Quoth the Book: “Reports of My Death Are Greatly Exaggerated”


James Surowiecki is the business writer for The New Yorker, and though I usually am not one to pour over the financial pages, I find his columns fascinating.  None more so than the article he wrote for the July 29, 2013 issue of the magazine.  The article is titled “E-Book Vs. P-Book,” although the online version of the article is actually identified more accurately as “It’s Not Over For Barnes & Noble.”  The article, which I strongly suggest you read, basically argues that with Borders gone, Barnes & Noble is actually poised to do quite well, if it would only “focus on something truly radical: being a bookstore.”

As I say, the article is worth a read, but I would like to concentrate on a few data points that Surowiecki mentions in his piece that, I believe, point to larger trends in the writing market.  In no particular order:  While Barnes & Noble saw sales fall last year, those losses were tied entirely to the Nook; the company’s profits actually rose in every other sector. A recent survey of readers by the Codex Group actually found that bookstore browsing remains the preferred way for people to find new reading material, and so, as Surowiecki says, “publishers have a stake in B&N’s survival.”  This may also explain why independent bookstores are actually thriving right now.  People want to speak with those who are most familiar with what’s new on the bookshelves.  The bookstore model remains viable.  Even more to the point, the rate of ebook sales growth has slowed in the last year.  Dramatically.  Again, citing, Surowiecki’s article, while ebook sales grew by triple digit percentages in 2009, 2010, and 2011, that growth slowed to forty-four per cent last year.  And, perhaps most surprisingly, even now ebook sales account for only about twenty per cent of the book market (although that number might be a bit higher in genre fiction).  Only a tiny minority of readers, fewer than one in twenty, read exclusively ebooks — most prefer to read digital for convenience, and paper for books they care about.

I could go on about Surowiecki’s article, pulling out all the little nuggets of information that he includes, among them a rejection of the supposed similarities between what’s happening with books and what happened when the music industry digitized (a comparison I have seen as flawed for some time). But again, I’ll just recommend that you read the article for yourselves.  What I want to focus on now is what all this means for writers.  A few conclusions:

1.  The traditional publishing model is not dead.  The transition from paper books to e-books has not happened over night, and it’s not going to.  To quote Surowiecki again, “The truth is that the [paper] book is an exceptionally good piece of technology — easy to read, portable, durable, and inexpensive.”  And so those companies that produce paper books — i.e. publishers — are not about to disappear.  If you want further proof of this, open up the latest issue of Locus, the newsletter of the Science Fiction and Fantasy genres, and check out the “People & Publishing” section. The listing of “Books Sold” is enormous.  Writers are signing contracts for new books left and right.  The contracts, most of them at least, are not for the same level of money that they were, say, a decade or two ago.  But people are contracting new books every day.  Writing, as it turns out, is not a dead-end profession.  Because . . .

2. Technology IS revolutionizing the industry.  Just not quite in the way we thought it would.  One of the things you’ll notice in that issue of Locus is that many of the contracts being signed right now are with small presses.  Small-press publishers are popping up all over the place.  Putting out books has never been easier or cheaper, and so writers have many more options for their novels than they did a few years ago.  Now, there are risks in going with one of these new small presses, the greatest being that not all of them are going to make it.  And you don’t want to sell the rights to your novel to a company that is about to go out of business. But plenty of these small houses are doing all right, and they have better access to distribution and national booksellers than ever.  Writers and agents need to do their homework and make sure they know which houses are on good financial footing and which are not.  But for the informed writer, the market is more open right now than at any time in recent memory.

3.  Self-publishing remains a less attractive choice.  Yes, I know: one can still find stories of self-published first-time writers making it big.  Some of these stories are anecdotal, some are true.  But the fact remains that the vast majority of writers — ALL writers — are struggling to make a buck.  And all the advantages of traditional publishing that I have cited in the past remain true to this day.  Publishers — even some small publishers — can offer you an advance, which is money in your pocket BEFORE your book is published. Most publishers can offer you developmental editing, copy editing, art work, review copies, distribution in both e-format and paper, etc. Most important, go back to that line above about ebook market share.  Most people who self-pub do so in e-format.  For an individual, the investment for publishing paper books can be prohibitive. So unless you’re planning to self-publish in both e-format AND paper, you are cutting yourself off from as much as eighty per cent of the market. Something to think about.

4. Nobody is saying that it’s now easy to make it as a writer.  Authors are signing lots of contracts.  Small publishers are doing well, as are independent bookstores.  But contracts are for smaller amounts than they once were, there are so many authors out there right now that each of us is reaching a smaller and smaller readership while struggling to be heard in a noisier marketplace, and continuing uncertainty about the market and its future means that publishers of all stripes are being cautious.  What I have said in the past — that if you are writing professionally you should be doing because you love it, not because you think it’s a quick way to get rich — is still true.  I love to write, and I am grateful for the fact that I get paid for doing so.  But the business side of the job is no easier for me now than it was when I was promoting my first book.  It’s never easy. 

So there it is:  Between Surowiecki’s article and my opinions on what his conclusions might mean for writers, there’s a lot here for us to discuss.  Let’s talk about it.

David B. Coe

12 comments to Quoth the Book: “Reports of My Death Are Greatly Exaggerated”

  • Vyton

    David, thank you for your very helpful post. And for the link to the article in The New Yorker. I’m glad the p-book is not dead. I’m yet to be be published, and my WIP would have a small, niche market. I’m pursuing a parallel path: putting together a list of agents to query, and evaluating a POD option with both paper and e-book products, where I maintain all rights. A third option might be direct submission to small presses, but I’m less sure about that.

  • I would love to see B&N return to being a bookstore. The store near me has so many gift knick-knacks on their shelves that sometimes it’s hard to tell what genre section you’re standing in.

  • The New Yorker article was very interesting. Thanks for linking to it, David.

    People love to predict the demise of institutions, though that’s not always how things pan out. Publishing is going through a huge shake-up, but I and most everyone I know, still prefer printed books. I own ebooks for the price and convenience of not lugging a tome to the doctor’s office.

    I honestly don’t think print publishing will go away completely, but will have to adapt to changing conditions in the marketplace. There are signs that’s happening, though slowly. Personally, I like the ability to choose between the different publishing avenues. Every writer is different and choice is good.

    As for B&N, I find the stores close to me annoying. The bookshelves tower over you. The tables are cluttered with non-book stuff. Everything is packed in close and I feel like a rat in a maze. I miss the quiet, relaxed atmosphere of Borders. I hope someone at B&N reads articles like the one you mentioned and actually learn from them. Then maybe they wouldn’t be running so scared and focus on what’s important – the books and the public who reads them.

  • And if B&N would hire BOOK READERS that would be wonderful. Thanks David. This made me very happy — a nice start to my week!

  • […] I maintain with Faith Hunter, Misty Massey, Mindy Klasky, John Hartness, James Tuck, and others.  Today’s post is called “Quoth the Book: “Reports of My Death Are Greatly Exaggerat…” and it builds upon an article by James Surowiecki that recently appeared in The New Yorker […]

  • […] I maintain with Faith Hunter, Misty Massey, Mindy Klasky, John Hartness, James Tuck, and others.  Today’s post is called “Quoth the Book: “Reports of My Death Are Greatly Exaggerat…” and it builds upon an article by James Surowiecki that recently appeared in The New Yorker […]

  • Vyton, I would give additional thought to your 3rd option, as that is often the best route for aspiring writers today. This is not to say that you shouldn’t search for an agent and also explore the POD alternative. But small presses really are a nice way to go.

    Misty, I agree that the preponderance of games and toys and non-book stuff at B&Ns is irksome. I would love to see them follow Surowiecki’s advice and just be a bookstore.

    E.K., thanks for the comment. I agree that print books aren’t going away anytime soon. And Surowiecki’s take on the coming model reads like this: “Coexistence is more likely than conquest.” That seems to me to sum it up rather nicely.

    Faith, I agree with you, though I have to say that most of the B&N employees I’ve encountered are book lovers and avid readers. The problem, I believe, is that the company’s higher-ups are not either.

  • Hepseba ALHH

    The way I most want to be able to buy books: In a bookstore, where I can browse for exciting new possibilities (I’m a sucker of cool cover art), and then be able to gobble up the lovely gems of *backlist* for authors I’ve just discovered I love.

    …Still don’t have an e-reader = I get to read *while* the plane is taking off.

  • L. Jagi Lamplighter Wright

    Nice post, David! I am happy to see how e-books are expanding, but I myself don’t own a reader yet. And I know I am not alone in this.

    I have a kind of a vision of the future bookstore I’ve described for some years. I’m picturing a place that has ebooks for sale…and a book expresso machine…that prints and binds books on the premise…along with larger books, like picture books, and the covers and first chapters of many, many books…and the full book for bestsellers. You could go in, browse front and back covers and glance at the beginning, print the books you wanted printed, get books you want on a reader on a reader…and they could fit many more books than they have now.

    No idea if this will ever come to pass…but it keeps striking me as a logical outcome of the technology. 😉

  • Razziecat

    David, this is very good to hear. I still believe in traditional publishing, and it’s fascinating to see that things are not playing out the way a lot of doom-sayers thought they would. I work for a newspaper, and we hear daily about how “print is dead.” It’s not, yet, although newspapers are struggling. Nice to learn that not everything in print is on its way out quite yet.

  • Thank you so much for this, David. Fascinating article. (And hopefully given that it came from the New Yorker, someone at B&N will see it and listen!) Chapters up here sells a lot of “lifestyle” stuff, but most of its floorspace (well, at least 2/3) still seems to be books.

    I had a few conversations this past weekend, and a few recent experiences in general, that have really brought home how much I want to stick with traditional publishing as my primary goal. No matter if it seems more difficult. I have been thinking a lot more about smaller publishers, if the current agent quest doesn’t pan out. A lot of them accept submissions directly. I have options. I will keep at it. This makes me feel so much better, because lately, I’ve been having doubts.

  • Hep, I’m right there with you.

    Jagi, thanks. I like that vision, so long as authors are getting an appropriately generous royalty rates on the “Expresso Books.” I think it’s a cool marketing idea. You and John should get one started in your copious spare time . . . 🙂

    Razz, I don’t think that print will ever be really dead. Just as vinyl records are now cool and coming back, so will paper books always appeal to a certain crowd, even after they cease to be the vast majority of books sold. But even that, I think is a long way off. As I said above, in my first comment, the most likely model seems to be a hybrid in which people buy both e-books and paper versions for different sorts of reading.

    Laura, I think you’re choosing the right path, and I think that this article bears that out. Best of luck with the agent quest!!