There is no doubt in anyone’s mind in the publishing/book industry that the increasing popularity of e-books and e-readers is affecting that industry. The publishing industry has over time developed into a very grounded industry. How it has functioned doesn’t appear to have changed much over time, other than tweaks as culture changed. That appears to have left it ill prepared for the massive changes occurring in how people read.
At the 2011 Los Angeles Times Festival of Books panel session “Publishing in the 21st Century,” representatives from a wide variety of publishing houses discussed how this phenomenon is changing the industry. They said there have been a lot of changes just in the last two years. The biggest challenge they face is adapting to new technology and the previously unheard of tectonic shifts in methodology that are occurring.
Interestingly enough, the panel said the industry hadn’t thought e-books would catch on very quickly. They also thought e-readers would be used only for non-fiction. They were shocked when “disposable” fiction became a huge e-book explosion. Those of us in the audience were surprised by that. I had to wonder if that was an indication that the industry is a bit more out of touch with consumers than I thought.
The panel members all agreed there has been a tangible fear in the publishing industry that the e-book/e-reader phenomenon will cause storytelling to stop. The truth is people who buy e-readers read even more books (as e-books) than they did before because it’s so easy and convenient. The problem is often finding new books your friends may not know about – expanding your book reading horizons.
Sara Nelson, Book Director for the OWN Network, said in the panel session that the number of bookstores has decreased from 20,000 twenty years ago to 2,000 two years ago. That means one of the publishers’ largest challenges is getting books in front of people’s eyes so people know a book exists. They believe new voices of authority are needed as well as new creative and organic methods for making books known. Book review bloggers, social media, NPR, and other sources were named as ways to let people know great books and new authors exist.
According to a New York Times article, one result of the e-book phenomenon is that publishers are not waiting a year to release less expensive paperback books for all but their biggest selling hardcover books. “’I really do think that e-books are part of the reason for this trend of hurrying up that paperback,’ said Carrie Kania, the publisher of Harper Perennial and It Books. ‘You don’t have to wait for a lower-priced version of that book now. I think we need to move more quickly in general.’” An example of a novel which has not been issued as a paperback in the U.S. is Stieg Larsson’s The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest.
Along those lines: One of the things I’ve noticed is that certain new release e-book novel prices have been creeping up in the last three to six months, especially if they are pre-ordered. There is a price level at which I weigh whether to get a hardcover novel vs. an e-book. I have to perceive enough of a financial incentive in buying an e-book to choose it over a hardcover. Here’s a Publishers Weekly article on determining e-book pricing showing that it’s still a work in progress for the industry.
Distribution methods for books have changed over time. A lot of publishers see the e-book/e-reader phenomenon as just another distribution method change to which they will adapt. The books are the same – the difference is how they are delivered to the public. As someone on the publishing panel said, “Publishing needs to evolve as culture evolves. Printing books in Asia and shipping them on a slow boat from China is out of phase with the times.”
Even so, panel members agreed physical books are needed as well as e-books, if for no other reason than to create a record of knowledge and ideas over time. The digital world evolves so quickly that it will be tough to keep those records historically over long periods if there are no physical books.
So, all of this is well and good but how well are publishers doing? After all, the bottom line is what determines whether they stay in business. Publisher profits for 2011 appear to have been affected by the Borders bankruptcy more than anything else. Here are two articles as a sampling of different publishers: Penguin and Harlequin. As you can see, the failure of a bookseller as huge as Borders has ripple effects across the publishing industry. Both publishers were adversely affected but have taken steps to improve for the 2nd half of 2011. Penguin reported their Borders loss was partially offset by their e-book sales, which means they’ve made some nimble decisions on the digital publishing front. Harlequin has worked to broaden its appeal to more readers and to get a stronger toehold on the digital market, so they should see gains in those areas as well.
A lot of newer publishers see this shake up in the publishing industry as something new and exciting. This is a great time to be a small independent publisher who’s able to move more nimbly as the digital world evolves. As a result, more authors of stature are coming to smaller publishers.
The bottom line seems to be, as with so many things, that the publishers who remain entrenched in how publishing should look and how things should be done will not be nimble enough to succeed long-term. Why? Because the digital world requires that any company be able to turn around on a dime to adjust to and succeed in new technology as it is developed – and it is often developed at lightning speed. I believe a lot of publishers thankfully have already recognized this at some level, hopefully to the extent that they will emerge relatively unscathed. The LA Times Festival of Books publisher panel was correct though – in the digital publishing game, the race will likely go to the smaller publisher and large companies with small, relatively autonomous imprints/divisions because smaller companies are far better able to move quickly to take advantage of rapid changes.
Past Articles in This Series (Click on the title to go to that article):
Intro and E-Reader Comparison
Monday, July 11
E-Books vs. Hard-Copy Books
Monday, July 18
Effect on Brick-and-Mortar Booksellers
Monday, July 25
Effect on Libraries
Monday, August 1
Future Articles in This Series:
Monday, August 15:
The Effect on Authors
Monday, August 22:
The Effect on the Environment