The Future of Books

Originally published 10/6/10

I've spent a lot of time recently reading about the future of books, and have come to the following conclusions:

  1. Book sales are on a slow decline. This is because of competition from other forms of entertainment, many of them on-line. Paula is a good example -- today she spends some of her time playing webkinz, doing geography quizzes, or reading/writing blog posts. A few years ago, some of that time would have been spent reading.
  2. eBooks are capturing increasing share from print books. The most recent statistics I've heard suggest 6-10% of current book sales are electronic. Everyone agrees it's going up, the only question is how far and how fast. A recent article titled Where will bookstores be five years from now suggests it could be 50% of the market by 2015. Another industry person I talked to said it will still be under 50% in 2025. I tend to believe the first analysis is closer to the truth.
  3. eReaders -- Kindle, Nook, Sony and iPad, are all coming down in price. You can get a basic reader right now for $139. If the entry price drops below $99, watch out. One will be in nearly everybody's Christmas stocking. And the technology is good -- almost everyone I know with a dedicated eReader, loves it.
  4. The share eBooks are capturing is mainly coming from bricks & mortar bookstores. How long they can hold on in a declining market with declining share is anybody's guess. I know from experience in other businesses, it's tough to survive a 20% drop in sales, and you do it typically by closing less profitable outlets. Look for bookstores to start closing soon. That will drive more of the print market to on-line vendors like Amazon, continuing to drive a death spiral for the brick & mortar stores.
  5. Publishers are in a tight spot in this environment. The primary value they add, the one that can't easily be replaced, is access to shelf space in brick & mortar bookstores. They do other things as well, namely: cover art, editing, printing, packaging and, to some degree for new authors, marketing. All those things can be purchased from other sources. As bookstores become less relevant in the equation, then so do publishers.
  6. It isn't easy, but even today, a new author can experience success by ePublishing for the Nook and Kindle, and contracting a print on demand service for the physical books. It is still my guess that a new author will sell more copies, and earn more with a traditional publishing contract, but I suspect we may not be all that far from the cross-over point.
  7. The ability to market your books, or get someone to market them for you, will be as important as craft when it comes to success. A poorly crafted book will not succeed with a great marketing strategy. A excellently crafted book will not succeed with a poor market strategy. It takes both.

So in this evolving environment, what is the best strategy for a new author, like your's truly? For now, I'm trying to enter using the traditional method -- a publisher. But I can't afford to be infinitely patient either. In both environments, it helps to have a number of titles, rather than just one. For now, I'm going to continue working with my agent to try to land that elusive publishing deal, while I work hard to produce additional work. Who knows where I'll be in a year?