The business of books is changing with the success of e-books, but traditional publishers, rather than bemoaning their lot, should exploit the wonderful opportunity it presents them with
The Frankfurt Book Fair is the largest in the world. More than 7,500 exhibitors set up shop there in October. The loudest sound in the busy halls was that of moaning publishers and booksellers. I am surprised that there weren’t any pictures of Jeff Bezos, Amazon’s CEO, for use as makeshift dartboards. His company alone seems to be the reason for the impending demise of the publishing industry, or so you would think, listening to the majority of the people roaming the aisles and doing duty at the stalls.
Amazon has, indeed, changed the industry. In the UK, its customers are now downloading 114 e-books for every 100 hardback and paperback books they’re buying online. This not only represents a shift in how and where we buy books, but it also heralds something else: a renaissance of reading. More people are reading than before, so perhaps the disappearance of literal culture as we know it is nothing but a rumour spread by those who have lost some of their traditional business.
All three authors complain about the treatment they have been getting from larger publishers. Top sellers get all the publicity they want and small specialist titles find their readership anyway. But no one wants to take on the burden of publishing what might be called the Middle Class of literature. With the largest Waterstones stocking some 200,000 titles, it comes as no surprise that those can hardly all be bestsellers.
People obviously need an environment where there can not only look around, if only for e-books, but also get advice on what’s out there. While the physical shopping experience is clearly still in demand, we still have the situation whereby nearly 2,000 bookshops have closed in the UK since 2005. Depending where you look or who you ask, there are now 2,000-4,000 bookshops left in the UK.
Some are more specialised than others and not all of them are on the high streets, a place not necessary conducive to book browsing. One bookseller observed that 80 per cent of sales used to be books from the shelves and 20 per cent were specialist orders, but now it is the other way round. Only 20 per cent of titles are sold off the shelves. Doesn’t this sound like an opportunity rather than a threat?
My advice (not that anybody asked for it)? Traditional publishers have to serve readers, not themselves or a few bestselling authors. They need to be more selective and promote quality. In other words, curate literature, just as book shops will only survive if they offer opinions and advice.
Editing and design need to be taken more seriously. Once all the pulp is available on cheap e-readers, books need to be deliver quality content in a quality package, objects beyond a quick-feed for hungry minds.
Good books will cost money. No book made from paper and shipped across the country can ever compete with bits coming down from The Cloud. If readers can be persuaded that a book is essential reading and an object worth beholding, the price will matter less.
Use the enemy to help: if video, online ads and buzz on social media can sell music and politics, why not traditional books?
The situation in the book publishing industry reminds me of what happened in my own business, typography: you can complain about the course of events forever or you can take the opportunity to look at the situation without nostalgic distortion. People want to read. Readers need someone to publish the right books and then they need help to find them. There’s plenty of work left for authors, editors, designers. Whether publishers still fit into the equation is very much up for them to figure out.