Monday, September 05, 2011

It's the end of the world as we know it (soon)

I was looking for an article I read recently about how the mass market format is dying, and instead I came across this rather depressing article, "Are books dead, and can authors survive?"

The author claims, due to the digital revolution, that the paper book will most definitely disappear in 25 years time, and he also claims that this will mean that "writing, as a profession, will cease to exist."


As rather damning evidence, he outlines the demise of many other industries, including porn, music, home videos, photography, newspapers, and more, mainly due to technological changes, free content, and piracy.

He also talked about the "long tail", a term I hadn't heard before, although the description is familiar. (The article links to this lecture for an explanation of what long tail means.):

In simple terms, the long tail derives its name from graphs of sales against number of products. Whereas throughout the 20th century publishers concentrated on selling only a few heavily promoted "hits" or "bestsellers" in bulk, digital shopping has meant that what was originally a tail-off in sales, has now become increasingly profitable. Rather than selling, say, 13m copies of one Harry Potter book, a long tail provider can make the same profits by selling 13m different "obscure", "failed'" and "niche" books.

The long tail is Amazon and iTunes, Netflix, LoveFilm and eBay. It is, arguably, between 40% to 60% of the market, which was hidden and/or simply unavailable before the advent of online shopping.

As more consumers come online and chose to select content for themselves, the long tail gets longer. It also starts to demolish the old mainstream system of pre-selection, mass marketing and limited shelf space for "bestsellers". Amazon is a successful long-tail industry: it has forced publishers into selling their books at 60% discount and driven bookshops out of business. As the long tail grows, the mainstream mass market shrinks and becomes more conservative. The long tail has created this effect in all of the other industries that have gone digital.
What this means is that even if the book publishing market is increasing, the money that each individual author makes is probably decreasing. Although, with books having the ability to stay in print indefinitely via Print on Demand and eBooks, maybe this means that authors (and publishers) with deep backlists will continue to be successful. The article does end on a more hopeful note, saying:

There is no simple solution. All that is clear is that for authors and publishers to abandon each other only accelerates the race towards free content.

Authors must respect and demand the work of good editors and support the publishing industry, precisely by resisting the temptation to "go it alone" in the long tail. In return, publishing houses must take the risk on the long term; supporting writers over years and books, it is only then that books of the standard we have seen in the last half-century can continue to come into being.

In a way, this gives me hope for children's publishing in general, because I do feel that we tend to commit to authors in the long term more than our adult counterparts, and children's publishing also relies on backlist sales more than adult publishing.

At any rate, sorry to be such a downer on a Monday.

By the way, here's also that mass market article I mentioned at the beginning: "The Dog-Eared Paperback, Newly Endangered in an E-Book Age."


On a more upbeat note, I leave you with Reese Witherspoon's acceptance of the "Generation Award" at the MTV Movie Awards.

"I just want to say to all the girls out there. I know it's cool to be bad. I get it, but it's also possible to make it in Hollywood without a reality's possible to be a good girl. I'm gonna try to make it cool."

Yes! Let's hear it for the good girls!

Happy Labor Day, all.


Greg Pincus said...

I thought his take was far more reasoned and lacking in scare tactics than many others I've seen. I think, though, that made it resonate more fully with me. I'm not sure I agree with the idea that paper books will disappear or writing as a profession will, but I do think the changes are inevitable and will impact all of us deeply. We'll need to be clever to make a living doing this... but then again, one of the things that's so odd about publishing is that most people on the writing side, at least, aren't paid enough to make a living at it even now. It's hard to find other businesses like that....

Libby Koponen said...

"Most of the 20th century"???? It was only in the 1970s or 1980s, according to a long long article in the NYer, that publishers starting concentrating on the big book. Before that, midlist books and backlists were how most publishers stayed profitable.

The example they gave was that where publishers once would have paid 10 authors $25,000 each, the trend was becoming to instead pay ONE author $250, would that have been the 70s or 80s?

I think the trend away from big books may actually be helpful -- how many authors, after all, get those huge advances? About as many as are in airport bookstores.

And it also may give readers more choice and mean that more really well-written books (which most mass market books are not!) get published. But maybe this is all way too optimistic!

The only thing we really know is that it's all going to be different.

One last thing: after trying to read long books on my ipad, I take back everything I said about that! I do definitely prefer paper!