Like everybody else in the book business, I spend a lot of time thinking about its future. It’s impossible to predict how books, the way we buy them, and the way they are published will change, though a lot of us never tire of trying. Comparisons to the music industry are inevitable: like the music industry, the book business is increasingly a Long Tail business, though the Big Names in the business continue to focus all their attention on the few big money-makers at the top; the experience of people working in the business is similarly segmented, with that of authors who are published by Big New York Houses being profoundly different from that of writers whose work is less popular, less mainstream, less possessed of whatever it is that makes a book sell a bazillion copies. The reading public is as interested in getting their next fix for free as the music-listening public, and as electronic reading and distribution (in this case I mean eBooks, not paperback books printed on-demand) becomes increasingly important, there is developing a larger and larger gap between the publishers, who try to control redistribution of these properties via DRM and still frequently set prices based on what they would like to receive, and the consumers.
But there are a number of ways in which these businesses are *not* the same, and most of those differences suggest to me that book publishing will have an even harder go of it than music publishing over the long haul. The most important: when you give music away to consumers, it builds fan bases, who will–even if they never pay for a single download–willingly pay to attend concerts by artists whose music they have grown to love; while when you give books away to consumers, it builds fan bases, who will–um, wait. Nobody pays authors to show up, not unless they’re part of the group that exist at the Long Tail’s blessed head.
Independent bookstores are in similar trouble. They are an indispensible part of the publishing ecosystem: it is the independent bookstores that take pride in finding the gems of the Long Tail and bringing them to the community. But they are crushed by the same untenable economic realities as every other small player in the field. If that’s bad for communities, it looks like the end of the road for authors who exist in the Long Tail: publishers rely on independent bookstores to host niche authors on tour. It’s one of the most important services independent booksellers provide, both to local readers and to the publishing community as a whole; and it’s one that’s growing harder and harder for them to sustain.
The unfortunate truth is that niche authors tend not to be big draws at events. Book sales at author events that don’t have Household Names can usually be counted on the fingers of one hand. Meanwhile, the book store must stock enough of the author’s books that no would-be purchaser is turned away disappointed: which makes most events losing propositions for their hosts. The misery doesn’t end there, however: all but one or two of the unsold books will eventually be returned to the publisher, who also loses money (in the case of Long Tail publishers, money they can’t afford to lose, either). The loss will eventually trickle down to the author. In-store events make me begin to wonder about the day of the Bookless Book: because the albatross that is killing the industry is, paradoxically, the beautiful object we all love.
I think that as this century unfolds, we will find it necessary to return to a conception of the Story as separate from the Book. I suspect we will, as a culture if not as individuals, be consuming most of our stories in electronic form before too very long. I’m not predicting the End of the Book: I’m quite certain the printed book will survive me, and probably my children. But I do think we will read many more books than we buy, buy many more books in electronic than printed form. I think we will find that books, those objects without which no writer considers her journey to authorhood complete, will be things we purchase when they’re important to us, the way most of us buy DVDs only of the movies we know we’ll come back to again and again. I can easily imagine a time when downloads are the most routine way of bringing new stories into our possession, when bookstores function more as showrooms for the limitless selection available for printing in-store, while you drink your coffee and wait, than as storehouses for artifacts destined for remainder tables or (heaven forfend) the pulper.
Personally, I take comfort in the idea of a time when every book printed is printed because it is already wanted. Pulping books breaks my heart. I love the idea of being able to go to a bookstore and being able to peruse a much bigger section of the Long Tail (after all, if the only thing in your stockroom is coffee, you can have a much bigger space devoted to shelves). The idea of the ever-widening opportunities for stories that would never get published by outfits that must make a profit despite the fact that their product is inherently unprofitable: brought to us courtesy the ultra-low-risk expedient of the eBook format. And I love the idea of holding reader events anywhere.
Whether we like it or not, the separation of the Story from the Book is already happening. In truth, we have had stories much longer than we have had books, particularly mass-produced ones. It will take some adjusting to begin thinking of ourselves as being in the Story business rather than the Book business. But for most of us in this business, I suspect it may be the key to long-term survival.