This will probably be the last good Christmas for the big box bookstores like Barnes and Noble and Borders and many of the book chains that one encounters in major airports.
I say this with a sincere sense of regret and sadness. The love of books, both as a writer, a reader and a collector has dominated my life. As a young man my greatest joy was to browse through bookstores, especially those second hand bookstores that once lined the streets not far from New York University, my alma mater, where I now teach novel writing.
Indeed, to this day I can still recall the wonderful disorder of those bookstores and the strangely exhilarating musty odor of their aging books. I gaze fondly at my special companions, the books that line my apartment shelves that seem to reach out with their intangible inducements to savor again the exhilarating wonders of their contents.
Unfortunately, like the buggy, the chaise, the four-in-hand, the sulky and the surrey, the big box bookstores will pass into glorious oblivion, along with the implosion of the printed book. Perhaps a new kind of bookstore, a specialized boutique might emerge out of the chaos of change. Courage and creativity have won battles before.
Happily though, contents, meaning the word in all its various manifestations will not only survive in its new technological trappings but will undoubtedly proliferate. The facts are inescapable. The age of digitization has left the traditional publishing world in its wake. The old methods of getting content to readers are in its twilight.
It has been ten years since I first digitized my then twenty odd published novels, all of which I acquired through reversals of my original publishing contracts with traditional publishers. My goals were simple. The technology for reading on screens was developing and being embraced by the upcoming younger generation brought up on computers. My novels would never go out of print and always be available to be purchased and read, hopefully beyond my lifetime. The delivery method was changing radically and one needed to prepare for the future or be forever lost in the past.
Frankly, I had hoped that the movement from paper to screens and the development of reader friendly devices would happen at a more rapid pace. My overzealous optimism was a case of enthusiasm over reality. But anyone with even a modicum of vision could see that one day it would happen and when it did it would gather traction at warp speed and it has.
I recall addressing many groups on the coming reading revolution. Most of those who took the time to listen were doubtful and militantly hopeful that the time would never come when the paper book would lose its dominance. Although I was patient and tolerant as I listed to their critiques, I knew in my gut they were wrong.
When Sony introduced the first reader at the Las Vegas Consumer Electronics Show in 2007, I was enlisted to speak on their behalf and continued to find a cautious and restrained response. Then came the first Kindle a year later. The Sony Reader was still tethered to the computer but the Kindle raced forward with a wireless connection that led the way for others to discover the screen reader’s possibilities.
Unfortunately, the traditional publishers, most of them part of giant publishing conglomerates were too slow to understand the power of this revolution. Indeed, even Barnes and Noble with its numerous stores gave up its entry into the electronic book market, a hiatus which cost them dearly. They are now playing catch up with their Nook device, but the impact on its stories will be profound and perhaps fatal.
Few people in the publishing industry and beyond believed that e-books would grow as a consumer choice at such tremendous speed. The traditional publishers dismissed the possibility that it would be a major factor in sales and marketing, perhaps gaining a small percentage of the market. They were dead wrong.
By my own seat of the pants calculation, I believe that electronic books will dominate the marketplace within the next three years. The e-book technology which crosses numerous mobile platforms where books can be read on every possible portable device covering smart phones, tablets, and dedicated devices like Kindle and the Sony Reader and Kobo will proliferate at an astonishing pace.
Big box stores, which will no longer need the space for book sales will be hard hit. Traditional publishers are scrambling for ways to continue to profit from the notoriety of their writing stars as they switch from print to digitization. Attempts to jack up the prices of e-books now being tried by publishers for popular titles like Ken Follett’s and Patterson’s new factory novel will, in my opinion, surrender to public avoidance. In any event the windows on the apparatus of celebrity promotion are closing as the outlets for building image and popularity clog the pipelines required to gain overwhelming attention.
The road ahead for authors will be challenging. The old paradigm of generous advances will eventually shrink largely due to proliferating competition, the uncertainty of marketability and the inability to predict future revenues. But then one can never underestimate the possibilities of invention in the commercial zeitgeist and, like all predictions they are subject to change.
With digitized books no longer going out of print and the staggering growth of self-published books rushing headlong into the cyberspace pipeline, authors will have an increasingly tough time to identify themselves and rise above the chatter. In the years ahead the number of books available, both in fiction and non-fiction could easily run into the multi-millions with publishers and authors scrambling to get readers to notice their wares. Even the stars in their fields will risk losing their status and authors will have to be creative to devise ways to be heard above the din.
An author and publisher in this world of digitization will have to be imaginative, fleet footed and creative and be willing to experiment with new ways to present his or her content to the reading public. My instincts at this stage tell me that vast numbers of dedicated readers will latch on to dedicated devices with fewer distractions to compete for his or her individual concentration.
While some will see social networking as the road to notoriety, others will choose coalitions of websites, advertising, keywords on search engines and methods yet to be devised to gain the attention of readers.
At this stage I am inclined to believe that Amazon and Kindle will be the leader in the bookselling business, at least in the near term. Their vast content and their ability to employ every other portable device to deliver their wares is an enormous plus for the future of reading content of every type, although to keep this lead will require an ever galloping imagination and perpetual technological creativity.
Other providers will be snapping at their heels in this super charged competitive environment that digitization has spawned. Whatever the future brings it is dead certain that the electronic book will be at the heart of what comes next.
Authors and publishers will have to be nimble and adventurous if they are to survive a revolution that will surely lay waste to the old ways of delivering content. Still, few understand how to deal with the big waves of change that have gathered and are rolling toward us with ever advancing power and speed.
Sorry to be such a scrooge about the book business in this upcoming Christmas. But remember old Scrooge was a character in Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, a published fiction that has survived more than one hundred and fifty years and can currently be downloaded in less than a minute as an e-book.