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Wednesday, February 22, 2012

A paradigm shift

It feels like changing religions.

As someone who even as a girl loved the feel of a hardcover book in my hand and who has a large collection of cherished favorites (including the first 50 Nancy Drew books, all of the same vintage in which I first read them!), I hereby admit to a paradigm shift in my publishing beliefs: I have come to believe that the future of most contemporary bookselling lies in e-books. And in accepting--and even embracing--the trend, I've just released my first novel, BLOOD EXPOSURE, on Kindle, following the November release of A BUTLER'S LIFE (also on Kindle).

This is exciting as well as bittersweet. Like almost all of my fellow book lovers and authors, I've been saddened to watch the closing of more and more independent bookstores in our communities. I want it all: the homey feeling of the small bookstore with the bibliophile staff whose handwritten recommendation cards are stuck into the crowded stacks; the vastness of the large chain store with tables and aisles piled high with a cornucopia of offerings in every conceivable category (and a coffee house within); the anytime ease of search, speed, availability, and pricing of books available through online sources such as; and the immediacy and portability of ebooks, ensuring that if I were to, say, finish one book of Diana Gabaldon's Outlander series while traveling in Outer Mongolia, I can upload the next in the series in sixty seconds flat and not have to worry about not finding an English language bookstore. (And, let's face it, the feature that allows you to adjust the size of the type so that you don't have to fumble with reading glasses on the bedside table after a long day is a nice touch too.)

The print publishing industry is struggling, as anyone who has watched not only many of the small indies but even formidable Borders close, who hears the frightening rumbles about Barnes and Noble's financial woes. Authors on blogs and message boards all over the Internet have spoken of the shrinking of the industries, as big publishers gobble up the midsize and small ones, as midlist authors, even some with established series and a loyal fan base are summarily cut from the roster in an effort to rein in costs. Those of us who dream of seeing our efforts rewarded by a display pile in a bookstore's window are frustrated to read of million-dollar advances and half-million quantity print runs (in hardcover!) given to celebrities-du-jour or to political figures whose campaign-speech visions will be obsolete in six month's time. Publishers -- and by extension, agents -- are increasingly unwilling to take on anyone new unless they are positive they're onto the next Big Thing, defined by a debut novel which is an immediate home run (think Kathryn Stockett's The Help).

I think that publishers, to survive, need to rethink their business model. Yes, there are books that will always be superior when in print--for example, coffee table books or any sort of illustrated book, especially, of course, a children's pop up book. Currently, tens of thousands of books are published each year, hawked by sales forces that are squeezed to meet quotas, distributed to an increasingly smaller number of sales outlets who are almost always solely responsible for their promotion (publisher-sponsored book tours are rare unless you're already a bestseller...what kind of sense does that make?) Bookstores buy a few copies with the promise that if they don't sell, they can be returned (or, worse, in the case of paperbacks, stripped of its cover which is sent back, the rest of the book thrown away). Titles that don't sell fast enough are remaindered. I don't even want to see the dump that holds all that wasted paper.

The technology is out there, and has been for nearly twenty years: Print on Demand. Even, now, possible for hardcover books. The online bookstores get this. Why warehouse hundreds of thousands of pre-printed books and hope they find their market, when you can store the book as a file and print out a single copy at a time if needed? No remaindered copies. No fear of buying a book that doesn't sell fast enough to help pay the rent. A backlist that never goes out of print.

Which brings me back to Kindle and the e-pub future. I foresee the future to be books that are marketed largely through social networking and sampled and purchased largely online, whether in electronic or print format. So, for the bricks and mortar bookstores we still love to browse in, why not set up displays of e-readers where one can read a sample of a book and then choose to purchase it in the format of your choice?

Agree? Disagree?