I Scry, With My Little Eye…
In my last column, I talked about the changes in book publishing due to the introduction of E-books, and how that affects the reading market in general. At the end of that article, I said I would have some predictions for the future of books. So I got out my crystal ball, sat down and squinted into it, and here’s what I see is going to happen with the PAPER vs. ELECTRONIC brouhaha…
E-books are going to continue to climb in popularity, especially among the younger generations, who wholeheartedly embrace the technology like it was life support. If you have ever seen two kids furiously texting back and forth over a distance of feet, you know what I mean. This is their preferred medium to communicate ideas in, and if we want to reach them, we have go where they are. So books definitely need a digital copy, and eventually an audio counterpart that will play over those MP3 players everyone has plugged into their heads. I don’t think actual print copies are going away, but I do believe the solid copy book market is going to contract even further until ballyhooed hardcover releases are the exception rather than the norm. If you want new readers, then you have to put the words into a format they prefer. Simple economics there.
If they are going to survive, the big publishers have to get with what the independent ones already know: It’s not about names or hype, or even the medium, but CONTENT and AFFORDABLE DELIVERY.
E-books are for the most part (but not always) considerably cheaper than the print version. That tempts folks to buy something on speculation, because if it turns out to be a dud, they can just delete it without a whole lot of angst over what was paid and tossing an expensive item in the recycling bin or donation box. E-books are wonderfully portable and take no shelf space, so if you are getting them inexpensively, you have no reason not to get more than one. This is already opening markets to unknown writers who can sell their electronic copies anywhere, because the technology for making them available is not necessarily proprietary anymore. There are far less hoops to jump through for producing an E-book than there is for a print copy, so it is conceivably something that can be done by the author with some knowledge of how the medium works. Which leads to being able to serve an overlooked niche market—for example the ever hungry New Pulp readers—exactly the kind of material they crave, without having to do a market study. More avenues are opening up for selling self published E-copies as word gets around. Some of the bigger publishers have caught onto this, and are making reasonably priced E-copies of recent releases. Others are pricing themselves out of the market. It’s a new technology, and still sorting itself out in the plodding world of marketing. Look for big changes over the next several years.
Novel sizes are going to get smaller. Those cumbersome, multiple inches thick books are getting far too expensive, even in paperback. Those are something that you see regularly in genre fiction like Fantasy, where the average book seems to be about 500 pages and many are far larger. Oh that’s great, lots of reading, except that many people who buy books are busy, and they don’t have more than small snatches of time to read here and there. A 200 page book is far easier to read and digest over several appointments in waiting rooms or a half hour at bedtime than an 800 page tome will be. There are times when I have to set a book aside for a while, and not only have a tough time recalling where I left off, but what went on 300 pages before that. So that less expensive 200 page book is more likely to get picked back up and finished in fewer sittings, leaving readers hungry for more, which is a good thing. Affordable books of a smaller size are just going to sell better, and they’ll lead to further sales.
Along with that idea of smaller books, mainstream genre fiction plots are going to evolve, based on that tidal wave of shorter, more focused and entertaining, and less angst-ridden indie fiction. If there is one thing I’ve seen done very successfully within the New Pulp world, it is that ability to give breathless, page turning thrills without all the fluffy fillers and introspective moments of navel examining. Pulp books hit the ground running and take you on a wild ride, getting right to the heart of the story, with a formula that becomes familiar and beloved. That tends to develop loyal long term followings for favorite authors and characters, as word about them spreads. The mainstream romance, detective, and franchise-linked (think Star Trek or Dungeons & Dragons) novel market have long since capitalized on that, but it is taking the rest of genre fiction a while to catch on. People who take the time to read these days, with so many gadgets and gizmos screaming for attention, just want to sit quietly somewhere and be entertained without breaking the budget, which is what pulp was originally designed to do. It’s no longer a guilty read, but a fun way to kill some free time and feel good about it. The big publishing houses will figure it out eventually, and go with stories with more impact and less long streams of consciousness.
Those niche markets I mentioned can be quite lucrative as well. If you don’t have a tiny New York office and big expense accounts for promotion, you might be able to print a reasonably priced book that is targeted to a specific reader group. I think those indie books that are exceptional will get picked up by the mainstream, because in this electronic age, word of mouth takes mere seconds to spread all over the world on a site like Facebook or Youtube. Because a big house has far larger resources to tap than the independents—which often run on shoestring budgets with fingers crossed that they’ll break even—they can produce the numbers of copies needed to blanket a market at a far more affordable price. So I see big and little publishers in amicable partnerships, where the little guys break the niche book out to test the waters, and then when it catches fire, the big guns make sure it gets distributed more widely. As I’ve pointed out, most of the big houses make their money on back list books anyway, so to me that’s a no-brainer. Win/win for the indie authors, who will see royalties and following increase.
There will be a lot more room for author-as-publisher gigs in this brave new world. For the love of the craft, folks are already out there hawking their own word-filled wares. You’ll see more of that, as well as pooling of talent and resources as time goes by. Eventually, before they become altogether extinct, the big houses will stop peering down their noses, and open their jaundiced eyes to take a good hard look at what is going down below their level. Some of those paperback imprints that have been bought out and stripped down by the Big 6 will likely become secondary releasers for independent and author published books that have proven successful. The contracts offered might not be as meaty as a first run book, but the distribution will be wider and longer lasting, and that helps make up the difference. In the long run I think it will stabilize the field, with both paper and electronic versions available. With the advent of MP3 players and whatever comes after them, rentable/downloadable audio book recordings are going to be the rage too.
No, I don’t think paper books are going away, although the market is contracting. Collectors and nostalgia buffs as well as technophobes are still going to buy their books that way. There will always be libraries for the masses, and aftermarket sellers for used books on the cheap. Right now it’s a bit tough to sign a digital copy of a book for someone, but I suspect that technology is not far off, with all the little gadgets that have touch screens with plastic protectors and styluses. In fact, with the advent of online video conferencing, in the future fans may get their E-book signed in their own home by an author thousands of miles away at a live streaming pay-per-view convention.
Chain bookstores might become a thing of the past, because unfortunately they did not diversify as quickly as they should have, and their upscale storefront overhead is far too high. There were some good ideas, but they never were as quickly upgraded as the technology changed. The combination of WIFI, café, reading room, and meeting place, with retail commission space for selling books, art, crafts, and music, as well as highlighting local entertainment, is what the future of surviving booksellers looks like to me. In other words, the hometown approach to a creator’s coop, where you can go and relax, meet friends, have a cuppa with a light bite, see a show, browse and buy something, or sell your own independent wares. The more diverse groups you bring in, the better the chance of staying alive in an ever changing market. So many of our downtowns have empty store fronts, and old factory or municipal buildings, just sitting dormant. Away from the glitzy malls and the traffic, that’s where the books need to be—in a setting with something for everyone.
So there you have the future of fiction, straight from my scrying eye to your screen. While I am far from an expert in the publishing field. I can spot trends that are here to stay. While the technology to make paperless books is all around us, it’s not the only thing going on in the market. How we sell and reach readers is just as important as what format we offer them. A good business person knows you have to go to the people and give them what they want. Authors and publishers need to become far more savvy about that when it comes to pushing words on the page. It’s not just a matter of paper over pixels, it’s what does the potential reader wants today and how it gets delivered.
Give them a little bit of everything, I say.