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Thursday, January 27, 2011

WELCOME TO THE BONEYARD

You might have noticed my silence these past few months. It's a rare thing for me, but to tell you the truth, I haven't known what to say to you. This, from a wordsmith who can usually figure out a darn fine way to say almost anything.

So I decided to cowgirl up. And actually, I have a lot to say to you, but I'm afraid not much of it will seem like good news—at first. Maybe in retrospect. Maybe when the dust settles and we can all see what we have to work with. But, unless I'm really, really wrong, we are not going to have the same things to work with that we take for granted now. Did you see THE BOOK OF ELI? Think of that with respect to publishing. One blogger called it the Publipocalypse. Right on the nose, if I'm any judge of things. I'm going to continue to use that term myself. It best describes what's happening, in my estimation.

I've been talking to friends, other authors, editors, agents, and readers about this in friendly conversation for several years now: The physical book is going the way of the petroglyph and the scroll. I have not heard one echo of agreement, except from the evidence I see around me. Everyone argues:

  • But there are a lot of people who prefer to read a book-book, they say.
  • I sit in front of a computer all day. I don't want to read a book on a device of any kind, they say.
  • There will always be books, they say.
  • If it happens, they hedge, it's going to take a long time. Maybe next generation.

And why do I have to always be the one to say the emperor has no clothes? Believe me, this is a lifelong role of mine. I'm always the one calling the ball, doing the intervention, pointing out the elephant in the living room, announcing the bad news in a calm voice and getting everyone into a lifeboat while they argue with me and fuss with the straps on their flotation vests—and the ship we just exited sinks. Am I some kind of canary in a coalmine? I don't know.

But here's when I had my real-there's-no-going-back divination: when I first saw the iPad. I know, I know, they had the Kindle before that, the Nook, the Yugo, the Sony E-Reader, and more. But the iPad was the contender that I knew would strike the final blow in a knockdown battle and put the publishing world—as we once knew it—out cold on the mat. Why the iPad? Because it was sexy. In color. Did everything (well, almost everything—I guess it still can't make coffee, but it can program the power for the coffee maker to come on and then wake you up when the coffee is ready, so it's close). It was the one. A Kindle is a reader. A Nook is a reader. A Yugo is a reader. An iPad is a portable music player and stores an entire library of music; it's a photo display and editor, an email port, a movie/video/television player, a web surfer, a game console, a writing tablet, a drawing pad, a portable piano and guitar, a plethora of business tools, a sharing and display device and more. You can journal on it, make spreadsheets on it, create slideshows and videos on it, log your calories and workouts on it, get the news and the weather on it, have it wake you up and lull you to sleep. There is almost nothing you can't do on an iPad, and what little there is, they will surely upgrade into future versions. And honestly, I'm not selling the iPad. I just see it poised and ready to deliver the kayo punch to the current publishing empire. Does that mean it's the ideal reading experience? Maybe not. But maybe it's a sacrifice you're willing to make, given all its other capabilities, if you're going to go E. And believe me, whether you want to or not, if you want to continue to read newspapers or books for the next ten years, you're almost certainly going to go E.

Why? Because the iPad is the fourth horseman. The Publipocalypse is now. The devastation is already widespread. The first horseman for traditional publishing was the chain booksellers, although they didn't intend to be, for sure. Hoping to promote the proliferation of books, they made big deals with the publishers that led to a trend of over-publishing, over-wholesaling, and over-returns. Not to mention the huge bite they took out of the stalwart independent booksellers who had always been there cautiously and prudently buying only those books the publishers printed that they thought they could sell, and making sure their customers knew about them.

The second horseman was the internet. Here's an example: see if you can find a definition for—and some background on the first use of—the word Publipocalypse. Go! Do it now!

  • How many of you put on your hat and coat and went to the library to peruse their hard copy of The Encyclopedia Britannica, and their collection of periodicals to get the latest information?
  • How many of you pulled down your brand new, most up-to-date physical copy of the dictionary from your own shelves just for the definition alone?
  • And how many of you went online and searched on the ‘net?

So what if you want to know what the weather is going to be tonight? Or if you want to know what Obama said because you missed the State of the Union address? Do you wait for your local newspaper to arrive? Look for the latest issue of Time Magazine? While you may be still reading hard copies of the paper, magazines, and books—when you want something now, you almost certainly seek it out online. The whole world is trending towards On Demand. Even television. It's the same with the news. And with books. If you want it now, it's out there. Just not necessarily in physical form.

The third horseman was Amazon. Amazon is the new Wal-mart. Consider what a huge bite of the book market it has taken out of the pockets of independent booksellers—not to mention authors and publishers. In any business, your margin is your lifeline. Take a big chunk of your margin, and you might compensate, flex, adapt, and barely make it. Whew! You got through that! Amazing! Take another chunk, and you are in dire need of a transfusion. Take a third, and you start to flatline. Witness the epidemic of closures of fine, long-standing independent bookstores. This month, the legendary Mystery Bookstore in Los Angeles closes. This is not a minion, folks. This is one of our giants. And it is one of hundreds, perhaps even thousands that have closed, are closing, or will soon close. And it's not just the independents: Borders is on its deathbed. Even if this chain manages to survive this time, it is badly wounded. I report all this with tremendous sadness. And this sort of urgent desire to yell: Retreat! Retreat! Take cover! The sky is falling!

It seems obvious, but perhaps it helps to remind you: If there aren't booksellers to purchase the books wholesale and get them to folks retail, the publishers don't make any money and can't hire editors, copy-editors, layout artists to do covers, text designers, publicists, and so on. Even for print-on-demand! If there's no money to provide the staffing, they can't do the work, they can't produce the books, and they can't pay the authors. If they can't pay the authors . . . well, you do the math.

So, why not self-publish your own e-books, you ask? Seriously, some of you have really asked me this. What are you thinking?! Are you smoking crack? I have enough trouble churning out a book every year, doing the research, doing the plotting, the writing, the initial editing, honing, and refining, and doing the promotional things I do to keep my audience buying. Now you want me to be the publisher, editor, copy editor, cover artist, publicist, distributor, salesperson, and financier as well? I don't think so. And besides, how are we going to establish a bar, a level of quality, a measure of status of writing so you—the consumer or bookseller—don't have to sift through a million pounds of horse-dookey-buying and trying every wanna-be-author's work to get to the good stuff—if you ever do before you give up reading altogether because so much self-published work out there is total crap? Agents and editors were and are the Olympic Trials of publishing. They set the bar. They establish a set of standards that must be met before books are published. Still, I'll admit, some mediocre (even some skanky) stuff occasionally sneaks under the wire, but most traditionally-published (as opposed to self-published) writing is getting better and better and better. The competition, the hard-target-aspect, it culls the pack down to its leanest and best, or at the very least, its most determined. And it makes for better books. Good books. This is good for Story. I'm sorry to report that (from what I have seen) letting every joe who thinks he has a good idea for a book (but not enough skills, craft, or determination to rise through the maze to the top) publish—well, it just makes for more books. Not better books. And it is certainly not good for Story to have an overwhelming glut of horse-dookey on the market. My apologies if I have offended any of you who have produced a really good self-published book. There are always exceptions, and I even know of a few.

But I digress. Back to the status of the physical book. Still not convinced that the physical book is doomed? Still protesting and saying you know lots of folks who will continue to buy physical books? Consider photography's path in the past couple decades. A friend recently told me that the last Kodachrome plant in Kentucky just closed. Go ahead, look it up and confirm it. (Did you go to hard copy news sources or the internet? Based on your answer to this alone, I could rest my case.) Many photographers long preferred film and the traditional SLR camera, the darkroom, and the art of developing. But not enough. Not enough to stem the tide of digital instant gratification, on-demand photo processing, and the ease of infinite storage and nearly eternal preservation in virtual space, not to mention the rampant possibilities for digital manipulation and editing. Hence, the last film-making plant for Kodachrome bites the dust. Are some people disappointed? No doubt. But decreased dollars equals doom for any business. Just remember that if you care about the physical book. Or about good books in any form.

So, let's say you're a die-hard fan of physical books. And maybe I'm one of your fave authors. Say my book comes out on Friday. (It doesn't, not yet, but say it did.) You could have my book on your iPad or Nook or whatever at midnight on Thursday night. Or you could pick it up at a bookstore (if you can still find one) any time after Friday, but you have to spend the time, gas, and effort to go there, and maybe they have a copy and maybe they don't—you would have to call to make sure, and besides you would also have to get out of your jammies to go there, and it's the weekend already after work on Friday night, so... Which do you choose?

If you said the physical book, despite the inconvenience and the need for storage, I'm happy about that. Because I can almost buy a gallon of gas with my royalty from a physical book sold at retail price, so if enough of you buy it in that form, then I can afford to come see you and sign it for you and the publisher can afford to send me on tour and get reviewers copies so we can let the world know about the book so it has half a chance of selling, and then if it does sell, the publisher can pay to have an office and even maybe coffee in that office so everyone can stay awake while they read the latest submissions. But I cannot even buy one small bunch of green onions (never mind organic) with the royalty I make off of an e-book. In fact, if Amazon has anything to say about it, I might have to buy them a small bunch of green onions for every e-book they sell. So I probably can't come see you and meet you and shake your hand and maybe even teach you a writing class or whatever. Unless they invent cars and planes fueled by green onions, (and scant few of them per mile). Or unless every single one of my fans who used to buy hardcovers now personally buys at least a dozen e-book copies of my new book—and why would they? Now, take this model and extrapolate it across the whole industry, for all your favorite authors, the books you read and the books you buy for reference, the magazines, the newspapers, and more. If you don't see a serious shakedown coming, I submit that your head is somewhere deep in the beachfront strata.

What can be done? I suppose we could try to organize a revolution of reading fans who would defiantly devote ever more of their hard-earned funds to staunching the bloodletting and trying to prevent the demise of the physical  book. You could vow to buy at least several physical copies of each new book by your favorite author, buy them from your independent bookseller to keep her in business, buy them at retail so the author and the publisher actually make money instead of practically having to pay the retailer, as with online book sales and e-books. You could vow to give additional copies of your favorite books at Christmas, on birthdays, to your senior center and VA hospital and you could sequester an entire amped-up-budget-line-item of your annual income for this cause, giving up Starbucks or ding-dongs or ho-hos or pantyhose or horse-feed or your gym membership or whatever to make this possible. No more bringing a bag of Amazon-bought books to the signings at the hard-strapped local mystery bookseller to get them autographed when I'm there, you could promise. No more waiting until the latest comes out in pocket-sized paperback because they're so much cheaper—I mean, so what if your kids are hungry, right? No more waiting on the list for the library copy—you could pledge, because you know the physical book will go away if millions of you don't ante up big-time and support it. But can you really do this? I could be wrong, but I don't think so. And even if you did, I am not certain it would work for long. Remember the Kodachrome plant.

Change is inevitable. We are truly in the midst of a revolution away from the physical and ever-more toward digital and on-demand. People are downsizing, de-cluttering, getting rid of stuff, going green, and limiting their space-gobbling possessions in favor of . . . well, space. But also ease of access and storage, preservation, and more. Many of us will always have our shelves of beloved dust-magnet books, but we will likely also have our e-books, e-newspapers, and e-everything we can get.

Is this a bad thing? I don't think it's black and white. In some ways, it is scary, and in other ways it's exciting. One thing that is for darn sure is that authors and publishers and their partners in crime are going to have to figure out a new model for making a living. And by that, I mean, we are going to have to look at new ways to make sure we can earn enough to survive while still producing quality literature, (as opposed to the idea of getting jobs sacking groceries). I'm talking about new sales models and royalty structures and e-book pricing and so on. If you want good books to keep coming, we are all going to have to consider the price and the value of them. The medium is probably inevitable and indisputable—we're talking E. But in the meantime, if you still want physical books, I say buy them while you can! And buy as many as you can. Treasure them. Like precious, soon-to-be-ancient scrolls, which they will no doubt rapidly become.

Books are going interactive. You can already see evidence of that. The media will likely continue to hybridize with film, music, photography, research tools, and more. This part is really exciting to me. And like movies after the advent of videotape and DVDs, like the traditional music business after Nabster and iTunes, I do believe the publishing world can reinvent itself. I do, and I'm on board for that. I think it could make for some really interesting developments. It's a brave new world.

But, at the same time, I cannot help but look around at the shambles of the old one—the boneyard of what once was. The Rocky Mountain News and countless other newspapers have gone under. Author friends I know and love have had their contracts cut, despite producing excellent work. So many wonderful booksellers are losing their life's work and sole means of support as they close their doors and watch their dreams dissipate into ashes. Reduced tours, decreased advances, review coverage cut, well-qualified, established reviewers being replaced by amateurs with no critical training. And don't get me started on self-published books. Not that some of them aren't exceptions, but... I'm talking industry-wide ramifications here.

So back to that film, THE BOOK OF ELI. If you haven't seen it, do. And consider the role of one man determined to save a book from annihilation. Now, I'm not asking you to trudge through a dangerous landscape with a six-shooter, no water and a broken-down iPod. But if you love books, buy the authors you love and show your support—in whatever form you choose to buy them. It's really in your hands what happens next. Welcome to the boneyard.

3:51 pm mst          Comments


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