Vanessa Di Gregorio
The book world as we know it is dying.
…Or so some people say.
If you work in publishing, or at a bookstore or library, chances are you’ve heard your days are numbered. There’s this obsession with whether or not the publishing industry as a whole will move forward into an age of technology and ebooks and whatnot, or whether we’ll stubbornly cling to the old ways of print books, claiming that nothing is wrong and believing that everything will just work out the way it always has. Didn’t the publishing industry cry and bemoan its fate when trade paperbacks hit the shelves? How could books possibly survive in three different formats? And now, trade paperback AND mass market books still exist alongside hardcovers (though perhaps not for much longer).
Didn’t people cry out in fear when Amazon and the big national book chains came around, demanding bigger discounts? Independent bookstores began to disappear, unable to keep up with the excessive discounting – and some were sure that it would spell out the end of the independent bookstore. But look – there are still quite a few indies hanging around, surviving through it all. And now we have ebooks and e-readers threatening the livelihoods of independent bookstores again! And then there are the self-publishing platforms that threaten to destroy big, traditional publishing houses!
…Or maybe not, depending on who you listen to.
This article by Peter Osnos sees how the industry will continue to thrive, using the last BEA as proof of the industry’s print-book future. But then we have people who think anyone optimistic about traditional publishing’s future are lying to themselves and living a fantasy, instead of seeing the reality: that print books are dying, that traditional publishers are dying, and that self-publishing and ebooks will become the future. The middle man is being cut out. Publishers, independent brick and mortar bookstores – they’ve got no place in the book world of the future. They’re a dying species – a piece of the past barely clinging on. (Remember the music industry, anyone?)
And then there are those who say the print book will remain for the best of the best, a prized piece to gloat about rather than just a book. An object to keep, as opposed to something to read. Print will be for those books that are worthy – everything else will be digital.
But if you ask me, self-publishing will not be our future. There is just too much out there to make it overthrow traditional publishing. Publishers filter out a lot. They have experience and editors who make books into pieces of magic. But Michael Levin believes that publishers lack what they had in the past: the ability to curate. That all they do is find people with enough clout to garner sales, and have them write a mediocre book. That it isn’t Amazon or any of the big box stores killing off the independents, but a lack of readership. A lack of interest. Books are dying because people don’t care for them anymore – because they are, for the most part, crap.
Well, I’m calling bullshit on that. Independents are dying because of Amazon and big box stores. Because they can’t discount books the way they can, because they aren’t as huge. They’re closing because of rent hikes, and leases that don’t get renewed. Not because people aren’t buying books. Not because the industry is slowly dying. Do ebooks hurt them? Yes. But that isn’t what is killing them off – it isn’t what has been killing them off for years.
Do publishers stand a chance? Yes. They’ve adapted to the digital world with ebooks, and will continue to do so. But that doesn’t mean it’s a format that will kill off print books. But it might replace the mass market format. Print on demand and self-published titles will not take over the ebook world – those that have had success (such as Amanda Hocking) have chosen to go the traditional route, even though they’ve made tons of money by themselves. Why? Because doing the work that a publishing house does is a lot to take on yourself.
Maybe the problem lies in our lack of social and cultural responsibility. If books are an important part of our culture, why are we allowing bookstores and publishing houses to go under? Take France for example. They’ve adopted a price-fixing model, which stops even Amazon from discounting books to the extreme. This means everyone across the board (online, big box stores, and independents) are all selling the same book at roughly the same price. The competition is stable.
The French have found a way to keep books – to keep a culture of learning and stories and imagination and community – alive! Yet we don’t realize the damage we’re doing to ourselves. Instead, we cheapen books. We cheapen our culture. We live in a world where everything needs to happen immediately. We feel entitled to this stuff. But what does that say about us as a society? That we don’t want to spend money on artists, be they writers or musicians? We are constantly devaluing books – just look at the average price of an ebook for proof of that. We choose convenient, big box stores with discounted stock over independent bookstores that help our communities grow - independents who offer passion and service over giant stickers that say “40% off!”, who give back to the community they are a part of. What is a writer’s worth? An editor’s? A community’s? What price do we think is owed to them for their work? One of the most heartbreaking things I hear when I sell to my bookstores is that a book is too expensive, that parents won’t buy hardcovers for their kids. And yet these same parents are comfortable spending $60 on a video game, or $100 on a pair of jeans for their kids. Why?
Regardless of whether or not we continue doing what we’re doing, the industry won’t die. Not for a long time. Ebooks might replace a format of print, but it’s not going to destroy the print book in its entirety. There is still too much value in them. There will continue to be independents hanging on – independents with a strong tie to their community, and a community that understands its worth. But just because indies close, it doesn’t mean people aren’t buying books. It doesn’t mean people don’t want to read. To say that this industry is in its final days is ridiculous. Will it suffer a bit? Yes. But at least people are reading.
I just hope that, with time, people will begin to see the worth of both publishers and independents. That authors will be paid their dues, without people grumbling about money and choosing to pirate.
Vanessa Di Gregorio works in publishing as a sales rep at Ampersand, a book and gift sales agency. She is also a former literary agency intern. When she isn’t out selling books and talking to bookstores, Vanessa can be found over at Something Geeky, Goodreads, Twitter, or writing for Paper Droids.