Seven Forces That Will Transform Book Publishing

During the past few years, technology has transformed the music industry. As music went digital, it was pirated, deconstructed, and mashed. As music stores and labels disappeared, their lobby, the RIAA, screamed bloody murder.

Amidst the carnage, a funny thing happened: the music industry actually grew larger even though it had fewer labels and far fewer retailers. Revenue from CDs was replaced by revenue from live concerts, ring tones, downloaded singles, merchandise, and sponsorships. The new industry has its challenges (many of them traceable to lousy music), but it has grown, not collapsed.

This transformation presages the coming destruction of traditional book publishing and retailing, even as the overall publishing industry grows. Here are the seven reasons that bookstores and traditional book publishers will be forced to change.

7. Americans have stopped reading books. This is a non-trivial problem (after all, we did not stop listening to music). But the landmark National Endowment for the Arts study “Reading at Risk” confirms what we intuitively know: Americans read less than we used to. 43% of Americans read no books outside of work or school — a number meaningfully lower than Canada or most European countries.

Those who do read books, read fewer of them. About 24 percent of Americans read eight or more books in 2002, a lower percentage of “strong readers” than two thirds of European countries surveyed. Only 16% of the US population reads a book or more each month. According to Morgan Stanley, 20% of all book buyers purchase a majority of all books. Men read much less than women. NPR reports that among active readers, women typically read nine books in a year, compared with only five for men. Women read more than men in all categories except for history and biography.

When most of us read, we prefer magazines and online articles that are shorter and less demanding than books. Kind of like you are doing right now.

6. Many of the books we read are crap. The largest single book category is still romance novels — a fact so embarrassing to the New York Times and other tastemakers that they exclude the category entirely from best seller lists. These bodice-rippers, together with religion, self-help, fantasy, and thrillers, account for a majority of books sold in the US (Gothic romance, which did not exist before 1972, by itself accounts for a majority of all paperback sales). Nearly all of these sales are to women, but women buy and read a lot more books than men even if you adjust out the Harlequins.

Part of this is, no doubt, that brains exposed to constant media are not well wired for long form reading. We prefer writing that is built around tidy lists. Oops.

5. We can easily get books for free. Just Google “Torrent” and “Books” along with anything else and you will be directed to many sites that enable you to download books as pdf files easily readable on a tablet or an eReader. The site I checked helps you steal any of several dozen books on religion, most of which presumably counsel the reader against theft.

It is always hard to estimate the economic impact of illicit downloading. I wonder if the net effect isn’t positive, even if authors howl. WordPerfect marketer Pete Peterson had a sensible point when he said that “if someone is going to steal software, I hope they steal ours”. Every illegal download is not a lost sale — but every time a reader finishes a book and raves about it, the marketing leads to new sales. Realizing this, most publishers will let you read the first chapter for free anyway. If we see publishers offering books for free but with advertising, we will know that the torrent sites have struck a nerve.

My current bet is that it won’t happen for the same reason that iTunes curbed illegal music downloading. Customers like the ancillary content and the reliable file quality enough that if the experience is frictionless and the price sensible, we will pay.

4. “Books” are mutating. Like music and movies, books are becoming a service, not a product. Today Amazon launched its Kindle Lending Library, which turns books into a service like Spotify for music or Netflix for movies. The number of publishers who have embraced this idea? Zero. These guys would rather face the Torrent sites than let Amazon loan their books. But publishers need to monetize their back list. Over time, they will do a deal with Amazon, even if they require Amazon to purchase a new copy after a finite number of rentals. Many publishers require libraries to do that now — and would doubtless oppose libraries as socialist if Ben Franklin hadn’t established libraries before they got organized.

Books have become protean. Sites like Byliner and the Atavist are publishing long form essays by well known authors. This writing is longer than most essays but shorter than a book. Sometimes the pieces are free, sometimes paid, and sometimes, as in the case of a recent piece by author John Krakauer, free for the first 50,000 downloads, then paid. Inkling, a San Francisco startup, takes textbooks and transforms them into socially enabled multimedia iPad apps that end up not looking much like textbooks at all. They have just released The Professional Chef, the bible textbook produced by the Culinary Institute of America. You can buy the book or you can just buy a chapter. It features photos, note sharing between cooks, demonstration videos, etc. Their south of market neighbor, Blurb, does the opposite: it converts your online blog into a nicely bound book you can give to mom. O’Reilly makes many of its books available by the chapter and lets you join a club to get lifetime book updates and access to community events. EBrary lets academic subscribers read huge online libraries and charges by the page for printing or copying.

3. Robo-books. I shared a taxi yesterday with a guy who bragged that his wife “cranks out eBooks”. She writes 2-3 books each week the same way some kids write college papers: by stealing content and re-writing enough of it to not get caught. Of course, free market capitalism being the spectacular engine of innovation that it is, some late night huckster even sells Autopilot Kindle Cash that helps “your ten year old kid publish 10 to 20 new Kindle books a day.”

The impact of the resulting spam “books” has been extraordinary. In 2002, about 250,000 books were published in the US; about 15% of these books were self published. By 2010, the number of books had increase thirty times. 3.1 million books were published in the US — about 8,500 “books” per day and 90% of these books were self-published. In response, Amazon has been forced to “curate” the user experience, meaning that they must try to filter the output of products like Amazon Kindle Cash. If they are wise, they will start charging “authors” $20 to publish their “books”, and deploy the same software that faculty use to detect even clever plagiarists.

2. Economics. Amazon has put the publishing industry on notice by hiring respected industry veteran Larry Kirschbaum. In a sly reference to the music industry, Kirshbaum launched Amazon Singles. A single is what it sounds like — a chapter, not a book. It can be an article or an essay. Christopher Hitchens has a fine one here on Bin Laden, for example. In books as with music, you often want just the single, not the entire album.

By promoting authors whose books sell, Amazon has also created self-published millionaires. John Locke and Amanda Hocking are the superheroes of self-publishing. By making millions, they have helped transform self publishing from an industry backwater inhabited by the untouchables to a place where writers no longer share sales with publishers. Importantly, writers price their books and they have become smart about demand elasticity. Locke discovered that his CIA novels increased twenty fold when he dropped the price from $1.99 to $.99.  Locke:

“It wasn’t so long ago that an aspiring author would … don a pair of knee pads and assume a supplicating posture in order to beg agents to beg publishers to read their work. And from way on high, the publishers would bestow favor upon this one or that, and those who failed to get the nod were out of the game. No more.”

This trend will affect all publishers. Famous authors will wonder why they share revenue with publishers. New authors (like Amanda Hocking) will demand enormous advances once they establish a reputation as a successful self-published writer. Because the profitability of the publishing industry turns on the ability of a few popular authors to subsidize the great majority of unprofitable ones, the defection of popular authors is especially threatening.

Publishers and retailers will be disintermediated if they add too little value. Part of this is waste: at any given time about a quarter of the books are moving backwards in the supply chain because retailers can return product, usually without penalty, to distributors or publishers. I am not aware of any other industry that permits this. These and other costs make printed books more expensive. Price increases, not growth in unit sales, account for nearly all of the revenue growth in traditional book publishing. Trade book prices have risen twice as fast as inflation for more than a decade.

1. Amazon. The number one reason that bookstores and publishers will be forced to rethink how they add value is that Amazon is continuing to take a page from the Apple playbook and create a user experience that is integrated from content development to e-commerce and the device. They are not identical models: we will not see Amazon stores any time soon, nor Apple publishing, but clearly Amazon has learned a lot from Apple.

They may have learned too well. Walter Isaacson asserts in his recent biography of Steve Jobs that Apple won the battle over agency pricing (they let the publisher set the price and took a cut, whereas Amazon set the price as the retailer and paid publishers a commission). In truth, Amazon won and Isaacson got the story wrong. Customers care enormously about price and convenience, as a quick glance at iBooks reveals: it is a wasteland. By combining a preeminent retail experience, offering books as physical, print on demand, or eBooks, featuring buy-back programs and used books, offering Singles, Publishing, and now Libraries, Amazon controls the reading waterfront. They are quickly taking the oxygen out of traditional book retailing and publishing.

When the dust settles, we will see the same thing we saw in music. Spending on what we read will go up with economic growth or a bit faster. But it will go to very different players for very different products than in the past.

And customers will win — although we may be customers for something other than traditional books.