Why books are dying (and it’s not just the Kindle)

In a funny coincidence, a whole pile of books from www.bookdepository.com arrived in my letterbox yesterday, then today I read in the newspaper (yep, paper! Crazy huh?) that the biggest chain of bookstores in Australia, Angus and Robertson, who also own the Australian Borders stores, are being forced to hand over to a corporate recovery firm.

Naturally, they blame the internet. And as someone who rarely buys books in bookstores anymore since they are so much cheaper online, I can see why. Book prices in Australia are driven up by some irresponsible government protectionism over our domestic publishing industry, the fact that overseas purchases are currently GST-free, as well as the usual issues of high salaries and high rental costs for retail properties.

To explain the protectionism, for any new title, if an Australian publishing firm secures publishing rights to it within 30 days, Australian retailers are forced to sell the domestically-produced book and are not allowed to import foreign editions. This forces the prices up firstly because of the small scale of Australia’s industry and secondly because it means that the domestic publishers have no one to compete with besides each other.

On a Global Level

The other internet story, of course, is ebooks. Since Amazon’s Kindle, Borders’ Kobo, Sony’s Ereader and all of their competitors have been becoming increasingly popular and sophisticated, ebook sales have been picking-up. This is also fuelled by Apple’s iPad and the iBook store. Mashable‘s Pete Cashmore writes on CNN that Apple and its competitors (particularly Google) have already defeated the publishing industry. As he points out, publishers are at Apple’s mercy, allowing Apple to charge a 30% fee on every ebook that it sells without the publishers having any say over it at all. The only way Apple could be overcome is if Google’s new One Pass store, which charges 10%, starts out-competing Apple’s.

Reviewing Merchants of Culture: The Publishing Business in the Twenty-First Century by John B. Thompson in the New York Review of Books, Jason Epstein sheds some light on how the publishing industry missed the boat on the digital revolution. He even notes, very humbly, that he originally conceived of the business model that could have saved them, but it was instead taken by other entities:

Books: Onward to the Digital Revolution by Jason Epstein | The New York Review of Books.

In the mid-80s I proposed to my collegues at Random House that we create a direct mail catalogue comprising 40,000 or so backlist titles selected from the list of all publishers, to be ordered by readers over a toll-free number. The internet had not then been commercialised but digitisation was in the wind and disintermediation had become a buzz word. I argued that with retailers increasingly unable to stock our backlist we should now sell our backlist to readers directly. I was, of course, proposing the opportunity that Amazon eventually seized.

…Early in the new century book publishers, confined within their history and outflanked by unencumbered digital innovators, missed yet another critical opportunity, seized once again by Amazon, this time to build their own universal digital catalog, serving e-book users directly and on their own terms while collecting the names, e-mail addresses, and preferences of their customers. This strategic error will have large consequences

Epstein paints a very bleak picture of the publishing industry, chronicling his 52 years as an editor at Random House. He notes how when he began his career, the editors were given free-reign to choose books for literature’s sake, then how this slowly morphed into what we have today. Small, urban booksellers gave way to commercialised chains, which gave way to the Borders, Barnes and Nobles and Dymooks that we see today. The great casualty in this process was the back catalogue, where the increasing commercialisation of the bookshop world, as a result of the increasing number of other forms of entertainment for books to compete with, led to a market dominated by recent bestsellers and a few best-selling authors, at the expense of past greats and smaller writers.

But it’s these competing media that are really the story here. As Chauncey Mabe says in the Open Page blog,

The problem with the way Epstein, Thompson and others analyze the digital revolution is one of perspective. They look at the ways technology is likely to affect books, but the real impact is in the way digital technology is going to alter people.

After all, how many people do you know who actually read whole books anymore? I made a new year’s resolution for 2011 to read at least 1 book every month; so far, I’m failing. There’s just too much other material out there.

Our generation may be the last to read books at school, have textbooks at uni and have to hand-write exams. Bookshelves are becoming decorative and nothing more. I’ve said this to people who reply “but I really like going to bookshops and I like holding something in my hand!” Sure you do, but do you like it enough to pay for the paper, printing, shipping, store rental and staff salaries that let you get there? For most people, probably not. And so ends the book, may it rest in peace.

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  1. #1 by Jakob on February 18, 2011 - 1:45 pm

    Whilst we’re at it, end the eceonomic perks for farmers and can manufacturers.

    • #2 by MK on February 18, 2011 - 1:49 pm

      Protecting the publishers is killing the retailers and if the retailers die, the publishers will soon follow. It’s a bit of a Catch-22 really. And no Australian publishers will be able to take-on Apple and Google.

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