Publishing in a Changing Market

One of the bloggers that I follow posted this the other day (The Book vs. The E-Reader), and between that and a conversation I had with my mom while she was visiting, I got to thinking up enough to merit a post.

As we’re all intimately aware, the industry of books has been changed dramatically by the introduction of e-readers. Sure, e-books were around before then, to a certain extent, mostly for people with bad eyes or natural tendencies toward reading on the computer. I know I’d read a couple of e-books way back before anyone in the general population could have dreamt of a Kindle or Nook.

Since Amazon and Barnes & Noble created and, more importantly, successfully marketed, their e-readers, the reading market has been turned upside down. Readers engage in debates about preferring the experience of the paperback over the e-reader, or about the convenience the e-reader offers. At this point, I think we’re all pretty familiar with the debate. Personally, I don’t even know which side of that coin I come down on—like everything else in my life, I go through phases of preference.

When my family was visiting, I decided it was finally time for me to go actually get that elusive library card. I’ve been in this new apartment for over 2 months, the local library was less than a mile away, and I still hadn’t gone (I kept using work as an excuse, but we all know I was just procrastinating). So while Mom and I were driving past the library to go to the grocery store, I made an impulsive turn and decided that it was time.

My mom was surprised, but we’ll get back to that in a second. At this point, some more background information is required.

My parents have, at this point, pretty firmly come down on the side of the e-reader. The cloud services, in particular, have made reading quickly and cheaply pretty remarkable. We all have kindles and/or kindle apps linked to the same Amazon account, and we’ve built up quite the library archive of books in that collection. Mom even started reading fantasy books, much to the pleasure of my dad and I. As a consequence, I don’t think my mom has touched an actual book in well over a year. I may be wrong—after all, I live on the opposite side of the country, so maybe I just don’t hear about it.

So while we were walking into the library, my mom said something to the effect of this endless debate about books vs. e-readers. I explained that even if I want to check out e-books, I would need a library card. And then, as I was gearing up for the excitement of browsing a new bookshelf to see what new adventures might await me, I said something along the lines of, “You know, if I ever get published, I will be the happiest person in the world when I walk into a library and see my book sitting on the shelf.”

The conversation then, naturally, evolved into a discussion of efficient use of resources. My mom was surprised that, even though she’s known that I’ve had a dream of being a published author for most of my life at this point, I still planned on publishing in the traditional manner: with actual books. She commented that real books don’t sell anymore, and it wouldn’t be worth the resources to publish anything other than an e-book. As someone who still buys physical books, I, of course, disagreed with her. Clearly the major publishing companies currently disagree with her too, or we wouldn’t still have so many physical copies of books available at purchase.

But there’s no doubt that it’s a shrinking market. And I got to thinking … Could it be that the publishing houses are just a little behind the curve? Obviously they’ve pretty comfortably jumped on the upswing of e-book publishing, but could it be that they are still spending enormous resources supplying physical books that exceed the actual demand? Has the true demand shrunk enough that we’re in a transitional surplus of supply that’s not necessarily obvious to the average consumer? (Yes, I was an econ student, why do you ask? If you’re interested in more econ-like discussion, you should totally check out The Politiconomist)

So I have some natural follow-up questions that will push me deeper down the road of Economics: Do the major publishing houses have enough information to be making rational decisions about their product placement? Are they making plans for physical books to go obsolete, or do they believe that the market in that segment will continue? What kinds of industries, if any, are they using for a model to ensure their continued success? After all, it’s not often that an entire market segment undergoes the kind of fracture that this one has—the soda industry kind of did in its early days, when Coca-Cola started introducing new products; the automobile industry has gone through several revolutions of production and product placement. But to me it doesn’t feel the same, and maybe that’s just because I’m actually experiencing this one.

The fact of the matter is that for the companies, survival comes down to being lucky and having the right information. I’m sure that somewhere out there, someone has their hands on some invaluable market data on the subject. It’s probably someone at one of the seriously major publishing houses that everyone knows. Heck, it might even be someone associated with one of the majorly successful books which shall not be named here. I’d like to know what’s being done with that data. It’s a shortfall of The Information Age that we tend to collect enormous amounts of useful data and then just ignore it because the average person doesn’t know what to do with it. It’s why statisticians and actuaries are paid the big bucks (which, you might almost come to the conclusion that that’s why I’m getting a Masters in Applied Statistics).

I would love to get my hands on that data and take a peek at what’s going on in the market and try to do some forecasting. That would just … it would make my day. Or week. Or month. Maybe not quite my year, but you never know.

As I was about to finish this draft, the wonderful and talented Lindsey the Day Dreaming, Candy Eating, Red Headed Bookworm, who, as I mentioned, also inspired this post gave me a whole bunch of links to articles and data analysis on this topic. I was going to edit this post and include some reference to those, but this would turn into a monstrously long post. I will likely make a follow-up once I have parsed through that info, so keep your eyes peeled for more on this topic.

Any of you folks out there hoping to be published (or already published), I’d be interested in hearing your thoughts. Is it worth the resources to publish physical books, or should the focus be shifting entirely to e-books? On that line of thought, what about libraries? Are they becoming obsolete institutions?

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Posted on July 16, 2013, in Miscellaneous and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 5 Comments.

  1. Great post, you’ve really got my brain working. Now I want to do some research on the subject too (and I hate research). Glad that I could be of any help!

    • Haha, thanks for reading 🙂 I still haven’t had a chance to read through the articles you linked—my afternoons/evenings have been complete chaos this week. At some point I will have a follow-up post that utilizes some of their knowledge 😉

  2. Even though I favour e-readers in principle, in practice I have an attachment to the idea of being published on paper, in a book people can browse and pick up, something where I can smell the pages. But in as far as I have anything different to add to the debate, it’s in this post I wrote a year ago:
    http://andrewknighton.wordpress.com/2012/06/25/the-future-is-cardboard/

    • Thanks for reading – I love your post! I think the big debate so often forgets about our younger members—that experience of first learning how something like a book works … I wish I could imagine it myself! The feeling of discovery … Then again, I suppose that’s what books are for, in the long run—discovering a different world or story. In the early stages it just happens to be a more tactile discovery.

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