Whence Doth It Go?
By the 1820s, newspapers were plentiful and inexpensive and people thought that it would mean the death of the book. In the 1870s, magazines were now becoming common and everybody knew that the book couldn’t survive. By the 1920s, it was radio and pretty soon everyone would have a radio and the book would be a goner. In the 1950s, television came into living rooms across the continent and there would be no way that the book could survive. At the turn of the 21st.-Century, it was the Internet. It was everywhere: in the offices, in the homes, in the schools, and even on mobile telephones. Now, it is the electronic book reader: iPads, Kindles, BeBooks and eReaders and certainly the death knell is being sounded for the book.
But when you look back, the only thing that has changed is the carrier. From paperbacks, back to hardcovers, back to vellum, back to papyrus scrolls and finally back to stone tablets. So, when was the last time you read a papyrus scroll?
In my opinion, before the book bows out and exits, stage right, it will be the booksellers who will be gone. After more than a century of having to deal with the ultimate ‘middleman’—the retail bookseller—the publishers at last have achieved their most sought-after goal: being able to sell their product directly to the public.
Without having booksellers eat up 40-60% of the total retail price of the book, think of how much more the publishers will be able to keep for themselves. For a $30.00 hardcover, an independent bookseller buys that item from the publisher for $18.00, meaning that $12.00 is all his, just for the job of ordering, stocking a selling the item. If that retailer is a ‘big box’ store, like WalMart, Target, Chapters/Indigo, etc., they only pay $12.00 for that item…and get to keep $18.00 for themselves. Yikes!
The reward for the actual creator of the damn thing? Well, if your agent is on the ball, 15%, if not, then as low as 8%. That’s $2.40 to $4.50 per book when the bookseller gets $12.00 and the ‘big box’ retailer gets $18.00 and you wrote it!
So what will the publisher do with that extra $12-18.00 they no longer will have to fork over to the bookseller? Give it to the author? Oh yeah, that’ll happen! When pigs fly! No, the publisher will, in all likelihood, keep that bonanza as well as the other savings.
“Other savings, Gracie?” I hear you ask.
With no actual physical book to sell, they will no longer have to design elaborate covers, thereby saving even more and no longer employing either art directors and cover designers or even having to pay actual cover artists. Since the book won’t be printed, they won’t have to get a printer to buy paper for the text block, paperback covers and dust-wrappers and cardboard for the hardcovers and the printer can say ‘good-bye’ to a nice chunk of their business and they can downsize, releasing an equal chunk of their employees.
The lumber companies will cut down and therefore plant fewer trees to be used for the paper to make books and that will affect the forestry industry. Since the publishers will no longer need to stack physical books by the pallet-ful, they too can downsize from their large warehouses to just offices, saving them even more cash and allowing their warehouse personnel to find employment elsewhere.
Will it just be forestry, the printers and publishers who will be laying people off? Nope. How do the printers get all those thousands of pallets of books to the publishers? Trucks. Likewise the publishers use trucks to deliver boxes to independent booksellers and big box retailers. So they will lose maybe 10% of their business and might have to lay off even more people.
So technology again moves us forward, making reading more affordable than ever when an ebook is selling for about ten bucks (with occasional sale items, loss leaders and day specials). What percentage does the author get from ebooks? If they place it on Amazon themselves…70%! If their publisher does it…20-25%. Double Yikes!!
If the bookseller can very easily be removed as a middleman from the author-to-publisher-to-bookseller-to-reader chain, just how long before the publisher is a similar casualty? I can see authors’ websites having all their books in digital form, pret á lire, ready to read. You pay the author directly either through your credit card or Paypal or other on-line payment system and there you have it, James Patterson’s most recent book…the next one will be ready in a couple days!
Now I have, by choice rather than necessity, made this a gloomy future perspective. In reality there will be many shades of grey in this black-versus-white question but the black may descend if not by 2015, then maybe by 2025, or 2050, or 2100…
The only survivors of the electronic book wars will probably be the used and out-of-print dealers selling actual books (their own versions of 33s or 45s or 8-tracks) to a gradually diminishing readership or even smaller pool of collectors.
Al Navis is the owner of Handy Book in Toronto for the past 28 years, a used and out-of-print independent bookstore. He was chairman and host of Bouchercon: The World Mystery Convention in 1992 and 2004. He has also been on and off Toronto radio for over 30 years. Books are his business and first passion. Other passions are most sports (except basketball), most music (except C&W and rap) and radio. More recently he has gotten back into editing and writing as well as appraising book collections for insurance or for loss.