Author of Southern Stories




Where’s My Book?!

Will books as we know them go the way of the dodo and dinosaur…?

If you follow the headlines these days, you’d not be too far off base to fear that the days of the book as we know it are numbered.  For those of us who are avid readers, we’re led to believe that in just a few short years we’ll be getting our daily dose of information from the screen of some small device on which the “printed” word will magically appear out of the ether like the visual version of a telephone call.  


Although electronic reading devices have been around for years, the release of Amazon.com’s Kindle Book Reader in late 2007 seemed to change the world of reading forever.  Like the vaunted concept of the “paperless office” that accompanied the computer revolution of the 1960s, we’re told these tiny constructions of plastic and silicon will soon relegate knowledge delivered via cellulose and ink to the dustbins of history. 


Or will they?  There is something special about the feel of a “real” book:  the texture, the smell, the sort of friend you can curl up in bed with, or who’s willing to join you for a leisurely soak in the tub.  Water and electronic instruments don’t socialize well together.  So why are they the wave of the future?  The answer—or part of it—may lie in the changes that have taken place in the publishing industry over the last few decades.

If we look back to half a century ago, there were dozens of well established publishers dispersed throughout the United States.  They produced from a few dozen to a few hundred titles a year, the majority of which were only of marginal profitability.  Beginning in the 1970s and increasing with ever more rapid momentum, there was wave after wave of consolidation.  Now, in the second decade of the 21st century, the market is dominated by less than half a dozen large publishing firms, most centered in New York.  The changes were logical.  After all, with increasing market domination came increasing market control and profitability. 


But it was not just the publishers who were consolidating.  The same thing was happening to the book selling side of the equation.  The number of independent bookstores, both large and small, began spiraling downward, unable to compete with the 100,000-plus book inventories of megastores like Barnes & Noble.  Discount merchandisers like Wal-Mart and Costco got into the act, while on-line sales exploded, led by Amazon.com.

Suddenly, books were big business.  The consolidation of production and marketing were accompanied by a wild increase in the number of new titles on the market each year.  From a mere 50 to 60 thousand new books per year in the 1980s, the figures rose to more than a hundred thousand by 1991, to more than a quarter million in 2001, and today more than half a million new titles per year.  In case you want to do the math, that’s close to 1,500 new books every day.


Judging from these statistics alone, you’d think America was a nation of readers, hungrily gobbling up new literary and scientific works as fast as the industry could churn them out.  Not so!  Americans are reading far less now than at any point in our nation’s history.  This was well documented in a series of reports released over the past decade by the National Endowment for the Arts. It’s not that we’ve become illiterate; it’s more that our attention has been diverted by television and the internet.  The amount the average US household spends on books has fallen significantly.  Reading for pleasure is the exception rather than the rule, especially in younger age groups.

Given these trends, plus the recent economic downturn that began in late 2007, it is not surprising that the industry that acquires, distributes and markets books is suffering financially.  Publishers and booksellers are constantly searching for the next profitable wave, The DaVinci Code or Harry Potter du jour, something guaranteed to sell.  Consolidation and mass-marketing has led to rise of the “branded author,” whose works may or may not be of great literary merit, but generate much needed income. 


Take, for example, the prolific James Patterson, well-known writer of thrillers.  Assisted by a stable of co-authors who seem to do much of the actual writing, he turned out 9 novels in 2009 and will publish at least that many in 2010.  In fact, according to The New York Times, since 2006 one out of every 17 hardcover novels bought in the United States was “written” by James Patterson.  And if an author is successful, publishers evidently feel that the mere fact of his death should not deter his continued literary output.  Robert Ludlum and Lawrence Sanders, both best-selling authors in life, have apparently continued to produce books long after their physical deaths.  Only a close inspection of the fine print reveals such works were written by living “co-authors.”
Despite this, publishers and major booksellers alike have continued to suffer financially.  The system that has served them (and readers) so well for more than a century is increasingly less profitable.  It is both labor and resource intensive and subject to the whims of an American public that is reading fewer and fewer books.  The concept of an electronic reader raises the potential of financial salvation.

Think of the conventional way books are acquired and published.  There is a long chain of individuals and institutions that must be paid.  These include the author, his or her agent, the editors, copyreaders, publicity agents and executives of the publisher, the printer, the warehouse and its employees, the distributors, the freight companies, and the booksellers whose gross profit is 40 to 50% of the final retail price.  The physical logistics of printing, storing, and shipping the books is a major cost factor in itself.


Compare this with the cost of producing and distributing an e-book.  The work never need really exist in physical form.  All editing, correcting, “typesetting,” marketing and distribution can be done via computer and the internet.  The costs of printing, storage and distribution disappear, and in fact, the entire process could be achieved without a physical office.  With decreased fixed costs profit theoretically should soar, yielding more income for the author and publisher alike.  Booksellers, who risk being cut out as middlemen, have responded vigorously, with Barnes & Noble’s Nook e-reader being one example.

For readers, the move to electronic books can be a positive one.  New releases are generally sold at a price that is less than half of the hardcover version.  And many out-of-print works have been resurrected in electronic form, opening new access to otherwise unobtainable books.  It is estimated that nearly 3 million books either are or will soon be available via the internet and/or on e-readers.


So, where are we going?  What will be the fate of the printed book?  Is the trend toward electronic books good or bad?  The answer is, no one knows.  But let me make some predictions:  First, books will not disappear.  There are some works that remain the same no matter how they are delivered.  Consider a mystery novel.  It matters not if it is read on paper, on a screen or even listened to from a recording.  It is simply a story, and how it is delivered to the reader is a matter of personal preference.  On the other hand, there are works that by necessity must keep their current form.  Take heavily illustrated books for example, particularly those that require a large format as in the classical “coffee table” book.  Or books that are read and consulted often, such as instruction manuals, or inspirational works.  They will likely remain the same.
Second, the trend is a positive one for many reasons.  Imagine all of mankind’s written knowledge available on a handheld device.  It’s a dream, but one that is rapidly coming true.   The decreased cost and ease of delivery opens up a vast opportunity for education not only in this country but throughout the world.   And for college students who often spend hundreds of dollars per semester on books they need for only a few months, the possibility of “renting” books from a sort of low-cost virtual library holds great promise.  One unexpected positive result is that sellers of e-books have observed that readers seem to be downloading more virtual books than they formerly purchased in print form.  Perhaps it is the novelty of the medium, but it may be a trend.


Thirdly, there is the democratization of authorship.  At the present time, the large publishers control with an iron fist what gets published and what doesn’t.   In the world of print, profitable and prolific writers like Patterson are favored over works with less mass-market appeal.  With e-publishing, however, anyone with a computer and an internet connection has the potential to become an author whose work is available to millions of readers worldwide.  Whether or not it will be read is another matter, but the opportunity is there. 

I predict that within a decade the cutting-edge e-readers of today like the Kindle, the Nook and the iPad will be considered technologic wooly mammoths:  large, slow and extinct.  We will have lightweight reading devices that seamlessly integrate text, graphics and video to make the experience of literary reading a positive one capable of competing with movies and the internet.  I predict that such devices will be standard issue in schools, supplementing or perhaps even supplanting laptop computers in many learning situations.  I predict that the price of both machine and “book” will fall to reasonable levels, opening up both literature and knowledge to those who otherwise might not be able to afford it.  Most importantly, however, I predict that books and bookstores will continue as we know them for many, many decades, augmented rather than supplanted by the e-book.  In this brave, new world, Brave New World will be rediscovered, perhaps leading to a new age of literacy.  Who knows?


This Article appeared in a 2010 issue of Splash magazine.