Sometimes—but not often enough—I attend a conference that really gets me thinking. That’s what happened earlier this month when I attended Digital Book World in Manhattan.
In session after session, the elephant remained in the room. Fundamentally, books are physical objects, sometimes treasured, certainly thought to be more valuable than other forms of mass merchandise because they contain ideas intended to linger in the home or office for many years, and, perhaps, a lifetime. In this regard, the physical books that we buy at a local independent bookstore, or from a bricks-and-mortar Barnes & Noble store, or from Amazon, are vastly different from the pillows that we buy from the Bed, Bath and Beyond. We associate books with stories, characters, important events, the people who recommended particular volumes, the rainy afternoon spent reading, and so on.
At the same time, books filled with text are easily digitized, and, unlike most merchandise, they can be delivered almost instantly to any connected device. These devices also serve as a reader. So books are suitable for digital distribution as files. As technology advances, books with pictures pose no less of a technology challenge. As evidenced by speakers at this particular conference, some publishers, authors and producers are attempting to transform some aspects of some books into interactive and social media.
More or less, traditional book publishing follows rules. The book is written by an author who receives either a flat fee or the promise of royalties based upon the number of books sold (some authors also receive an advance against royalties, which is a measure of the publisher’s commitment to the project). The publisher’s staff chooses its titles and authors with care, then assigns expert copy editors and other staff to the process of moving manuscript to printed book. Various marketing, distribution, warehousing, logistics and trucking companies make the business go. Physical bookstores sell books, and so do digital bookstores. Maybe 2/3 of Americans buy books, but most buy fewer than five books per year.
With digital publishing, the rules don’t apply—and for so many reasons. For example, publishers need not limit the number of titles they publish for any practical reason—there is no scarcity of shelf space. (They may limit releases due to marketing considerations, but that’s another story altogether.) Of course, bookstores are helpful parts of the marketing and distribution system, but they are no longer mandatory—Amazon ships just about any book, next day.
Still, the roadmap is fragmented. Healthy experimentation seems like the best thing to do. And so, there’s a working session at the Digital Book Conference about book trailers (kind of like movie trailers, but they’re selling books), and another about whether HTML5 is the magic bullet that will ease book production burdens, and another about subscriptions for eBooks (like Netflix: all you can read for about $100 per year, sometimes less). Maybe the solution is a game format—to engage readers who already love the characters. Maybe it’s all about brands—that’s been the key to success in so many genres, including mystery, romance, young adult, etc. No, the answer isn’t traditional at all. Instead, the focus ought to be on search engine optimization and digital means of discovery—people will find books the same way they find out about other things, on Google! Maybe authors don’t need publishers as much as they did in the past: think about indie bands and their schism with record labels. Certainly, data analysis is the key to growth—if you know who your customers are (exceedingly difficult with individual buyers of books on paper, far more practical if the merchandise is digital). Is it unreasonable for Amazon and Apple to control the digital business by essentially duopolizing both the players and the file formats? Should there be another open format and should that format be supported by an industry that promises to thrive on independence? Maybe global thinking is the key—publish for a worldwide audience because there are so many more people outside the U.S. than inside it.
What are the answers? Gosh! There are no clear answers. Not only is every reader and every bookstore unique, every book is unique, too. The first book by a new author could be a blockbuster and the followup could be a dud. An author who makes his mark on YouTube or Kindle could become the next transmedia sensation. An Young Adult book could (and often does) become a hit among older readers. Just as hipsters rediscovered vinyl records, they might continue to propel indie bookstores as the next big thing (though readers 18-30 are notoriously challenging customers).
What do I love about this discussion? Just about everything. There’s the intrigue of large vs. small companies, comfortable analog behaviors that stubbornly won’t go away, the big bad Amazon that’s “destroying” the book business as those of us who complain love the deep discounts and free shipping, the inevitability of the end of the bookstore that’s been inevitable for as long as anyone can remember. The fact that I am writing about books on a computer’s screen so you can read about books on an iPad—without spilling any ink at all. It’s screwy, it’s fun, it’s a business that can and does move in a hundred directions at once. And that’s why I find this industry, in some ways, even more interesting that television, software, or the other dozen industries I deal with every day.