There’s a lot of fear and loathing right now among authors and publishers regarding eBooks. Is this the beginning of the end for print books? The death of publishers? Will eBooks be a boon or the final stake in the heart for the midlist author? Nobody out there has a clue how all this is going to shake out. I certainly don’t, but I’m going to throw out some random thoughts on the subject and see where that leads. I’ll also be tossing out a few predictions. If I toss out enough, I’ll get lucky with one and will later proclaim myself the next Nostradamus!
First, eBooks are conceptually brilliant. Have one device replace 1000s of physical books, being able to buy books at the touch of a button, easily magnifying the text so those of us with declining eyesight can read without magnifying glasses. All this is great, but there are problems lurking in this. Right now the cost of eBook readers (Kindles, nooks, iPads, etc.) is between $139 and $829. This gets worse when you think that each reading member of the family will need a device. So the old paradigm was you buy a book and share it among family and friends; new paradigm, each family member has to buy an expensive eBook reader before they can share their books. This becomes even more problematic as eBook readers break, are lost or become obsolete. Think of it, you lose your eBook reader, you lose your library, at least until you replace it. You drop your eBook reader while on vacation, you lose your library and all the books you wanted to read. You might not even have to lose or break your eBook reader to lose your library. A glitch in their software might lose your library for you. Can’t happen? Hah! Happened to me and the tunes I bought for my iPod from Apple. And there’s little doubt that technology and the marketplace will march on and your eBook reader will at some point (probably a lot sooner than you ever imagined) become obsolete (think 8-track tapes, cassettes, etc.) and you will need to replace both your reader and library. Not going to happen? Ebook formats will always be supported by the next generation of eBook readers? If you believe that I’ve got some swamp land to sell you. Now some people are predicting that eBook reader prices are going to come down dramatically, which leads to my first two predictions.
(Prediction 1) Dedicated eBook readers, like Kindle and Nook, will try to lower their prices to gain marketshare, but they will go the way of the 8-track as consumers gravitate towards multifunction devices like iPads, which will not be lowering their prices substantially.
(Prediction 2) You think ADD is bad now, just wait until we have a generation of readers constantly interrupting their reading to check Facebook and email.
I can’t see the Kindle and Nook surviving, not when consumers can buy devices like an iPad which gives them also movies, games, and thousands of other applications, especially websurfing. Plus the iPad solves the biggest problem dedicated eReaders like the Kindle and Nook have now, mainly graphics, which children's picture books and textbooks need.
How are eBooks going to affect bookstores? I’ve read predictions that the tipping point is 25 percent, and bookstores can’t survive, and that this will happen by the end of 2011. Namely, once 25% of the book buyers have moved to eBooks, that will be the death of bookstores, and enough iPads will be given out as Christmas presents by 2011 that we’ll hit that 25% number. I don’t know if that’s true or not, but there’s no doubt that eBooks are putting pressure on bookstores. Amazon announced earlier that they’re selling more eBooks than hardcovers. For anyone who thought Amazon was stretching the truth, Harper just announced that for the first week of Laura Lippman’s latest book, they sold roughly 4800 ebooks compared to 4000 hardcovers. We’re in the midst of a recession, and this is not making it any easier for bookstores to survive. It would be a very sad cultural loss for bookstores to disappear, and as an author, it would be devastating. This leads to my next two predictions:
(Prediction 3) Large publishing is starting to diverge where they’ll be publishing in print only books for the large box stores, everything else will be digital only.
(Prediction 4) Small independent bookstores that can integrate themselves into their neighborhoods will survive and flourish, and will sell mostly books from small independent presses.
Over the last year I saw a statistic that the large box stores (Walmart, Target, Costco, etc.) sell 60% of all books. I don’t know if this is still true, but it sure seems as if the large publishers are rapidly increasing their blockbuster only mentality. With the chain stores struggling and the increasing pressure caused by eBooks, I see them only printing the so-called blockbusters that they can continue to sell to these box stores, and all other books will be put out only as digital with maybe small POD runs. On the other hand, the independent publishers will increasingly publish the books that these large houses ignore, and these are the books that will excite readers sick of the same old formulaic blockbusters being constantly recycled by the large houses. These more exciting independent press books will help allow smart independent bookstores to flourish during these uncertain times. But what about publishers in general? On the one hand they must love the distribution costs associated with eBooks ($0) as opposed to the high distribution costs associated with print books. But here’s the thing, if readers get sick of these large blockbusters, or stop buying them from box stores and instead buy them as eBooks, then these large publishers are dead. There’s no reason in that scenario for bestselling authors to cut them in. They’ll do it themselves. Which leads me to my next predictions.
(Prediction 5) The large publishers who continue to follow their current blockbuster only mentality will die.
(Prediction 6) The smaller, independent publishes who keep publishing the books they love instead of chasing after blockbusters like the big six, will flourish as they form a symbiotic relationship with like-minded small independent bookstores.
So this begs the question why wouldn’t the authors being published by the smaller houses do it themselves like the big boys will? Simple, the support by these publishers and small bookstores are critical to us smaller known authors. You look at the bestselling crime authors today, and few of them would’ve made it without small bookstores handselling them for years and developing them a readership. That’s what has been happening to me over the last few years as booksellerS who discover my books recommend them to their customers. This is going to be needed more than ever for writers in the eBook free-for-all that’s coming.
So these are some of my thoughts and predictions. While I think it’s clear things are going to be changing rapidly, I do see a glimmer of hope. Is #6 wishful thinking or an honest prediction? We’ll see.
Dave Zeltserman lives in the Boston area with his wife, Judy, and his short crime fiction has been published in many venues. His third novel, Small Crimes, was named by NPR as one of the 5 best crime and mystery novels of 2008. His novel, Pariah, was named by the Washington Post as one of the best books of 2009. Killer, the 3rd book in his 'man out of prison' noir trilogy was published in the