Sunday, February 28, 2010

Bookstores: Drive-thru or Drive-by?

Okay, book sales are up (4.1 percent last year, according to publishers), Barnes & Noble sales are down 2 to 4 percent, ebook markets will grow nearly 50 percent next year, and ebooks will be about 20 percent of the book market by 2015.

Numbers tend to get thrown around to suit whomever is doing the flinging--if you want to scare people into supporting their local bookstores, you tell them bookstores are in trouble, but this may or may not motivate them. I don't expect a "pity party" will sustain any business for long, and if those customers were in the habit of supporting the business, it wouldn't have been in trouble in the first place.

If you want to say bookstores are in trouble because everybody's staying at home and ordering ebooks, the data doesn't really support that yet, as ebooks are between 1 and 3 percent of the book market right now.

If you want to say publishers are adjusting despite the trouble bookstores are in, maybe the truth is in there somewhere. Paper has to be shipped, whether from Amazon to the front door or from a distributor to the store shelves, and you still have to drive to the bookstore, and you still have time invested.

There is an emotional and sometimes-hostile discussion on author Charles Stross' blog about the fate of publishing, the real cost of books, and consumer impact on the industry, among other things. I had nothing to add but, on getting some reflection, Charles seems adamant that a publisher adds 50 percent of the book's value by doing 50 percent of the production work (with the author doing the other 50 percent). He seems fine with the other workers deriving income from his creativity and their skills. That's a worthy model, but he continually downplays ebooks and believes, even with cheaper "distribution," those production costs will still be there. He also admits he hates Amazon and is doing well with his paper sales, so those factors color his opinion, too.

As with many authors deeply invested in the current model (and you can read their blogs all over the place; simply google "Amazon vs. Macmillan"), they are presenting information from their unique perspective--that is, as people whose work goes through the modern production process and has many hands involved. As someone who has created ebooks and done almost everything the producers do (except for cover art--tip of the hat to Neil Jackson of Ghostwriter), then I understand the real time invested in the work. I couldn't do an ebook if I had to pay an employee an hourly wage, much less offering a full-time job with benefits.

But the time I invest now is a long-term investment, with royalties hopefully accruing over many years. The single-most-common missing ingredient in these authors' defense of the status quo is that they fail to calculate the long-term income of an ebook versus the paper copy that may only be on the store shelves for three months. An ebook has a much longer lifespan in which to recoup production costs. And believe me, it's a trickle, not a stream, and certainly not a flood. Still, a cup dipped in a trickle will hold just as much as that same cup dipped in a flood.

With the help of Steven James Price, I just uploaded a print file of The Red Church at Amazon, so it will be available in trade paperback. But because of printing and shipping costs, to make even a slim profit (about the same I'd make on an ebook sale, in some instances), the book had to be priced at $14.95. I almost feel guilty trying to sell a book for that much, because it's a lot of money to me. I've been enjoying this idea of "working-class fiction," but a $1.99 ebook seems a lot closer to the mark than a book that costs as much as a discounted hardcover bestseller.

Of course, used copies of The Red Church can be bought for a penny (with nearly $4 in shipping costs), so I don't expect to sell many of the new trade paperbacks. Even if a major publisher decided to re-release The Red Church, it would make few store appearances and will still only earn me about a 10 percent royalty. In the economies of scale, it would be foolish for a publisher to take it on, barring some sort of looming Nicholson blockbuster that isn't on the map yet. (Well, I think that one is coming, but it might not be under the "Nicholson" name).

But for my economic scale, it is foolish not to publish it. So, in any debate in which I take my perspective, then major publishers and bookstores are in trouble because they don't have me on the shelves to save them...



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