on their own, but why bother?

Let’s assume that each book will be 100,000 words (two fairly chunky volumes). This would mean (if the Financial Times is right) that they’d be getting $300 per word. Not too shabby — for which phrase I’d like $900.

Deals like this suggest that trade publishers haven’t gotten the message the commentariat keeps sending out and aren’t alive to the risk of their imminent death. Trade publishers will no doubt be able to develop a trick or two to keep themselves going in an on-line world, and nobody can outdo them in the print world which still accounts for a huge proportion of book sales. They are not after all powerless, passive on-lookers, doomed to end up as the victims of change. The future? A different looking business: no doubt. A vanished business: very unlikely. Should we look for brands to become more important? Probably. In a world of wide choice, the validation of a brand will probably become more vital.


* I refuse to count again. Compiling these numbers must have been soul-destroying, and given the difficulty of getting accurate sales numbers for recent years, one might best regard them as order of magnitude guesstimates.