As I sifted through the stacks of newspapers that piled up over the week, it all added up to some pretty depressing publishing news (as for what’s going on in the rest of the world, let’s not even go there). First I read this NY Times story about price wars, which notes that Wal-Mart and Amazon will be offering new hardcover releases at $8.99 this holiday season. This is, in so many ways, a new low.
“Publishing as we know it is over,” John Grisham’s literary agent, David Gernert, told the Times, if people start getting used to $10 books. If you can buy a new hardcover from a bestselling author for under $10, Gernert notes: “why would you buy a brilliant first novel for $25? I think we underestimate the effect to which extremely discounted best sellers take the consumer’s attention away from emerging writers.” Indeed.
And if that isn’t scary enough, check out this article on book piracy, and learn all about how file-sharing sites (such as RapidShare, Megaupload, Hotfile) offer easy access to pirated e-books. Because e-books are inevitable (for better or worse), piracy is becoming a huge concern — and the only good news about this is that it might create jobs in a struggling industry (because file-sharing sites don’t generally screen for content, they’ll only take down pirated material if asked, which apparently means publishers and/or authors will need full-time piracy detectives to protect their work).
The Times discovered through Attributor, a company offering antipiracy services to publishers, that 166 copies of the e-book version of Dan Brown’s “The Lost Symbol” were available on 11 sites (RapidShare accounted for 102). Yikes. I’m all for e-books as part of the evolution of publishing and storytelling, but clearly this is going to be a significant problem, albeit more for hugely bestselling authors like Dan Brown than for the rest of us.
And yet…we can’t ignore the fact that e-books are an inevitable part of the new publishing landscape, particularly with ongoing troubling news about independent bookstores closing across the country. The latest concern is, for me, very local, with the news that Seattle’s beloved Elliott Bay Book Company faces serious financial hurdles. This Newsday article highlights other independent booksellers worried about the price wars.
However, there is — as always — some good news mixed into all of this. The Newsday piece does include booksellers’ optimism that they exist not to sell the hottest new hardcovers but to offer “all kinds of books – classics, specialty books, nonfiction, wholesale bulk sales to schools – as well as events.” And as Terry Lucas of The Open Book says: “We sell customer service, knowledge – and you can’t do that for $10.”
And don’t forget that Powell’s (Portland, Oregon’s awesome bookstore) sold books online even before Amazon did — and now carries more than 200,000 titles in four digital formats. So bookstores that change with the times will likely be here to stay.
Finally, we all have to remember that stories were being told long before books existed — before written language existed, in fact. And even when tales went to print, the idea of copyright didn’t come until later; everything was — for a while, at least — in the public domain.
And so we’ll continue to tell stories, and people will continue to want them — the big question of the future being how we tell them, and how audiences receive them.