Tuesday, December 19, 2006

They'll Screw It Up, Part 1

I began this thread after it occurred to me how much my book buying habits have changed over the years and what would happen if everyone else began to do it, too. On Dan Simmons website, agent Richard Curtis is writing a series of articles on the future of publishing. A few months ago I read the first or second one, didn't like it because while possibly accurate, I had to walk away from the negative tone. (When I saw him at a conference a few years ago I had the same reaction: books may go away, but I don't wanna believe it and I don't wanna argue about it, either.)

For some reason I looked at his current installment and in it he's predicting a full turn to a print on demand (POD) model, which is what I started talking about yesterday. So if he's correct, and he says he always has been, this is going to happen.

But when/if it does, they'll screw it up.

Books are sold on consignment, which means booksellers have the ability to send back whatever they don't sell for credit. When return rates are low (Curtis says in the beginning the rate was about ten percent) this can be a good system because it encourages booksellers to stock more and varied books than they may otherwise be able to handle. But when the returns are high, the publishers end up eating a lot of their investment. This of course leads to higher book prices, fewer risks taken and books published, and most of the bad things that we associate with the publishing biz.

(For an excellent discussion of the entire process, read Michael Seidman's "From Printout to Published." It was out of print the last time I checked but it's worth looking up a copy. Online ordering to the rescue.)

It has been proposed for years that the consignment system be ended but like most things, it's a good deal for the bookstores (especially since most of them appear to be struggling) and a whole lot of pain would have to be gone through to get to the brighter pasture on the other side. Pain that many of the bookstores may not be able to stand. As I've said repeatedly in this blog, lower prices would mean more sales, more books being read, more books then being published, and the entire industry could be put on a healthier footing.

But what if they went to a straight POD model? The consumer would browse for the title on line, order it, the publisher or store or printer would do the printing and binding, and ship it to the buyer's doorstep. And he pays for shipping. Suddenly there would be no returns, no wasted inventory, and a much greater efficiency would be achieved.

As with any major change to a system, there would be a host of significant problems that would need to be solved. Chief among them has to be the bookstore itself: what becomes of it? When I lived in Florida, every bookstore I saw on Friday and Saturday nights was packed to the gills. It was literally difficult to find a parking spot, the same way it is at shopping malls during holiday time. Gives me hope for humanity.

Bookstores could receive a copy or two of new books that customers could browse and then order, either for later shipment or in-store pickup (there are actually machines that can print and bind books while you wait). The bookstore would receive a commission for each book sold.

If bookstores became extinct in favor of online shopping only, people without internet connections would be excluded, but that problem may take care of itself over time. And without a bookstore, with offerings from many different publishers, what kind of internet presence would we see? As a consumer, searching different publishers' websites would be cumbersome, annoying, and such an impediment it's difficult to see how it could work. The publisher's identity simply isn't relevant to the typical reader. It's the book, stupid, and the author. Or the genre, the cover art, the blurbs, or just about anything else.

I think this would mean an online bookstore would be crucial, or possibly some kind of umbrella site. The problem with this is that we already have them (Amazon, BAMM, etc.) and again, the existing bookstores would be crushed.

So while a zero return, POD model would mean huge efficiencies for the publishing world, the transition costs could quite possibly kill the patient. If I frequent my local bookstore and either don't have an online connection or have a security phobia, I'm not going to be interested. And what about the personal experience of viscerally examining the books themselves, their weights, their looks, their smells? Those things don't translate well over the internet.

But let's say Curtis is correct and this shift is an inevitable one. It won't have a terribly huge effect on my own buying habits, BUT...

They'll screw it up. As certain as Curtis may be that it will happen, I'm equally as scared that they'll do it the worst possible way. And I'll write about that tomorrow.


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