Six LDS Writers and A Frog

Monday, August 23, 2010

Is the Bookstore Extinct?

Last week, I was asked by a reader (writer?) to comment on a recent Wall Street Journal article titled, “Get ready for the bookstore massacre.” Sounds pretty scary, huh? I can just imagine floors running with ink, pages fluttering in the wind blowing through broken windows, dismembered novels crying for help.

Before I respond, let me start by saying that I have a little personal experience with the internet taking over traditional, brick and mortar stores. A little over ten years ago, I was the CEO of a two-hundred person internet company. The technology we created allowed internet users to compare features for a product (say a TV) by all kinds of cool metrics, price shop, and order, all on-line. Not that revolutionary now, but at the time it was pretty cutting edge.

One afternoon, I met with the CEO of a company called eToys. It was an interesting experience. There was a six foot tall Etch-a-Sketch in the lobby, employees rode scooters around the halls, and a puppet show was taking place in a conference room. I later used some of these elements in my first published novel, Cutting Edge. eToys was a giant at the time. They had recently gone public and were valued in the billions. They were poised to blow the doors off of every other toy store in the US. In fact Toys-R-Us, was so frightened of them that they offered eToys the chance to be the on-line site for Toys-R-Us. And eToys turned them down. (So they had to settle for some upstart book reseller called Amazon.)

Have you heard of eToys? Have you bought a toy from eToys lately? If you did, you bought a product from the company that bought the domain for dirt cheap, because the original eToys didn’t stay in business long enough to let any of its employees even cash out their stocks. It was going to drive Toys-R-Us into the ground because we were all going to buy our toys on-line. Why wouldn’t we? They are cheaper. There is no sales tax. They can carry a bigger inventory. Very smart, very savvy investors—including the kind of people that write for publications like WSJ—were sure your local toy store was going out of business. To state the obvious, they were wrong.

I mention this story to make a point. Just because a lot of smart people say something is true, doesn’t make it true. In the past twenty years, I’ve seen more scary headline than I can list. We were all heading into another ice age back when I got married (the world, not my wife and I personally!) When my now married daughter was a baby, Meryl Streep came on 60 Minutes and urged to me to pour all my apple juice down the sink because I was poisoning my baby with a pesticide called Alar. You can’t watch a promo for the nightly news with hearing at least one “dire” warning a week.

I’m not saying that there aren’t environmental concerns. I’m not saying that I want a ton of pesticides on my food, or that Alar was 100% scare. What I am saying is that while journalists are paid to make informed decisions, they are also paid to get readers/viewers. Unfortunately headlines like, “Bookstores likely to sell fewer books,” don’t draw the same kind of attention as, “Get ready for the bookstore massacre.”

If the past has proven anything, it’s that trying to forecast—even five or ten years in advance—is a crap shoot at best. You can look at trends. You can make informed decisions (or uninformed decisions.) You can do polls. You can make graphs. But you cannot say with any degree of certainty that X is going to lead to Y. So let’s look at some of the things being forecast and see what’s likely, what’s possible, and what’s out and out hyperbole.

1) In the next five years everyone will be buying their books electronically. Imagine a world in which your book is smaller, lighter, and more portable than a traditional hardback. You’d snap it right up, wouldn’t you? You’d never buy another hardback again. Um, yeah, it’s called the paperback, and it’s been out long enough for the Beatles to make a song about it. In fact isn’t that basically what the penny dreadfuls were shooting for?

The point people seem to miss when they talk about paper books disappearing, is that hardbacks are collected. People like them. While it’s true that many more people would buy paperbacks if they came out at the same time as the hardback, it’s also true that hardbacks would have disappeared a long time if no one bought them. Publishers make hardbacks because they can make more money on them and people buy them. Reality is that the world is changing. Twenty years ago, nearly everyone subscribed to a newspaper and about a dozen magazines. Now most people read their news on-line. Especially with younger generations, the idea of reading a hard copy of something that is available on-line is far less appealing.

E-book sales are skyrocketing, and with the dropping price of readers, it’s unlikely that trend will slow for quite some time. However, just because e-book reader sales keep going up, it doesn’t mean books are going away. Don’t believe me? Electronic documentation has been available to office workers for over a decade, and yet paper usage is higher than ever. I think it’s very likely that e-books could take a huge bite out of paperback sales. But, as long as people still like hardbacks, I don’t see them going away any time soon.

2) Bookstores are going the way of the way of the dinosaur. If I am wrong about point 1, then I think point 2, could happen. One thing the internet did prove analysts right about is that if you can create something that can only be done (or can be done exponentially better) on the internet, it can succeed. Think about E-Bay. It’s essentially a world-wide garage sale, a model that only works on the internet. Think Amazon, no single store could carry that kind of inventory at that kind of discount. But . . . other models that looked just as promising failed miserably. How many of you order your groceries on-line and have them delivered to your door? It was available, and actually cheaper, and much more convenient, than having to go to the store. But people didn’t use it.

The thing is, just because something is cheaper or even more convenient, does not mean everyone will use it, as long as there is another option. Predicting the demise of brick and mortar doesn’t take into account the people shop for a variety of reasons. The fun of browsing. Stopping for a book after going out to lunch. Getting a gift. Getting out of the freaking house and seeing something other than a computer screen. Lots of people like to go to stores and shop. If it wasn’t for the interaction—the fun—of shopping, Indie bookstores would have gone out of business a long time ago. It’s not all about price and size.

The other thing being left out of this equation is that many books don’t easily fit into the e-book model. Picture books, coffee table books, kids books. Yeah, I know you can out all of these on e-books, but I don’t believe for an instant that families are going to buy e-book readers for every kid in the family. Or that flipping through the pages of Hungry Green Monster will be the same, even on an I-Pad. Yes, I know, e-readers can add even more stuff. Videos, music, animation. All of that has been available on computers for years. I have a really cute Little Critter book on the computer that I’ve had since my big kids were little. But I still didn’t replace their picture books with a laptop.

It’s entirely possible that the look of bookstores may change. You may download an electronic book while you browse paper books. At the BYU bookstore I recently saw a print on demand machine. Want a paper book we don’t stock? Great we’ll print it for you. But I don’t see bookstores disappearing the way some people are forecasting.

3) E-books will make publishers and agents obsolete. Of all the predictions, this is the one that proves to me prognosticators don’t have a clue. Who knew that all we needed was mass distribution to make publishers obsolete? It actually makes perfect sense if all your publisher does is distribute your book. But if you really believe that a publisher and a distributor are the same thing, you don’t know the industry at all. What does a publisher do?

Well, let’s start with quality. Go to Amazon. Download their free reader app. Then randomly pick a few of the free, or even 99 cent self-published books. I’m not talking about the stuff that has gone out of copyright. That actually had an editor. I’m talking about Jimbob Farklecker, who tried to publish his book, failed, and self-published it in e-book format. Or even better, just browse the internet for novels people are publishing on their blogs, or web-sites, or forums. I’m not saying Bob’s book is bad—although it is. What I’m saying is that even if Jimbob’s story is great, it still needs a professional editor. It still needs direction. And, yes, it still needs a net to weed out all the crap, and take what’s good.

Now, I know all you self-published authors are screaming at me. Your book is good. You either don’t need a professional editor or hired one before you published your books. You’ll also remind me of all the great authors who started out self-publishing, or even moved from traditional publishing to e-books. Richard Paul Evans, Christopher Paolini, JA Konrath. And those are the norm right? Or even a majority? A decent-sized minority? No, using these examples to say that publishers are going to be obsolete is like saying that every traditionally published author will make millions of dollars because just look at Meyer, King, Grisham, etc.

The fact of the matter is that the huge majority of self-published books are not up to the quality of traditionally published books. Even when the authors are good, they don’t get the necessary feedback and editing required to make a really good read. And this is a shame because all the crap out there puts such a stain on the group as a whole that the good books become hit with the same paint brush. I know that a traditionally published book had to make it through probably an agent, an editor, and a committee, before hitting the streets. That doesn’t guarantee a good book, but would you take your car to be fixed by a guy that had no certifications or professional training? And it’s only going to get worse as more people realize how easily they can “publish” their book. If anything, I think there is going to be so much garbage spewed into e-book stores that people are going to be scared of downloading anything self-published, unless it’s gotten great reviews from people they trust or they know the author already.

And that’s just quality. There is so much more a publisher does. For a really good read, check out this article.

There are many more things being suggested. Oh, no, all your e-books are going to be filled with ads! Read this for a reality check of what is happening, what might happen, and what is unlikely to happen. Soon authors won’t be able to make any money because books will be copied freely back and forth! Yep, look at all those poor rock stars begging on the streets now because of MP3s. Agents are going away! Publishers are gone! Bookstores will be empty by Christmas! We’ll all be driving flying cars by 2010! Oh , wait looks like we missed that one.

I’m not saying things won’t change. Sometimes for the better, and sometimes for the worse. What I am saying is that ten years from now, things will have changed in a way that almost no one predicted. And many of the things people did predict will be wrong. In the mean time, I’m writing the best book I can. Getting the best agent. Hoping for a big publisher with a great editor. And looking forward to heading down to the bookstore this weekend to see what’s new. But hey, that’s just me.


At 8/23/2010 2:05 PM, Anonymous Wm Morris said...

1. I think much of what you say, Jeff, holds true for fiction. I'd be very, very worried if I was non-self-help, non-fiction writer.

2. Publishers are going to try to wring out as much as they can out of fiction authors when it comes to e-rights. That may be fine for many authors. But if publishers (or a publisher -- they're not going to act in unison, or at least signs point to that not happening) get things wrong and depress potential e-book sales (because they are trying to protect their paper business) and take huge cuts of e-book profit, then you as an author are leaving money on the table. There are lots of "ifs" there, of course. At the very least, if you have a back catalog of books with no e-rights attached, talk to somebody before you sign anything your publisher puts in front of you.

3. The big publishers so far have bet on the iPad. All signs point to Amazon dominating the e-book space in the near term. This debate about bookstores and e-book adoption is cast in too large of terms -- the focus really needs to be: who can give you as an author the best profits over the next five years while also being nimble enough to put you in a good position should major changes happen to the market?

4. The dreck argument doesn't mean much in this debate. In fact, sometimes somebody gets lucky and dreck sells. But the real book-buying public will find good work and the self-publishing stigma is rapidly eroding IF the final product is compelling and of good quality. The democratization of content isn't all that the utopians claim it is, but technology does allow individuals to produce high quality work -- and to be honest some of the best stuff out there is done by individuals with skills. The DIY ethos produces some amazing creative work that looks as professional and is often more fresh and in tune with current trends than the big firms. And these days a viral hit can be a viral hit no matter the provenance (but don't count on that -- work instead on a cultivating an audience).

The quality of the final product and the marketing and sales and distribution all needs to be right on -- how that happens can vary. Big publishers can screw up any of those stages. So can self-publishers. So can indie presses. The basic advice is still the same: write the best book you can BUT ALSO be informed and in control. If your agent sucks, fire him or her. If you don't like the e-rights contract (or anything else), shop the book around and if there are no takers at your terms and you think you can do it, self-publish. The point is that authors now more than ever need to be small business owners and entrepreneurs.


At 8/23/2010 2:06 PM, Anonymous Wm Morris said...


5. Mid-list authors are being dropped left and right (or at least having advances curtailed). If you are going to stake your hopes on a big publisher (or are already in bed with one), make sure you have an agent that is up-to-date on industry issues, dogged as all get out, and a firm believer in you as both an author and a generator of book sales.

6. You don't have to blog or use Twitter. But you have to figure out where your audience is and how to connect with it. There are all sorts of pockets of people out there using all sorts of technologies (from Google Groups to web forums to microblogging to blogs, etc.) that have grouped themselves for various reasons. Figure out how to reach them and then actively and appropriately engage them.

7. There's no doubt that publishers do a lot of things. But they also do a lot less than they used to in terms of quality control and marketing. Much more is put on the agent and the author. Make sure that you are getting real value out of your publisher for the percentages you're getting.

8. Don't go the self-publishing or indie press route because you think it's going to be easier or that you are going to make more money (70% on e-books from Amazon!). Do it because you want that level of control, you have the skills (or can acquire them), and you want to write stuff that for whatever reason isn't a good fit for the major publishing houses.

9. If you are a current working author and writing your only means of support, sock away as much as you can. There's a real potential for there to be a narrowing of income streams before they widen up again (if they widen up again). Also strongly consider opening up another market (age, genre, whatever --possibly with a pseudonym) with your writing (although be aware that every Mormon and his/her cousin is writing YA these days).

The beautiful thing is that all of these changes mean that authors have more flexibility than ever before. And the road to success (no matter which one you take) is still the same: write well, find an audience, actively manage your career and your brand.

At 8/23/2010 2:28 PM, Blogger Jeff Savage said...


Agree with most of what you've said. I disagree with some, but will wait for more comments to respond. I will say that for a down economy, I've had five friends sign 6 or 7 figure deals in the last 12 months, and my own LDS royalties are higher than they've ever been.

At 8/23/2010 2:41 PM, Blogger David J. West said...

Jeff, William, I enjoyed this from both of you.

At 8/23/2010 2:43 PM, Anonymous Wm Morris said...

There's been a wave of Utah writers getting picked up by national publishers (it's in part the network effect) -- the question is: when will it crest? Hopefully not for awhile.

That's interesting to hear about your LDS royalties. I think that the LDS market has room for some decent growth -- or at least to have a smoother transition..

a) because American Mormons tend to adopt technologies [I see a lot of smartphones and even some iPads and e-readers at church] I think the e-book market will be strong for LDS titles.

b) hopefully the Harry Potter generation (and their parents) will continue to be readers and bring in their younger siblings (and even kids -- I mean some of them are close to becoming parents now); there's some serious momentum in the fantasy realm thanks to LDS success in the national market and Shadow Mountain's titles. Such trends tend to slow down, but I would guess (just a guess) that it'll have more legs in the Mormon market because of our overrepresentation as authors and aspiring authors and because fantasy is uniquely suited to modern Mormon mores (for example, I don't see a trend in gritty urban YA gaining quite so much traction among young LDS readers).

c) from what I can tell there are a still large numbers of LDS who ignore fiction coming out in the Mormon market (whether LDS-themed or not) because they only know the market from 15 years ago when the quality and diversity wasn't what it is now. There's potential for some of those folks to be drawn in.

d) Deseret Book is a diversified bookseller (within its niche). Yes, some stores may have to be shut down, but I think consumers will see a need for a DB store for quite a bit longer than, say, a local Borders or Barnes & Noble.

But I could be completely wrong, of course.

At 8/23/2010 4:59 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

This is a great book. I've been reading about the Dance Teacher and it's a wonderful story about how to get things accomplished through dance. That's for the reference.

At 8/23/2010 5:21 PM, Blogger Michael Knudsen said...

Great points all. I was one of those who said I'll never do without hard books until I actually held a friend's Kindle in my hands and I was converted in about 15 seconds. It might not happen so fast, but book media will certainly be diversifying in a major way over the next 12-24 months.

At 8/23/2010 6:33 PM, Blogger Debra Erfert said...

Kindles are all well and good, but the baby boomers of this country are quickly becoming seniors, and our eyesight isn't quite like it was when we were "kids". I'm not saying I'm old, but reading something as small as a Kindle can be eye-straining. iPads may be bigger, but, they’re not that much different than a laptop.

I buy books.

Hard covers and paperbacks. I will, on occasion, read stories on my computer, but anything smaller than a full screen is more difficult to see without reader glasses. My sons are in their early twenties, and the last time either of them bought something to read, it was a hardcover book, and they both have Apple laptop computers and iPods. Granted, this is a very small control group. But the boomers are a huge consumer category, and their opinions shouldn't be shelved.

So, who are the people buying Kindles, exactly? There must be demographic studies done. And if the publishers are smart, they will use this information and target specific books to these ages. As I see it, the influx of e-readers, and therefore the selling of e-books are just an addition to publishing, buttressing the world of reading, and will, in no way, replace paper publishing, or the necessity of literary agents to screen the mediocre writers from the good.

At 8/23/2010 7:01 PM, Blogger Matthew Buckley said...

Debra, you can adjust the font size on a kindle. Crank that font all the way up to 60! Don't think you can do that on a paperback. :)

Jeff, sounds like you, and I need to have a public debate at the next Storymakers. An oratorical fisticuffs! :)

Truth be told, I think much of what you say holds merit. But I also think the industry will be affected in a deeper way than you're describing above. No, bookstores aren't going away. No, publishers, editors, agents aren’t going to disappear. But make no bones about it, their industry is going through significant changes, and those that adapt to those changes will emerge as the new leaders in the market.

Think Amazon vs. Barnes & Noble. Which one has a for sale sign up in their front yard? If the publishers don't make changes, and make them fast, they'll find themselves irrelevant.

We’re also looking at the golden age for authors. Yes, Kindle will give everybody and their uncle a chance to sell their book. But the internet gave everybody and their uncle a chance to create a webpage, and the end result was that a lot of really cool stuff was created. Social media gives us the perfect tools to help push the cream to the top, and it can be enjoyed by all for a much cheaper price, and at a much greater convenience.

Great post, thanks for your thoughts.

At 8/25/2010 1:42 PM, Blogger Tanya Parker Mills said...

Okay, this is what I get for not reading Part 1 first. Now I understand where all your drop-by visitors came from in Part 2.

Still, it'd be fun to pick your brains further, but I'd feel guilty about pulling you away from your writing.

Thanks for all the insights!

At 8/25/2010 6:19 PM, Blogger C. L. Hanson said...

I've heard about some of the big chain bookstores having difficulty. My secret hope is that this will actually help the independent bookstores get part of their market back. It may be that people who like Borders like Amazon even better, but a lot of people who really like going to bookstores prefer an independent, if possible.

At 8/25/2010 6:29 PM, Blogger J Scott Savage said...

I hope so! I love indie bookstores!


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