How would you save the book biz?

We’ve all heard the horror stories over the last couple of years about the end of publishing and books basically becoming obsolete and going the way of the VHS tape.

Those of us who work in publishing do our part to help keep the business afloat. Writers by writing, where it all begins; agents by selling writers’ works; publishers by publishing and getting the books to the consumer. We work hard, despite the changing landscape and gloom and doom mantras, to get our books into the marketplace, especially those hard-to-sell titles that fall into the “labor of love” category, of which I can list my fair share from over the years.

Now bestselling author Ann Patchett has made the front page of the New York Times (rare for a publishing story at all, and a positive one at that) talking about opening an independent bookstore in her hometown of Nashville. I loved Ann Patchett before (State of Wonder was definitely one of the best books I read this year) and now I love her even more for using her own time and resources to help give back to her community, and by extension, to the publishing industry.

I can’t think of a quick-fix to transform the biz, but new successful indie stores will help, and as Patchett notes in the piece: “If you like this thing, it’s your responsibility to keep this thing alive.” Meantime, I will be continuing to try and sell books that make a difference in people’s lives, and I will be more mindful of supporting my local bookseller as we approach the holiday season.

If you could do one thing to help save the book business, what would it be?

10 Responses to How would you save the book biz?

  1. Tegan says:

    I’ll keep being an active bookseller at a great indie bookstore! I really believe that the experience of buying at an indie has to be enjoyable enough for the customer to want to do it again, and especially to be willing to pay a little more for the pleasure. Every day, I try to connect with customers in a meaningful way, sharing my enthusiasm, listening to their needs and wants, and giving extra value however I can (by hosting book fairs for the school, giving away autographed posters, providing book club advice, recommending gifts for reluctant readers, etc. etc.). Hopefully my enthusiasm can help keep people excited about books and maybe bring some new bibliophiles into the fold.
    In comments about the NYT article, some people said they browse in real stores then buy online because they need the discounts. They don’t realize that Amazon’s pricing on books is unsustainable; uses books as a loss-leader. I recommend that if people buy an item online through a web-only store, they use the carbon-neutral model to make things better in their community: offset your online purchase with a local store purchase next time you buy. (Gift certificates are a great idea!) It’s not all-or-nothing, and I think indies, online retailers, and big box stores can share readers’ valued money. But if readers still want to have the option of visiting cozy spaces staffed by devoted readers, if they still want bookstores that can host free events with authors they admire, they need to choose to spend some of their book-buying dollars in the actual places they enjoy.

  2. Dale Basye says:

    I would start probably with some stretches and maybe a light, protein-rich meal. Then I would change the name of the “book business” to “the story business.” By freeing books from their pulp-based delivery vehicle, then perhaps we can all think of the best ways for these stories—fictional, true, graphic, young, mature, instructive, diverting—to be shared with the (paying) public.

    I saw Star Wars in the theater, then bought it on VHS, then on DVD, converted the DVD to a VLC-friendly file, and will probably see it again in theaters when it arrives in its 3-D format. It was a story that engaged me, and the delivery vehicle meant nothing to me. Even the soundtrack on vinyl and a tape cassette of the audio that I made proved entertaining and diverting as a teen. A book is the same thing. It’s about the story…what’s right for that story and how the reader wants to interact with it. After all, a story exists in the relationship between writer and reader, so it’s a dance…and it’s up to us to lead, right?

    Luckily we have the disaster of the music industry to act as a “what not to do” example in these puzzling, transitional times. Hopefully we’ll figure it out soon as I hate to see my books in pirated, torrent form (though, is this much different than a library book? One person bought it and many more can now enjoy it for free).

    Whatever we do, we have to be champions of the story so that the readers truly appreciate its worth. If we fumble on this, others who have less invested in the story will come up with the way to best present it to the world, and readers will become accustomed to paying little or nothing for a story, and will come to expect to pay nothing, rendering something as priceless as a story as literally priceless. Then we story-tellers won’t be able to afford to tell stories and everything will suck.

    • Donn says:

      Exactly what I would say.

      The horse-drawn buggy industry isn’t worth worrying about. The transport industry on the other hand…

  3. Stephany Mae Robinson says:

    I am intrigued by the question. Although I’m only publised in newspaper form & online, I really wish the book/story business would get a makeover. The change would need to be a huge campaign to get the attention of parents, teachers, celebrities and the publishing world. I wish books would automatically come with a downloadable version or link and that people would stop E-publishing great stories. If a story is solid enough to be published, then it should always start in a beautiful hardback vessel. I think it’s sad when a good story becomes something on clearance for less than 50 cents online. This is part of what’s wrong with America. We spend hundreds on plasma TVs, cellphones and cars, but only can spare pocket change for a downloadable or paperback book. Maybe someone could include a hardback book with the sale of each TV or cellphone (& mark up the item)? Or maybe people in the world will stop obsessing about TV or stupid You Tube videos and read a classic instead. Honestly, I don’t see this happening. We need to start a movement and we need someone passionate to lead the way. Any takers? The destruction of TVs may be necessary.But all a TV show is doing is telling a story. I guess we need a show devoted to reading, selling and marketing great books. It could be revolutionary.

  4. How to save the publishing industry? One place to start would be to empower editors to acquire their passion projects without getting vetoed by marketing or the accountants. I’d also take accountants out of the decision-making process altogether. A spreadsheet never found a bestseller. A spreadsheet talks you into spending too much to acquire a pale imitation of last year’s bestseller. It’s a poisonous way of thinking and it’s killed too many entertainment industries already.

  5. Hillsy says:

    Kinda on the lines of Dale’s thinking….

    I don’t know about saving it, but certainly a way of avoiding “the race to the bottom” on book pricing could be to effectively ringfence the…oh what’s the phrase…intellectual rights(!!) the author brings to the table. Seems to me that self-pubbing and so on occurs because the author feels his story is undervalued (10% of 10 bucks or 75% of 2). So if there was some way of fixing a price on the inherent value of the authors input, the delivery method would, effectively, be irrelevant. If an author gets one price – say, 2 bucks per copy sold – regardless of the other overheads involved (paper, shipping, advertising, etc etc) then wouldn’t that make the system fairer and Publishers more attractive to the author bacuse of the other cachet of services they bring with it?

    This is the digital age, right? Everything should be dual hard copy and e-copy…music, films, books, newspapers…and the valuation of the CONTENT should be the same across the board….the rest is just numbers in the “costs” column.

  6. Candace says:

    I’m of the opinion that while the demand for a book with a spine is diminishing, it won’t go away. Books and music are two different things and while I can (although I’d prefer not to) live in a town without a music shop, I can’t live in a town without a book store. I need a book that has spine. A Kindle wouldn’t make it through one year of my life. It can’t sink to the bottom of my beach bag where the sand hides in wait for winter. It wouldn’t take kindly to the drops of wine that fall on its face everytime I sneeze with glass in-hand. My 2-year-old son’s boogery fingers would find it. My teenage daughter would drop it. My books have to live with me, and life is messy. I love that my bookshelves upstairs are filled with the worn rainbow of my eclectic taste. I love that my daughter can look at the selection, find the most battered of the bunch and know that it’s one of my favorites, so she might like it too. I hope that she’ll feel this way when she’s my age. If you haven’t seen this video from DK, take a look. It’s full of promise for the younger generation and their thoughts on “The Future of Publishing”

    It would make a nice campaign message, as Stephany said, delivered by celebrities that make an impact.

    • Lance Parkin says:

      There isn’t one ‘book industry’, there are lots of different ones. So there isn’t one problem, so there isn’t one solution.

      For me, a big change is that we now have e-reader sellers who want us to buy hardware and use their stores. For them, ‘content’ to put on those readers needs to be cheap and plentiful, and it doesn’t matter much what the content is or even how much each individual title sells. Which means that the people who make Kindles and iPads are never going to be the authors’ friends. I’ve had an editor flat out tell me that the contents of a book don’t matter, it’s all down to the title and the cover. I can’t put into words just how wrong I think he was as a reader … and how right I think he was as a businessman.

      An author can now make more money from a small publisher who sells a fraction of the books, direct over the internet, but who is invested in that author and gives him a fair cut of revenue and lets them keep the rights to the book. Small presses tend to be more nimble, more focussed.

      That said, when I talk to booksellers and small publishers, they see the big threat as Amazon Marketplace, not ebooks or big publishers.

      And, all that said, I don’t really buy the constant narrative of the book industry that the sky’s already falling in. We live in a time of technological development and changing tastes, and have to navigate those. So did every other author we’ve ever read, so did everyone who ever published or sold books.

  7. Stacey says:

    A big thank you to everyone who commented on last week’s post. Some really terrific, thoughtful, thought-provoking ideas here. I know the book business will prevail, and in this ever changing landscape, it’s people like you who will lead the way.

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