Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Publishing Bites

First post in a while, attempt to be succinct:

To all those who idiotically proclaim that "real" books will inevitably disappear and be replaced by eBooks, I say:

a) Books are intrinsically valuable in and of themselves. Holding a book, browsing shelves, smelling ink and paper; these things cannot be improved upon with electronic technology. Indeed, technology does not enhance either books themselves or the act of reading.
b) I hate it when my Sony Reader's batteries run down and I have to recharge before I can use it.
c) I've dropped and broken a PDA before so I know what's in store should the Reader take a fall. I've also dropped books before, taken them to the beach, read without glare and in different intensities of light. Yay, me.
d) How long does a computer last? Perhaps more relevantly, how long does Microsoft or Apple allow an operating system to last without compelling an upgrade? Ever lose all your files on a disk? Ever fight digital rights management (DRM) while migrating/changing/upgrading your computer? Ever wrestle with iTunes over accessing the music you've purchased on a new computer?
e) As I've said before, a collection of eBooks is a CD. A collection of books is a library. This is on a level all its own.

I am babbling on about this crap because I used to think that the market would dictate what would survive and what wouldn't but that was either pure naivete, ignorance, or stupid wishful thinking. Too few entities control too much of the publishing world and it seems that they are trying awfully hard to push things in a direction that would only be good for them. I can't understand eBooks that sell for ten or more dollars any other way.

A couple of years ago I read a story about how mass market paperback sales were falling and publishers wanted to phase them out in favor of trades. The same story also mentioned that they'd like to eventually stop producing hardcovers as well (I ranted extensively about this in earlier blog entries). As time has passed, mass market pb's have been mostly replaced with those inch-taller abortions (with a corresponding price increase of a third) and trades and hardcovers are still around.

I still have not, nor will I ever (I pray) purchase one of the new mass markets. I wish I knew how well the sold as opposed to the traditional format. It's difficult to believe that books, virtually identical to the old format but for the added inch in height but signficantly more expensive, could sell more rather than fewer books. I used to buy paperbacks to try out authors, to keep reading authors who were readable but not for whatever reason hardcover necessities, or just to take a flyer on a cover that looked cool. At ten bucks a pop (or nine or eight or seven or six) I just can't afford that.

So I used to buy the books of all of the authors I wanted to read. I no longer do that. I buy hardcovers by James Lee Burke and Dick Francis every time they come out. I used to buy mass market pb's of most of my regulars; many of these books no longer even appear in mass market form, period. When I take flyers I do it with used or remaindered books. Mass market paperbacks are not an option because I won't pay ten bucks and participate in what seems so obvious a scam. I'd rather buy a discounted hardcover from Amazon than an overpriced trade too often printed on low grade paper with covers whose natural state seems to be an irreducible curl.

The last time I mentioned the name of one of the authors whose work I no longer keep up with (don't quite want to spring for the hardcovers, the mass market pb's are the scam editions, and the authors are popular enough that buying a new/used one online too often results in receiving a dreaded book club edition), I heard from his son. He told me that his father, as well as other authors he knew, universally despise the new pb format. So I won't mention names but again, I cannot be unique here. I buy less books because they are too expensive. I buy fewer new books because of the formats in which they are offered. I buy more used books which may not be my first choice but keeps my library stocked although at the expense of putting royalty money in the authors' pockets.

This all adds up to, this all has to add up to, fewer book sales for publishers. Not less reading, perhaps not even that much less actual book sales (if you count used, remainders, eBay, etc.). In other words, I can't see any other way that publishers are not pouring fuel on the fire of declining sales. Publish better books at cheaper prices. Get away from the Hollywood blockbuster mode of mega-advances for some while leaving pittances for others. People will enjoy buying books instead of shaking their heads, their wallets upside down, and disposing of their income elsewhere.

In conclusion, I've had two kids pulling me away from this as I try to write it so as too often happens, coherency and conciseness likely take it on the nose. But there are points in here somewhere, critical ones, I think, for the publishing industry. They offer options but they are few and unpalatable. They're paving their own road and while their destination may dovetail with mine, I can't afford their proprietary limo ticket. I'm left either sticking my thumb out, showing a little leg, or waiting for the bus. By the time I get there, there may not be much left to see. See you in the library.