Sunday, June 26, 2011

How we'll save the print-book industry

Many readers are lamenting the disappearance of bookstores and dire predictions of the collapse of the print book.

But those of you who love the feel and smell and look of print books on your bookshelves: take heart. The print book has a future.

The solution is already at hand: print-on-demand books (POD). It is a publishing model that can keep the print-book industry alive, but which completely undercuts the current book industry model, which is:

* From your expensive Manhattan offices, try to guess which manuscript, among all those sent to you by hordes of agents, will have a chance to return your investment;

* decide to print only those books, and reject the rest (even including great books that you guess "won't sell");

* offer the author an advance against sales -- then hope the book will sell enough to recoup what you paid him;

* invest gadzillions of dollars into a substantial print run on that book;

* send out a hired sales force to approach all the bookstores and retail outlets to carry it;

* ship the book to distributors like Ingram and Baker & Taylor, and to the big chain warehouses, where the copies are stocked;

* wait for the chains to send them to all their stores, guessing how many copies each might need;

* advertise heavily and expensively for those titles you think have the best shot, while ignoring the rest (and hoping that one or two of them "break out" and become surprise bestsellers);

* wait a month or six weeks to see how well it sells in the stores;

* if it doesn't sell, watch as the bookstores then ship all the unsold copies back to the publisher, and/or...

* stick the unsold copies on "remainder" tables, coast to coast, where they are sold at a fraction of retail to bargain-hunters.

This is an incredibly slow, cumbersome, and wasteful process in the digital age. It rejects, up front, a lot of books of merit because publishers think they won't be profitable, while accepting a lot of books that prove not to be profitable, anyway. It requires huge investments in resources, throughout the enormously expensive book pipeline, costs that jack up the price of books to the point where print-book sales are falling off a cliff, now (see the preceding link). It requires the customer to leave his comfortable home, burn ever-more-expensive gasoline, fight traffic, and to drive to some store, perhaps many miles away; then find parking in some mall lot; then wander the aisles looking for it...often only to find that the store may not carry the title, or may have run out. Then drive home.

In contrast, here's the POD (print on demand) model, used by Amazon's "Createspace" program and others:

* Accept pretty much any book manuscript, letting customers -- not the book industry, the reviewers, and the bookstore owners -- decide whether there's a market for it.

* Have the author send in his manuscript and book cover formatted digitally, so that you can then file it on your big computer.

* Wait for customer orders to come in.

* When they do, push a button, and a fully bound book pops out of a fancy machine, looking every bit as good as anything produced in NYC.

* Mail the book to the customer.

* Offer the author all rights to his work, and much higher royalties to participate than NY publishers do, because this process is so comparatively inexpensive that you can afford to.

Now, consider how many steps, how much time, and how many resources this model saves.

POD will be the salvation of the print-book industry, in my humble opinion. As bookstores close, the current publishing industry model, described above -- which depends entirely on bookstore outlets to hawk their wares -- will collapse, too. It's simply too cumbersome and inefficient in the digital age.

And for those of you who lament the disappearance of bookstores, you know what? POD will offer you more books than ever: not just new titles, but also backlist titles. If you're a thriller fan, like me, you can take heart in knowing that Alistair MacLean and Mickey Spillane will never go "out of print," because they'll live on a computer, waiting for their fans to order them. FOREVER.

When the big, traditional publishers wise up, they'll realize that they can monetize their backlist and out-of-print titles this way, and make untold millions. They are sitting on goldmines of past inventory, which they can't afford to market under the current business model -- but which are easy to release and market as ebooks and POD books.

Oh yes: Everything I just said goes double for ebooks. Which is why Amazon is killing the competition with its Kindle Direct Publishing, and why even J.K. Rowling has made the jump to ebook self-publishing.

THAT is the future of publishing, friends. Yes, books, whether ebooks or "pbooks," have a great future -- and so do authors like me.