Shifting economies

My friend Sonia is writing a very intelligent blog you must read if you are interested at all in communication in the new era.   Her post, What a Toddler Can Teach You About Success made me start thinking again about the changing publishing economy and where I fit within it.  How do you continue to have a writing career for ten, twenty, forty years? Obviously, one route is through the ultimate New York Times bestseller list.  The “it” list. The literary crown of crowns.

Which of course, none of us will discount.  Who could mind crowning success?Okay, I’ll take it.

But like everything else, publishing is changing so much, and the lists are filled with new books each week.  If you make it this time, can you make it next time…higher? And what do you have to do to get there?  A hundred signings in a hundred cities, leaving your family and your passions and your dog at home.   If you do it often enough (think Jodi Picoult), hitting the lists high enough and regularaly enough, eventually it becomes a self-perpetuating cycle.  But that’s a long time coming, my friends, and it takes as much luck and good timing as hard work and good books.   (Not to mention enormous publisher support.)

The recent announcement that Borders is possibly putting itself up for sale has been on my mind all week.  It struck me–again–that the books showing up in the stores are flowing through a very small bottleneck, the buyers for the major chains and Walmart.  Very small neck–a handful of people who are deciding what arrives in the stores in what amounts. Which decides what readers see, browsers spy, shoppers buy.   Not a particularly fertile system for writers.

The entire economy is changing, of course, but in particular, the book industry is in the midst of an enormous shift.  Over breakfast this morning, CR told me about a new computer/imaging screen that is so thin and flexible it can be rolled up.  It’s is still riddled with problems, but when such a model emerges, there is bound to be one that eventually does what you want it to do, afforadably.

I am as passionate a bibliophile as it is possible for a person to be.  In my family, this is a trait passed down like blue eyes and a penchant for creativity.  I have far too many books, and continue to have too many no matter how I resolve I’ll only keep the ones I really, really love.  Even so, they pile up in corners and on my desk in in the basement where I am going to “sort through them.”   I give them away by the boxful; the DAV and ARC callers love me because they know I’ll always have something for them.

No matter how I love books, I can see plainly that they are a bulky and inefficient way to deliver the printed word to consumers.  It is wildly expensive to ship them, for one thing.  You’ve mailed a big box of something somewhere–think about how it pinched your pocket book.  Now multiply that by millions of boxes of books, every year.  And imagine you are a publisher and have to pay to have those books shipped if they don’t sell.  (A silly system, but never mind that for now.)  

The future is coming–technology will transform the book industry as surely as it has transformed the music industry, and wise writers (and publishers) will be paying attention to this trend.   Although the transition might be rocky for many of us, eventually, I do believe this will be good for writers in the long run.  More markets, more variety, more choice. 

And just for the record, I don’t think the NYTimes Bestseller List is going anywhere.  That would be sad! But what if it also had a section of bestselling electronic releases for the week?  

While we watch the brewing revolution, a good number of my titles are available electronically.   On Kindle you can buy some titles that are not as easy to find in stores:  Madame Mirabou’s School of Love and No Place Like Home, among others.   My recent Ruth Wind books are all available electronically, including the brand new novella collection, A Mother’s Love.  (Cute story about a yoga instructor, by the way.)

What would be your ultimate reader?

6 thoughts on “Shifting economies

  1. Tony

    A LONG time ago I was contemplating a career as a writer — just finished an SF novel, thinking through the second — when I visited a local used book store. Behind the counter, not the owner, just clerking, was a well-known author of ’50s and ’60’s SF. He told me that he could no longer get his work published: “They’re not interested in it anymore.”

    This shocked me. I had assumed that, once published, you were an author for life (note I said “author”, one whose books are published, not “writer” — no way to shake that once it’s got you.) I decided to take another path.

    Yes, publishing is going through massive changes, and the most likely outcome is the essential demise (soon!) of the printed book for all the economic reasons you mentioned. Digital forms of print will take up some of the slack, and they will probably take off in conjunction with the roll-up OLED pages CR told you about, but I would bet on spoken versions as the real future. Get thee a great reader, author! (And oh, by the way, get set up to publish both versions yourself because publishers will no longer have anything of economic value to offer you above what a great editor and designer can.)


  2. kari

    I, for one, would hate to see the printed book go away. I just don’t want to curl up on the couch with a Kindle. I like the feel of books; of certain types of paper. I like turning the pages. I like the smell of bookstores…especially older ones. I like to underline or highlight certain parts of some books. Yeah…I wouldn’t be happy if the whole electronic book fad really took over. I can understand the economics of it all. Maybe they’ll just have to raise book prices … which I wouldn’t like, either, but for me, that would be an option better than not printing them at all.

  3. There’s another model, too–the way that musicians have been putting out their own stuff. It’s incredibly hard for a new writer to find an audience that way, but I can see it really working for Barbara or a writer like her with a solid core of diehard fans. And there are more and more print-on-demand publishers out there.

    My dad has an interesting take on this–he says that it’s mainstream publishing that’s become a “vanity” press, because the only thing the writer gets out of it is ego gratification–most of the money goes to the publisher, the printer, the warehouse, the retailer. It’s an interesting way to look at it, anyway.

    I do believe that good publishers add great value–a passionate, smart editor can do so much to bring out the best in a novel. But as those editors get harder to find, it feels like something’s gotta give. It’s going to be interesting, anyway. I remember when we were talking about this stuff 10 or 12 years ago and we really didn’t dream what the world would be like in 2008, with social media and all the ways people can find to connect.

    Thanks for the link, sweets! And of course for the conversation.


  4. Barbara

    The SF writer working as a clerk in a bookstore is a scenario I see a lot. So many of the writers I started out with, venerable names, are finding it hard to land a contract at the moment, no matter what they do.

    Spoken words are probably part of it, but I disagree that it would be as central as reading. I do listen to some books, but there is an essential switch between visual and auditory input, and I’m much more comfortable with visual words. I have been lucky enough to have a great reader for some of my Ballantine books: Bernadette Dunne, of Recorded Books, who has won awards for her readings. I wouldn’t mind hiring her for any work I offered on my own.

    Kari, I don’t see books going away. It’s just not going to happen, at least until this generation passes into dust.

    Sonia–! So good to see you here. I love the blog. And I think your father is probably right. Eventually, what point would there be to a centralized publishing location? I don’t know how new writers would get their work widely distributed–that’s a problem for the social media world to solve, and I’m sure there is an answer.

    Speaking of social media, we had a discussion on a private loop about ways popular fiction writers can use social media more effectively, and I’ll have to blog about that. Not this morning, however. My time is up for the early check!

  5. I asked my 10-year-old one day not long ago whether she would prefer to read her books on a handheld screen and she looked at me like I was nuts. She said she liked to hold a book and smell and feel the pages.

    I think delivery of written material will definitely evolve and change, but books in traditional form will also remain–our children will keep passing them to their children.

    They’re much more than simply a “technology” that becomes obsolete as newer and more exciting versions come along–they’re a heritage and legacy that is thousands of years old.

    And audio books, hmm, can’t see that taking over. They are certainly not for everyone. I only listen to them when I exercise to keep me going, but frequently get weary of the slow pace and end up finishing by reading the actual book.

    I hope I never have to eat those words, but remember back in the 70s when we watched Star Trek and thought we’d all be wearing identical polyester jumpsuits by now? 😀

  6. I love audio for some things. Certain fiction writers are delicious on audio–check out the Recorded Books versions of Tony Hillerman. Just lovely. (I get impatient toward the end too, but that’s sort of fun for me. Anticipation!)

    I’m (kicking & screaming) working on learning how to deliver my marketing stuff in a video/audio format, because I do think that there are a lot of folks who just aren’t readers. It’s fun to play with, but it’s about 10x more work than just writing a nice, punchy article! But I try to think of it in the “hard work for the writer, happy experience for the reader” model.

    B, thanks for the nice words about the blog! It is my labor of love these days. Eats every second of “free” time I had, but that’s ok.

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