The following is from Jerry Simmons’ September 16, 2010 newsletter. Readers can access additional information at his web site.
The Future of Print Books
Forget the doomsday scenario; printed books are not going away. Their relevance in the market is going to diminish over time, but there will always be printed books. The biggest publishers are struggling with the notion that within the next few years the major chains may well disappear. As sales continue to decline the two largest bookstore chains in America are barely hanging on and all indications seem to be that both are on the verge of insolvency.
Just like Blockbuster and Hollywood video the mega-bookstore may well be nothing more than an historical notation with empty buildings and faded memories from long removed or faded store signs. The credit squeeze from major publishers means these large companies can only order so many books to place on shelves. Should either of these two chains suddenly file bankruptcy the publishers that subsidize the inventory do not want to be in a position of holding the bag for unpaid and unsold books.
Without an unlimited supply of credit from major publishers to order more new copies it becomes a Catch-22. Publishers are limiting their exposure and the retailers need more copies of titles to sell. Ultimately the consumer is the loser because the older backlist titles that everyone shops for and buys will no longer be readily available aside from a special order. It is truly a sad day for the major publishing houses not to mention the few remaining readers of this country who actually buy books.
What Happens Next?
The big New York companies are doing two things, (1) they are systematically over time eliminating positions within the company, and (2) cutting their list of titles and reducing acquisitions of new manuscripts. It becomes a downward spiral where retailers point the finger at publishers for their problems and publishers point the finger at retailers for falling sales. This puts the squeeze on new writers and agents since each need an open market for selling new manuscripts. It also leaves writers without the open source for marketing their writing.
The result over the past several years has been an explosion of self-published books. The lack of new title publications that has cut the market for new writers only exacerbates the bigger problem–how do [authors] sell more books? Many in publishing have left because they were frustrated with the big companies’ lack of innovation and unrelenting quest to do things as they have always been done, regardless of the results.
There will be no Washington bailout of the publishing companies but there will be a transformation. Publishers are going to have to redesign their future in an environment where printed book sales and prominence are in decline, digital publishing is exploding and the rights of authors are being challenged by the writers themselves. This creates an opportunity for writers that never existed.
You have to start with the premise that content is king. Well written, professionally edited manuscripts that inform, entertain and even enlighten are going to become the new gold standard in publishing. Up to this point the major companies have shifted too much of their focus to publishing celebrity books with built-in publicity and not focused enough on the quality of the work itself. There is no plausible reason why a TV star should receive a seven figure advance for a single title when that money could have been invested in several potential bestselling authors who up to this point are unpublished and unknown.
For too long the major companies have searched for the quick bestseller as opposed to building a steady stream of consistent, predictable mid-list titles each with the potential for break-out. The seasonal lists of publishers became top heavy with bigger and bigger single titles while cutting the heart out of the very fabric that provided them with most of their revenue and profit, the mid-list author. During the transformation publishers will be forced to forget about a single seven figure advance and move toward signing more authors with quality content.