BROOKE GLADSTONE This is On the Media, I'm Brooke Gladstone. The book is an old market and for centuries a relatively steady one. But according to Cambridge University sociology professor John Thompson, author of Book Wars: The Digital Revolution in Publishing, it was transformed by three key developments in the mid-twentieth century. First, the invention of the chain bookstores, initially in malls, and then as standalone literary oases. Next, super agents. Brokers of deals between publishers and authors who now fiercely prioritize the writers and their advances. And finally, the conglomeration of publishers from scattered individual operations into the powerhouses we know today. In America, anyway, the difference between 1900 and 1980 for books was stark. From first draft to final sale. But then it was overtaken by an even more powerful, irresistible force: the digital revolution. And at the intersection of leather and papyrus and paper and cloth emerged the stunning new dance of digital bits across glowing screens and a new kind of business was born. This conversation first aired in September.
JOHN B. THOMPSON Amazon began in the mid late 1990s as a new start up in the retail side of the publishing business. No one knew what was going to happen and how it was going to develop, but of course it became a major player within the retail space of publishing and then began to have an influence on other sectors of publishing as well.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Speaking of other sectors of publishing, let's talk about the rise of e-books. You say that Amazon didn't invent the e-book. Michael Hart at the University of Illinois typed the Declaration of Independence into plain text back in 1971. But at the time, Amazon started bringing out e-books. The assumption was that e-books would end up taking over the book market, right?
JOHN B. THOMPSON Correct. In the early 2000s, the digital revolution was beginning to cause chaos throughout the media industries, especially with the music industry. Between 2000 and 2010, revenues in the music industry collapsed. And this coincided with the shift away from vinyl LPs and CDs to digital downloads in the music industry. And if you were to go back to the early 2000, senior executives in the book publishing industry were looking over their shoulders at what was happening in the music industry and wondering if that was their future, too.
BROOKE GLADSTONE There's much to be said about the similarity of vinyl to the fall and rise of the paper book. There was a funny New Yorker cartoon that said, What I really love about vinyl is its expense and inconvenience. So the Kindle, just to put some dates on it, was released in 2007. The sales of e-books absolutely took off between 2008 and 2012. And then what caught everybody completely by surprise is what happened in 2012 and 2013, which is the sales stopped burgeoning.
JOHN B. THOMPSON And then from 2013 on, it actually began to decline. You see this pattern in other adoption of new technologies where you get rapid growth. You get saturation in the market and the growth stops. And then it begins to fall off slightly. When you drill down a bit deeper and you look at how different types of books have performed as e-books, you find that some types have actually sold really well as e-books and continue to sell really well as e-books while other types of books never took off at all.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Like what?
JOHN B. THOMPSON For example, genre fiction has sold very, very well in e-book format, most notably romance novels.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Hence 50 Shades of Gray, which is interesting for a lot of reasons. It was a self-published book, but we'll get to that in a moment. So that particular genre?
JOHN B. THOMPSON Romance erotica have sold very strongly in e-book, but also other genre fiction categories such as sci-fi, thriller, mystery and so on and so forth.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Because the fans consume them like chocolates in a box?
JOHN B. THOMPSON Because the narrative structure of genre fiction is such that it's quite easy to read on a digital device. Moreover, you don't necessarily want to keep your romance novel on a shelf. Once you've finished it, you finished it and you want to move on to the next one. So there is no desire for many people to have a collection of genre fiction. And thirdly, of course, you want it as cheaply as you can get it. And e-books are often priced more cheaply than print books. Now, at the other end of the spectrum, there are certain kinds of books like cookbooks and travel books and children's books that never took off in e-book format at all.
BROOKE GLADSTONE It really surprises me that travel books did not because you'd want to take them on the road. Cookbooks? Yeah. I've done a lot of cooking, bringing something up on an iPad, but it's nice to have a book. Children's books. People want them to be tactile, and they usually have lots of beautiful pictures that look better on paper. You've noted elsewhere that books like Biography, History, Self-help, that's about 20, 25% of the e-book market. But what about literature and classics and mid-list stuff?
JOHN B. THOMPSON With general fiction that is not genre fiction, but classic fiction and so on and so forth. The pattern tends to be lower than genre fiction, but higher than nonfiction. So it's in between. But the important point to emphasize here is that another reason why the overall pattern is misleading is because the data is from the mainstream trade publishers. But a great deal of e-book activity takes place outside of the world of traditional mainstream publishers. It takes place in the world of self-publishing, for example.
BROOKE GLADSTONE You begin early in your book with the story of Andy Weir, famously the author of the blockbuster book and movie The Martian. Is there a way to quickly summarize his story and tell us the lesson learned?
JOHN B. THOMPSON So Andy Weir was someone who had always wanted to be a writer, but it never panned out. And so he became a software engineer, but he kept on writing as a hobby, and he would post things on his website. And he was working on this story about a spaceship that landed on Mars, and someone got left behind when they had to make a quick exit and people were following it. And then he came to the end and somebody said to him, Gosh, that was a great story. Why don't you turn it into an e-book? Because then it would all be together, etc., etc.. So he decided that he would upload it to Amazon to Kindle Direct as an e-book. And then out of the blue he got a phone call from an agent who said, I've read your e-book and would really love to represent you. And Andy Weir took the book off the Amazon website. It was published by Random House, first as a hardback and then as a paperback. And it went straight to number one — became a bestseller.
BROOKE GLADSTONE So his was an astonishing success, but exceedingly rare – no?
JOHN B. THOMPSON It's the story of one of the tremendous consequences of the digital revolution, which is that it creates pathways into publication that are very different from the traditional pathways. Of course, this particular story from blog to bestseller is exceedingly rare, but there are more successes in the world of self-publishing than many people like to think. If you actually scrutinize Amazon's e-book bestseller lists, you find a surprising number of self-published books. Now, having said that, most people who self-published their books find that sales are very, very low.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Well, for the majority of books of all kinds, sales tend to be pretty low. Someone told me the other day that self publishers are losers because it meant they couldn't get a regular publisher. Do you think that attitude has changed?
JOHN B. THOMPSON Completely changed. The story of self-publishing is in itself a fascinating and complicated story. It's not new. It goes back to the 1920s when we saw the emergence of a group of publishers, which became known as vanity publishers, because the author would have to pay to get their book published. And it was expensive. It could cost anything from $5000 to $25000, maybe more, depending on how many copies you wanted. That was the traditional model that continued right through the 20th century up until the 1990s, early 2000s. But then with the digital revolution, something changed. You could create a platform that would enable authors to upload their content, and they wouldn't have to pay anything to do that. So the platform would earn money only if and when those books sold, and if and when they sold the platform would take a percentage as a commission. This turned the old model of self-publishing on its head. The world of indie authors is a large community of people who actively identify with this. They don't think of themselves as losers at all. They think of themselves as independent authors who take responsibility for their own publishing.
BROOKE GLADSTONE I'm going to tell the person who said that to me that answer. Now, given how much power Amazon has, I've become accustomed to thinking that it's a bad thing for the publishing industry, and that's a bad thing for writers and readers, although I'm starting to feel that about the publishing industry itself, too. Would I be wrong?
JOHN B. THOMPSON I don't think you're wrong. I want to stress again, there are many very positive things about Amazon. We as readers of books know that the availability of books is greater now than it has ever been. However, Amazon now represents the most powerful organization that the book publishing industry has ever seen in its 500 years of history. For many publishers, Amazon now accounts for maybe 50% or maybe more of their sales. And the more power it has, the more it also acts as what in legal terms is called a monopsony, an organization which has overwhelming power in relation to its suppliers. And this distorts the marketplace. And so to answer your question, it's this kind of distortion of the marketplace that is the danger.
BROOKE GLADSTONE You observed in your preface that the prognosticators were wrong, especially earlier in this century, about how new technological ways to consume culture would invariably prevail over the old ways, because they based far too much of their analysis on the technologies themselves. What were they missing?
JOHN B. THOMPSON They were missing the people. Technologies don't exist in a vacuum. They thought that the mere fact that these technologies had certain affordances to use the technical term here that is that they made certain things possible would lead inevitably to the preference of those technologies over other modes of consumption. So the mere fact that an e-book reader enables you to carry a hundred or a thousand books around with you rather than one would lead inevitably to people preferring it because it offers more. And what they fail to take account of is that for the individual consumer, being able to carry 100 books around with you is neither here nor there because you're only going to read one at any point in time. So it doesn't really matter unless, of course, you're going on a very long holiday. What you really need to look at is what people value when it comes to a reading device. And it turns out that the old fashioned reading device of the print on paper book delivers certain things to people that they highly value. With an e-book, you can't put it on your shelf. You can't give it to someone as a gift. Books have a certain role in people's lives that the technology and e-book reader on e-book doesn't have.
BROOKE GLADSTONE You wrote that books are part of culture and that could be seen as part of the larger culture war. But what you call book wars, the title of your book, and you note that war in that context may seem a little hyperbolic. That kind of war is of an entirely different nature.
JOHN B. THOMPSON For those players in the industry itself who were living through these changes and engaging with the conflicts. It was a war. Google and Amazon looked across the book publishing world as a domain, which they could transform. And the first major attempt to do that was, of course, the Google Library Project, which was aimed at digitizing all the book content that existed in many large libraries. Publishers suddenly realized that traditional laws of copyright under which they had run their businesses for centuries were being called into question here. And this was a ferocious battle between publishers on the one hand and Google on the other. And it led to legal dispute that went on for many, many, many years. And that battle had not even finished when the new battle with Amazon broke out over the pricing of e-books. That also ended up in a long legal struggle because it was subjected to investigation by the Department of Justice. So the phrase book wars is perfectly warranted by the scale of the conflict that was brought about by these transformations.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Are you worried about these transformations, these disruptions, or do you exult in the idea of plunging into yet another brave new world?
JOHN B. THOMPSON I don't worry about them because I think that the way that it has panned out has been very different from the way that many people feared. This is a space of constant change and disruption, and I think it's an exciting time for the publishing industry. But it's also a very, very challenging time. And it does require, I think, everyone involved in publishing to be thinking very hard about what they're doing and who they're doing it for.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Or too.
JOHN B. THOMPSON Or too. Exactly. Publishers can't rely on old practices. They have to be thinking creatively about how to position themselves in a rapidly changing world where books remain important. But they're only part of a much more complex and varied conversation that increasingly is taking place in an online environment.
BROOKE GLADSTONE John, thank you very much.
JOHN B. THOMPSON You're very welcome.
BROOKE GLADSTONE John Thompson is the author of The Book Wars: The Digital Revolution in Publishing.