I’m pretty sure that publishing in some form or another will have a future. Unless the fundamentalists completely takeover people will still continue to read books – probably in roughly the same type and numbers as they have for the last twenty years. E-book formats may slightly increase the accessibility of books; they may even lower the average cost (though they still don’t come close to competing with remaindered or used books) which will slightly increase demand. But my suspicion is (and I’d be happy to be corrected on this) the supply curve for books is slightly inelastic and a significant cut in book prices will not lead to as significant rise in book sales at least not in the long term. From a sample of one – I read between 25 and 35 books a year. It’s all I have the time or appetite for. Even if books were free I wouldn’t read more than I do now. After the initial burst of e-book sales – a combination of techno-geeks who don’t normally read but like the neat gadgets and bibliophiles buying e-versions of books they already own – the curve will smooth out. So the bottom line is e-books will not increase overall book sales. They will simply reduce the sale of physical books. Even the most conservative old-style publishers seem to think the balance will wind up around 50-50 for each format.
The big questions seem to be: What will the price point for future book sales? How will the revenues be distributed? Most people say that the market will ultimately determine the price of books and to some extent that is true. Markets can be rather efficient, even brutal, at assigning values to things. But the book market – like most markets – is subject to distortions. If you remember your Economics 101, efficient markets require lots of buyers, lots of sellers, preferably of similar size and perfect communication between them. I believe the parlance these days is: FAIL. Amazon and few others dominate the retail sales and a few big publishers dominate the wholesale ones. And communication between both groups and the large mass of consumers is confounded by proprietary technology, rhetoric and marketing spin. These kind of efficiencies generally work themselves out but, for a while, we are likely to see competing pricing models more than competing prices.
Economic change happens. Whenever it does, some people win and some people lose. Generally speaking in the long run, there are more winners than losers. The invention of internal combustion engine initially put a lot of buggy makers, steam and electric car manufacturers and livery stables out of business. It also dramatically reduced the horse population of North America. At the same time it made billions for the Ford family and employed tens of thousands of autoworkers at stable high-paying jobs. There are a lot of towns that exist because of the auto industry. And a lot that are being wiped out by the social, economic and environmental factors that have led to its decline. Make no mistake – the transformation of the transport industry will create a lot of new winners but that is little consolation to a 48-year old assembly line worker looking for a job at Tim Horton’s.
So somewhere down the line we will have a new model for the book business. That model will produce a lot of winners and some losers. Though there is no way to say who exactly will be on one side or the other, there are some clues. Big publishers are in trouble – some have already gone out of business and others have dramatically cut back their author list. They are caught between an aggressive marketer in Amazon who already has agents marketing backlists directly to them, and writers and a suspicious consuming public who suspect they are greedy and oppressive. I have my doubts about the rhetoric in that regard but it will create great difficulties for most publisher’s ROI to meet writers and agents demands for higher royalties and Amazon and consumer demands for lower prices. In a world where capital constantly seeks the highest return, a lower ROI means a dramatic decline in traditional publishing. No wonder they are fighting so hard!
There will still be publishers, I am sure, but they will be smaller and will struggle to be heard. More books may get published but, in the noise, fewer copies will be sold of each one.
But who cares? Well, other than the hundreds, perhaps thousands of people who will lose their jobs and way of life, I care. And I suspect, so should a lot of writers in my position. Part-timers with a few books and hopes for a modest career.
I was going to call this blog – I Don’t Need Another Job!
I am a part-time writer. I have a full-time job, one that fortunately is fairly flexible and gives me periods when I can find blocks of time to write (and others when writing is out of the question). I’m fortunate that I write quickly. But still, I have a full-time job with a salary that probably exceeds that of the majority of full-time writers (having been a full-time writer for 6 years, I know exactly how little one can live on when one is creatively satisfied). As a part-time writer, I write, I try to sell my writing and when I do, I promote it by going to Cons and using blogging and Facebook and a web-site. Some years my revenues from writing exceed my expenses; others, they don’t.
The only way I am likely to consistently show a profit is if I sell a lot more books than I currently – which means I need my current publisher to get bigger (and I sincerely hope they do – Virginia deserves it!) or I need a bigger publisher. Because frankly I need the expertise of book layout and editing and marketing to make it happen. I’ve got one full-time job and don’t want another and, when I retire I don’t intend to work full-time just to stand still.