BOB GARFIELD: From WNYC in New York, this is On the Media. I’m Bob Garfield.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And I’m Brooke Gladstone.
[MUSIC UP AND UNDER]
It was a chilly English morning Tuesday when a group of publishing industry CEOs assembled at this year’s London Book Fair. We weren’t there but judging from comments reported by Publishers Weekly, we think it might have sounded something like this:
[BOOK FAIR HUBBUB]
John Mitchinson, co-founder of Unbound, a reader-supported funding and publishing platform, quipped that publishers like to come here to parade their inadequacy, talk about how bad they’re doing. Reading culture may be surging,” he said, “but the business is madness.” “Publishing,” he said, “is broken.”
BOB GARFIELD: Bookstore sales have been sinking steadily since 2007 and, though e-book sales are soaring by nearly 50 percent last year in the adult books category alone and 475 percent in the children’s category, according to the American Association of Publishers, that still doesn’t compensate for the loss. It seems e-books are just taking a larger slice of an ever-shrinking pie.
According to one analysis, the average U.S. non-fiction book is now selling fewer than 250 copies per year and fewer than 3,000 copies over its lifetime. The complexity of the business, the razor-thin profit margins, the bookstore bankruptcies, combined with technological incursions and crazy competition, only contribute to the sense of tragedy of Titanic proportions.
[BOOK FAIR HUBBUB]
MAN: It’s the end, boys. We’ve done our duty. We can go now.
BOB GARFIELD: Oh, and let’s not forget another piece of bad news, at least for the big six publishers. This month the Department of Justice filed suit against five of them for attempting to seize back control of book pricing from Amazon. That decision broke the back of their united effort to keep Amazon from undercutting them by selling books at impossibly low prices. More on that later.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Yes, it’s time for our annual update on the state of the publishing industry. So let’s begin with a survey of reading habits released this month by the Pew Research Center.
It turns out that 41 percent of people who have owned a tablet or e-book reader for more than a year say they’re reading more books than ever. But only 35 percent of those who own either device for six months or less say that.
That could mean, according to Mike Shatzkin, head of The Idea Logical Company, a publishing consulting firm, that people read more when they get a device. But it could also mean that the heaviest readers shifted to the digital formats first.
If the recent converts are not so voracious, then don’t look to e-books to save the industry. Probably the weirdest finding is that 42 percent of e-book readers read those books not on Kindles, cell phones or iPads; they read them on their computers. I asked Mike Shatzkin — what’s up with that?
MIKE SHATZKIN: Isn’t that amazing? There’s a lot of debate about what that means. There were a lot of people who said, yeah, I read on the computer because I’m reading professional stuff. I’m reading things in my office. But I also remember five years ago when Harlequin started a short romance series, and the reason they told me they did it at the time, was that so many of their books were sold to people who read them on their computers at work, when they maybe should have been doin’ something else, that they wanted to have short stuff that can be read during a lunch hour.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Beyond the changes in the reading habits that the Pew Study tracked, you’ve also written about changes in how publishers imagine their role.
MIKE SHATZKIN: The value that a publisher has brought historically I summarize this way: We can put books on shelves. And for 100 years that’s been a great business. It is not gonna be a great business for the next ten years. It’s gonna get worse and worse. They’re gonna have to find some other value propositions.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Like what?
MIKE SHATZKIN: Well, I think that the main one is to be able to promote books better than authors can. You can’t just publish any subject that comes along and let the bookstore sort out who the right customer is. You have to think about what areas you’re gonna publish in, and you have to publish in those areas over and over again, so you know those communities and those communities know you. And you add flexibility to sell them things that you might otherwise not have been able to sell them before that are related.
So conferences, for example, or there’s a publisher called Osprey which does military, and you build up enough of a direct connection with people who are interested in military history, you can sell them battlefield tours, not just books. And that’s the future. The future is silo-ed by interest.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: What happens if you publish literary fiction?
MIKE SHATZKIN: If you publish literary fiction, then you’re – then you’re – that’s gonna be the hardest kind of stuff to do.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: You were about to say “then you’re screwed.”
MIKE SHATZKIN: Um, I wasn’t gonna say you’re screwed.
But I would say this: In the 1830s and 1840s, the most popular American writers were poets. And the reason for that is literacy was low. People wanted to buy a book that a bunch of people could enjoy by somebody reading it aloud to them. But the 1880s, public education had solved that problem, and poets didn’t do as well, and novelists did better.
Now, one of the things that’s been happening because of the e-book revolution, is that genre fiction – romance, thrillers, sci fi – has done very well because there are a lot of people who read one or two or three romances or thrillers. They eat ‘em like candy. The establishment can’t keep their habit fed. So they’re willing to try something different and new, particularly if it’s cheap. The successful self-published writers have been all been in genres. They haven’t been literary fiction. And they haven’t been writing biographies of Steve Jobs, for example. That book has got to cost a half a million dollars to write.
You’ve got a serious journalist spending several years trying to do this, with a research team. There’s no way that a book like that gets written, unless some publisher or somebody writes a check for a half a million or a million bucks.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: If Walter Isaacson can’t get paid what he needs to write the biography of Steve Jobs, a guaranteed bestseller, then the problem is, is that the public doesn’t want it enough, not that Amazon is driving down the prices of e-books.
MIKE SHATZKIN: No, that’s actually just not true because you now have a market which is bifurcated, and you have lots and lots of books, most of the branded books that are between 10 and 15 dollars. And they yield revenue of X, which actually would support Walter Isaacson. And you have lots and lots and lots of books that are one dollar, two dollars and three dollars, and some of those are selling a lot of copies. So what happens in this new economy that we’re in is that the total amount of revenue generated by bestsellers drops precipitously, and Amazon doesn’t care about that. If we lose major publishers, what we will lose is the books that won’t even be written!
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Mike, thank you very much.
MIKE SHATZKIN: You’re quite welcome.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Mike Shatzkin heads The Idea Logical Company, a publishing industry consulting firm.