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Tuesday, 22 February 2011

Physical book sales down the toilet - Who is to blame?

Is the slump in the book market a well deserved blow to publishers? Have they brought it on themselves? An article recently published in the New York Daily News, and also online seemed to suggest so. The author of the article believes that the recent closure of Borders is largely because publishers were flooding the market with fluff that no one really wanted to buy - low-road books, massively hyped and rushed to the market; undeserving authors garnering ridiculous advances for crap.

The author of the piece states - "Flooding the market with books doesn't work, because books aren't like shoes or groceries. Readers don't demand choice as much as they demand quality. Fewer books, rigorously edited and thoughtfully published, would have better served both readers and writers." He then goes onto claim that, "Borders owes publishers vast amounts for such books, which it bought but then could not itself sell: $41 million to Penguin and $33.8 million to Simon & Schuster. Should they remain unpaid, every editor, author and agent in America will feel the pain."

The New York Daily News writer also blames publishers for training writers to have their eye on a six-figure advance, framing their books on the trends of the day rather than the book that they feel they must write.

The article seems rather hard to me but I feel some of the points have a certain merit - I have suspected for a long long time that books were being tailored to market trends, or at least what were perceived as market trends. I've long bemoaned the fact that there seems to be a uniform size for books if they are to compete in the mass market and yet not every book needs 500 pages - there was one point in the mid Nineties when I must have read more filler than story in most of the titles in the best-seller lists. Thankfully this is all changing in the current climate, with eBooks giving more than one big name publisher a bloody nose.

"If there is hope for publishing, it is with modest presses and modest books, putting out titles for small but loyal audiences. But that's not something that's going to warm the heart of Penguin's CEO." New York Daily News.

The key phrase there is small but loyal audiences -Now, as I've said, I do think that the Daily News article is a little extreme, but there is truth in the fact that publishers must take some of the blame for the slump in physical books. eBooks can give readers what they want - sometime during the late 80's the book market seemed to take a drastic change and almost overnight large sections of genre books seemed to vanish from shelves. I'm talking about what used to be called mid-list fiction - the genre stuff, westerns, war, horror, adult that were there one moment, lurid jackets enticing readers, and gone the next, replaced by books the size of house bricks and all sharing a certain sameness. It was as if publishers thought that a massive tome from the likes of Stephen King (and for the record I think King is mostly superb) sold in massive, profit making, amounts while the smaller mass market stuff didn't. The westerns, war novels, film and TV-tie ins, made a profit true but it was much smaller and suddenly the massive amounts made by the more commercial stuff, was all that mattered. It wasn't worth the effort to publish the thin, mass market genre paperbacks any longer and, it seemed, as if  publishers turned their back on this market simultaneously and a huge audience of readers found that they were no longer catered for. Suddenly bookshops became less interesting places and readers turned away - western fans found their beloved genre vanquished, readers who liked slim war novels from the likes of Sven Hassal found themselves bypassing the book shop and heading for the secondhand stalls and the fans of the pulpy Sci-Fi books, with thier bug eyed monsters and ray guns,  found themselves confronted with first person reflections on what it's like to be a unicorn.

It was as if the industry suddenly forgot that the main thing about reading is that it should be fun.

And here comes the eBook - now when eBooks first came to the fore I was sceptical and could never envisage an electronic device replacing a beloved book, but the fact is that since getting my eReader I have found it easier than ever to buy western novels, which is a genre I love and I'm sorry if I don't fit into the demographic publishers love but there you are, and as a result I buy more books than ever. I seldom visit a physical bookshop (since I lost my local Borders, that is) and I buy online from the comfort of my chair, bed. I've even bought books while on the beach. I'm no longer limited for choice, I can now get what I want.


ChickenDancing said...

Great thoughtful insight. There are so many reasons the book industry is being flushed, along with most of the entertainment industry. It seems they are the last to feel the pinch.

I have not bought an e-reader yet, but soon will just for the ease of finding what I want, when I want and for much less. I'll never give up the old fashioned book, but reading has become an expensive habit.

The only thing missing from this blog was basic reason for Borders problem is the same most large chains have closed: poor management structure, not listening to customers and greed, greed, greed.

Col Bury said...

Hi Gary,
Thought-provoking article, if not a tad depressing for a writer trying to break into the ultra-competitive marketplace.
Ps. Give me 'physical' book any time.