Thursday, May 26, 2011

Are Books an Endangered Species?

Essential reading:

"The books that publishers choose are almost entirely of zero interest to actual book-buyers.  After 9/11, there were a ton of books about 9/11, which nobody bought.  Same thing with the Iraq War, the rise of Obama, the economic meltdown, and even, inexplicably, the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.  Or the books are rehashed business lessons, religious truths, sports clich├ęs, motivational babble, exercise fads, weight loss techniques, or pandering to the political left or the right.  Who wants these books?  Almost no one.

Most of the major publishers today are owned by international conglomerates who, at some point, will awaken to the realization that English majors in their employ are spending millions of dollars on books that no one wants to read.  [For "English majors" I'd substitute "demographic marketers," but that's a minor point]

As a result, few trade books earn real money for the publisher (and certainly not for the author!).  That’s because the publisher bears the entire risk of buying, editing, printing, and shipping copies of the book to bookstores all over the country on a 100% returnable basis.  If your local Barnes & Noble doesn’t sell a particular book, it goes right back to the publisher, at the publisher’s shipping cost, for a full refund.  [Again, not quite: it goes right back to the publisher for a partial credit against future purchases.  But the "key takeaway" here is that much of the publisher's and retailer's profit ends up in the hands of the shippers who move the huge quantities of heavy books no one wants back and forth across the country]  Especially in the Internet era, you can’t make money putting books on trucks and hoping someone buys them.

At [Book Expo America] next week, the attendees will solemnly discuss the latest trends, discuss how to get 70-year-old authors to use Twitter, and generally party like it’s 1989.  But for traditional publishing, the party’s over.   They just don’t want to realize that it’s time to turn out the lights."

[Also pertinent: a recent conversation with my old nemesis, Penguin Canada.  We ordered a travel guide for a client who was heading to India on short notice.  Penguin, after the usual 10 to 14 day wait, shipped an entirely different book, and I called to complain on behalf of my client, who was getting on a plane in two days and was understandably pissed:

PFB [after relaying the whole sordid tale]:  What should I tell my client?

PENGUIN CANADA:  Tell her these things happen.

We sourced the guidebook elsewhere, and the client boarded her plane book in hand.  But the strong impression I took away from my telephone conversation was that, as with any monopoly, Penguin really felt that the client and I had no other option other than to wait for Penguin to fix the problem it had created in its own sweet time.  This is an attitude that belongs to 1965, not 2011, and these days I feel more and more like a small, warm-blooded mammal running around the towering, but clearly unhealthy feet of such dinosaurs as Penguin and Random House and the Hachette Book Group]

Friday, May 13, 2011


We just bought the best collection in the shop's history.  If you don't come in every week, this weekend might be a good time for a visit.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Electronic Publishing Bingo

(via John Scalzi)