Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Are Books An Endangered Species?

By: Michael Levin
Author Michael Levin
The publishing world gathers next week in Manhattan at BookExpo America, its annual trade show, but the one subject attendees won’t be discussing is the coming collapse of publishing and the inevitable disappearance of books.

It’s not just that books are going to Kindles and iPads.  It’s that books are going away, and the publishers have no one but themselves to blame.

The traditional New York publishing business model—publish a ton of books, fail to market most of them, and hope that somebody buys something—worked well when publishers had a hammerlock on the distribution and marketing of books.  Publishers essentially faced no competition and enjoyed complete control of what books people could publish and sell. 

In today’s world, however, anyone from John Grisham to John Doe can put up a book online with Smashwords, Lulu, or Kindle Direct, and bypass publishers—and bookstores—all together.  Authors can use Google AdWords or social networking strategies to market their books far more effectively than publishers ever could.  So who needs New York?

Yes, Kindle and iPad are game-changers.  When you read books on a device, a few things change.  You’re moving into an environment where you typically don’t pay for content—almost everything online is free.  So publishers won’t be able to charge $10 or $12 for an entire book when people only want a chapter’s worth of information.  So much for ebooks as a revenue stream for the publishing houses.

Publishers can also blame Amazon for the collapse of their industry.  When you went into a bookstore, you typically browsed and bought a handful of books, each from a different department.   Amazon killed browsing.  You go on, you find the book you wanted, you pay, and you leave.  So instead of buying five books, you buy just one.  

But the real reason why books are going to vanish is the remarkably un-businesslike business model of the publishers.  Think of General Motors—decades of inefficiency, but without the federal bailouts. 

In no other industry do producers actually wait passively to see what products are suggested to them, instead of doing market research to see what people really want to buy.  Yet publishers seldom generate book ideas; instead they wait for literary agents to submit proposals.  Houses decide which book to publish based on little more than a gut feeling that says, “I think we can make money selling this!”

Yet the books that publishers choose are almost entirely of zero interest to actual bookbuyers.  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 clichés, 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.

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.  Especially in the Internet era, you can’t make money putting books on trucks and hoping someone buys them.

At BEA 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.

Michael Levin is an eight-time best-selling author, a former member of the Authors Guild Council, and a prolific and highly admired business writer (  He has written with Baseball Hall of Famer Dave Winfield, football broadcasting legend Pat Summerall, FBI undercover agent Joaquin Garcia, and E-Myth creator Michael Gerber.  He has written for the New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, CBS News, the Boston Globe, the Los Angeles Times, and many other top outlets.

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