Friday, April 10, 2009

Recession Era Publishing - How Will We Read?

So we're in a recession, some indie bookstores have closed their doors, the chain bookstores are in trouble (Borders!), publishers are laying off staff and books are selling in different ways everywhere you look.

The publishing industry is changing fast. A friend of mine recently asked me "How come I keep choosing careers that quickly go obsolete?" It's a question a lot of newspaper and magazine writers are asking (perhaps publishers as well).

Anyway, so I help run a small nonfiction book imprint, and right now, in the height of this economic uncertainty ruling the market, it's a difficult time to consider acquiring new projects. But we continue searching for the next important book with hope twinkling in our eyes, and an ever-present, somewhat snarky, cost-cutting attitude.

On blogs here and there, writers and agents seem to bemoan this publisher or that, complaining about their lack of vision, their cheap lowball offers or the way they try to stick it to the writer or agent by rejecting all their projects outright. But these days, and I think we all know it, publishers are just trying to be wise and keep their companies in business.

Most publishers and editors are looking at the market with a very conservative view of the future, hoping for the best, but often planning for the worst. Of course, in our line we have delayed a few of our riskier releases, and we've tried to bring our total release count down to a reasonable level, all the while budgeting for recession and hoping for everything to stabilize. But I still walk into work every morning hoping to find the next amazing book, the next dynamite book idea, author or written voice in the new manuscripts sitting on my desk.

If there's one thing I know, it is this:

While the future of publishing will look vastly different than it looks today, people will always want to read books, in some form. The greatest ideas in the history of the world, the ideas that have transformed countries and have grown into world-changing movements traveled the globe via books. And whether those books were hand-scrawled on parchment or blitzed across a screen and RSS fed to the world via blog or podcast, it doesn't seem to matter all that much. We will always use words, and books in some form, to communicate new ideas, to fuel new moves of humanity, and to communicate to the masses. The formats will change. The revenues models will evolve. But we'll always need words to communicate our ideas.

And don't get me started on stories. We will always need story to tell those next to us on the journey just how we see the world, and for those who come after us to learn about what mattered in our time.

But despite all these lofty thoughts, I go into work in the morning and think about how blogs, digital books, e-books, e-readers, cell phone book apps, serially-podcasted novels, Kindle readers and books in a format that do not exist yet, will change our business and our art form.

I contend, at least for today, that we will forever want to read books in a physical form of some kind, while books in other digital and hand held formats will certainly flourish. I believe that books will grow and reach new audiences through dozens of new channels, and this to me, can only be a good thing.

I do not believe that physically bound books will disappear, but do you agree? In the future, how do you want your books? How do you want to read?


beth♥ said...

Digital reading options are awesome. They have their place. But, for me, I need pages. Touch. Smell. Real books possess a magic that a portable electronic device or audio-books can not match.

PS - Loving the new look ... especially the castle.

Eärwen said...

Exactly! That's how I feel.
Books will always be around, even though the world is going crazy!

Robert Treskillard said...

Alex, I wrote my answer to you over at my blog ... too much for a comment.

Thanks for inciting my brain to whirl.

Alexander Field said...

Beth & Earwen, I couldn't agree more. I would love to have the freedom of both formats, the printed paper when I want it (which is most of the time), and the digital book on my laptop, kindle or phone. I think the future will look both ways.

Robert, I'm heading over to check it out, thanks for continuing the discussion! : )

Keanan Brand said...

I opt for a peaceful coexistence: digital and printed. A bound book requires no electricity or fancy gadgetry, and can be read just about anywhere. Digital books require costly stuff in order to view them, and can be hard on the eyes, though I understand newer tech is reducing the eye strain.

Must we have only one kind of book or the other? After all, we have a variety of sizes and shapes and types of bound books: trade paperbacks, pocket-size paperbacks and hardbacks, hefty hardbounds, library bindings, and so on.

Has anyone ever posited the idea that we will only have paperback books in the future? Despite costs, many readers still prefer hardbound. (I do.)

In the magazine world, I read as many print mags as online ones. I enjoy the ability to move from one to the other.

Just my two cents.
Though I totally understand the need for rearrangements in the publishing industry, a variety of options is vital, I believe, in order to reach the greatest number of readers / customers.

Jadesmith said...

Hi! Thanks for your comment on my review. Though I don't blog very often, it's nice to hear from other writers! Now that I've "met" you, I'll have to check out your advice: this article was interesting.
Like my friend Keanan, I prefer hardbound books, since paper copies have a short life. I think it's sad that so many books have boring cover art now, as opposed to the 60's-80's. Now they just slap a photo on it, and a title.

Pamela Terry and Edward said...

Greetings and thanks for the visit over at my place. I have been enjoying my perusal here and I find that you are pondering some of the same issues as I. I mourn the loss of my favourite book stores, and for me, the joy of feeling the weight of a book in my hands could never be replaced. That first crack open to smell the pages? Unmatched.

I send you my wish for a lovely Easter. Full of joy and chocolate! I shall return, and hope to see you again soon!

David Leach said...

Excellent insights. However, you make one assumption that most book people believe and I think is inaccurate: "people will always want to read books, in some form." The more accurate way to say state this is: "SOME people will always want to read..." Right now, it's only "some." 40% of American adults Can't Read above the 8th grade level (half of them can't read above 3rd grade). Then there are the Won't Readers and Will Readers if required to for work or school--leaving only the Want-To Readers who are the same "people" publishers have been appealing to for years. Unfortunately for us book people, the number of people who can and want to read is decreasing--drastically--every year. In this environment, the issue isn't the delivery vehicles of books, it's finding people who will read (and buy)...anything at all. This problem should be Issue One for authors, publishers, and booksellers.

Alexander Field said...

Keanan, I agree man, harmony between printed book and digital book is what I seek! I think in publishing things will reorient (requiring publishers to rethink) for a time, before settling again into a new model in which some sort of equilibrium is reached.

Jadesmith, yeah, I'm not a fan of bad cover art - who is? I suppose the problem is that one man's bad cover is another man's great cover (for the most part)...

Pamela Terry & Edward, happy easter to you as well!

David Leach, hey thanks for coming by. I completely agree that people need to be encouraged to read - the upcoming LA Times Book Festival at UCLA (FREE!) is a great example of this - but at the same time, reading will never disappear, but it will change, it's already changing! Despite the growth of other mediums of consumption (movies, video games!) and the rise of people (in the US) who can't read, I think people elsewhere around the world are probably filling that gap (India, China, Europe). Here's my take on that: The fewer people there are here in the US who can read, the less relevant, competitive and influential we are in the world overall...

etwriter said...

Hi Alexander,

A great post! Digital methods of reading and publishing have been on the horizon for years. I expect they'll continue to grow, but I'm with you -- paper will be dominant for the forseeable future. Overall, it's just too cheap, convenient and portable to be replaced en masse by the digital formats, especially for work that doesn't need frequent updates.

Case in point -- when I was in I.T., the closest I got to a real specialty was document management systems. Think "paperless office." Well, circumstances often conspired to make me the go-to guy for printer support! Yes, people had all of their documents on-line, but still wanted them printed for various reasons.

The Kindle is a needed step in the right direction, but I don't expect paper to go away any time soon.

Alexander Field said...

I don't either etwriter, I don't either. I just heard about a tech geek talking during an interview, in which he said he still read his NY Times newspaper with his coffee every morning, rather than get the digital version on his Kindle. Force of habit? Simple preference? We shall soon see...