BROOKE GLADSTONE: This week, an unlikely showdown between, on one side, mom and pop bookstores, Barnes & Noble and Walmart and, on the other, the world’s largest online retailer and honed and highlighted self-help guru, Tim Ferriss.
TIM FERRISS: The four-hour work week is possible but you need to completely unplug and reset.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: That’s Ferriss on a previous bestseller, “The 4-Hour Work Week.” Ferriss’ books have sold over two million copies combined, which is why Amazon signed him this year to a reported seven-figure contract. Amazon released his latest, “The 4-Hour Chef” this past Tuesday, enabling Ferriss to bypass traditional publishers and cut those dinosaurs out of the supply chain.
TIM FERRISS: Getting rid of everything, all the static, all the noise, all the interruptions that interfere with getting into the idealized zone.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: But those dinosaurs declined to play dead. Instead, they are largely refusing to display or, in many cases, even sell the new book. The showdown underscores a moment when publishing seems either on the blink of collapse or reinvention.
TIM FERRISS: Forget about what’s popular and really look at what works and what is consuming your time.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Now, booksellers don’t not sell books. In the 1970s they stocked Nixon’s memoirs by protest and in the ‘80s they stocked “The Satanic Verses” despite bomb threats. I asked New York Times reporter David Streitfeld, who covers the industry, what makes Tim Ferriss so special.
DAVID STREITFELD: It’s nothing personal about Ferriss, but Ferriss is the first time that Amazon is really making a major effort to have a major bestseller. They want that book to sell, not only digitally, but in its physical version. And so, this is the first time the booksellers have really had an opportunity to hit back against Amazon.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: But Amazon can sell the physical book just as easily as it would sell a digital one.
DAVID STREITFELD: Maybe not just as easily. For all of the great things that Amazon does – it gets you the book two days later or the next day, if you really want it, it allows you to read the first chapter, it sells it at a discount – it still cannot put the book in your hands and allow you to page through it. That’s something that only a physical bookseller can do.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: You said it wasn’t personal against Timothy Ferriss but isn’t it just a little?
DAVID STREITFELD: Just a little in the sense that they’re upset that he has aligned himself with their enemy, Amazon. The booksellers feel that they were responsible for helping make Tim Ferriss a big success.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Crown, specifically, a division of Random House?
DAVID STREITFELD: Right, Crown took him on when I think two dozen publishers had turned him down, and they put a major effort into it. And now the booksellers feel that Ferriss has abandoned Crown and them to “reinvent publishing,” as he said. They don’t particularly want publishing reinvented.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Is this just symbolic or do you think this could – actually work?
DAVID STREITFELD: Tim Ferriss has a great desire to be a huge bestseller. He has a lot of ideas, and so, he will work triply hard to make this book work. Amazon does not want to be embarrassed here. And so, it will work triply hard to make this work. But I still think, however many copies the book ends up selling, either digitally or in physical form, it would have sold more with the booksellers’ support,
BROOKE GLADSTONE: David Streitfeld is a reporter for the New York Times.
However things turn out for Ferriss’ “4-Hour Chef,” the publishing industry is convulsing. Just as Hurricane Sandy approached New York City, Penguin and Random House, two of the “Big Six” publishing houses, announced that they would become one.
BOB GARFIELD: To make the moment, we’re updating and rebroadcasting our hour first aired this spring on the state of the book business. One caveat, you’ll hear some of our guests refer to the “Big Six” publishing houses. That number, as we’re just mentioned, has since been reduced by one. But the trends remain the same. Bookstore sales continue their downward slide. And though last year’s e-book sales soared, they’re still just taking a larger slice of an ever-shrinking revenue pie.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Meanwhile, the four remaining non-merged houses are still grappling with the impact of a lawsuit filed this year by the Justice Department. The DOJ sued publishers for attempting to seize back control of book pricing from Amazon. The settlement that resulted broke the back of their united effort to keep Amazon from undercutting them by selling books at impossibly low prices. More on that later.
Mike Shatzkin, head of the Idea Logical Company, a publishing consulting firm, says publishers need a new value proposition. It used to be –
MIKE SHATZKIN: We can put books on shelves, and for a hundred 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: You can’t just publish any subject that comes along and let the bookstores sort out who the right customer is. You have to think about what areas you’re going to 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 siloed by interest.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: What happens if you publish literary fiction?
MIKE SHATZKIN: Then you’re – then you’re – that’s going to 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 out loud to them. By 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 a lot of people 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 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.