Sunday, January 9, 2011

All Hail the Digital Age of Publishing!

Key Porter Books announced this week that it has "suspended publishing operations and is considering selling off parts of its backlist. "


Canadian publishers have had a rough couple of years, and there's been a lot of speculation about how digital publishing, e-books, etc. are going to change the industry. Yes, some traditional publishers will fall away in the shuffle. But I'm not sure that the digital reading revolution is going to be as terrible as some think.

Consider the music industry.

Back in my day - aka, the 80's - the sharing of music was very uncommon. You might copy an LP onto a cassette tape for yourself, to play in your oh-so-tiny (see my tongue in my cheek?) Sony Walkman, or receive a mixed tape from your boyfriend if he really liked you, but it wasn't a common thing to share and trade the albums you'd purchased. For one thing, they were pricey. And volatile. Tapes could get "eaten" by rogue equipment; albums were easily scratched/dirtied/warped. Copying things was also time consuming, as making a mixed tape using several LPs meant you had to sit through each song, pausing the tape recorder after each selection. It used to take all day.

Fast forward to 2011: all I have to do to get new music is click a couple of buttons. If I'm clever, I don't even need to pay for it. I also don't need cumbersome tapes or discs, because I can store it all on my hard drive, or an mp3 player. And even though I'd be breaking copyright, I can post that music on other file sharing sites, providing it for free to millions of others.

Digitization, then, for the music industry, has probably meant lower sales, and lower revenues.

But for the publishing industry, it may work in the opposite way.

Let's go back to the 80's. Or even 2005, before I had the inside scoop on royalties.

Books were the original victims of "file sharing". If I got a book I liked, I would recommend it to someone else. And then I'd hand it to them. And they'd hand it to someone else. And so on, and so on. In fact, I'm pretty sure that my friend Karen's $5.95 copy of Flowers in the Attic made it's way through every girl in my grade seven class without one of us ever going out to purchase a copy. Books are easy to share, because unlike albums, we aren't as likely to revisit them, even if we love them. Besides which: the more we love them, the more we want other people to read them, so that we can talk about them. And so they have traditionally been passed around, person to person, in much the same way that digital music is shared today.

Digital books will actually reverse this trend. Perhaps having learned from the music industry, e-readers don't make it easy to share files. And the equipment required to read an e-book is expensive - and personal - enough that even when I enjoy something, I am NOT going to hand over my Kindle to someone else to read. Instead, I'll recommend it. And they will buy their own copy, so both publisher and the author will receive the royalties that they deserve.

Here's another little secret that I learned years ago, but have been amazed to discover that so many others don't know: the publishing industry has traditionally had a ridiculous, environmentally irresponsible model that needed to be overhauled. Here's how it works: books are printed and shipped to bookstores. Six months go by. Bookstores need more space. They return unsold books to the publishers. Who else does that? Seriously. Can you imagine a grocery store sending unsold lettuce back to the farmer who grew it? There is absolutely no pressure whatsoever on the bookstore to research its product or order responsibly, because they aren't going to get stuck with anything unsold. And they don't even have to pay for return shipping, because massmarket paperbacks just get the covers ripped off of them and then get destroyed. The covers are much lighter and less expensive to ship, and tearing them off for return proves to the publisher that they actually went unsold, so the bookstore doesn't get billed for them. Picture the same system in a jewelery store:

Hmm..this batch of diamond rings didn't sell! Oh well!
We'll just rip the gemstones out of their settings and send back the gold to
prove it....then we don't have to pay our supplier for any of the
unsold rings, and the publisher can just absorb the manufacturing costs themselves! <>

Pretty dumb, eh?

If ebooks can eliminate that kind of waste and stupidity then bookstores and publishers can both get paid for the things that sell, and
nobody has to take any extra hits for things that don't.

Best of all, trees don't have to die for my art.