Saturday, January 30, 2010

A more perfect gift?

In my last post, I said that books were the perfect gift. Judging from my sales, evidently Amazon Kindles were a popular gift as well. A year ago, barely 10% of my total sales were e-books. Kindle sales now average 21.6% overall, with a whopping 42% so far in January. Wow. Evidently, readers are loading up their new Kindles and depleting their gift cards. Combine these numbers with the introduction of the Barnes and Noble's Nook and the Apple Tablet, and one has to question the direction of book publishing.

I'm not one of those who predict the demise of the printed book. I'm a Kindle owner and love having my entire library at my fingertips, but I still prefer to read many publications in print. In fact, I subscribe to the Wall Street Journal on my Kindle—which is handy because I travel a lot—but I read the paper version when a hotel offers a free copy.

That said, e-books are a tsunami hitting the publishing industry. And tsunamis do their most damage when they recede, sucking everything away from the landscape. Publishing is older and more staid bound than the music industry, and will have more difficulty adjusting their business model. But adjust they will, and after this wave has receded, the major publishers will remain the dominate power driving popular books.

Traditional publishers provide four services. They act as quality gatekeepers, edit and design books, print them, and do large scale promotion. Although all the services are affected, an e-book only eliminates printing. Publishers still represent an arbitrator of market-worthy material, but e-book readers are giving increasing credence to customer reviews. At the present stage of technology, e-books have reduced the value of book design, but that will change with future generations of e-readers.

That leaves book promotion, which remains fundamentally untouched. Here, the almighty power of the traditional publisher remains intact and bestsellers will continue to be the domain of the large houses. Nationwide and global sales require hitting the market right, eye-catching design, and media clout. (Sounds more like an ad agency, doesn't it.)

Paper-based books won't go away, but print runs will become shorter, which means the unit cost will be higher. If this analysis is correct, publishers will probably whittle down their backlist and much of their mid-list. Publishers only gave these authors puny advances and zero promotion anyway, so this won't hurt too much. Besides, the growth in e-books gives authors an easy to reach, low-cost market. I just hope these self-published authors remember to buy editing and proofreading. Just because it starts with a lower case e, doesn't mean e-books can be as sloppy as email.