I hope the readers of the Scholarly Kitchen will not think ill of this detour into the world of trade publishing, but it’s part of my ongoing investigation of publishing ecosystems. Yes, ecosystems: a good metaphor in search of concrete examples. We all tend to think of publishing in terms of its products (the editorial fallacy rears its ugly head once again), but you can no more think of a journal article as an article in and of itself than you can talk about a dog sniffing its way along the rim of a crater on the moon. The dog, like the article, was meant (that is, has evolved) to live somewhere else. Advocates of article-level metrics, take note.
And so we have the beloved trade book, printed in different sizes and formerly sold just about everywhere. During the second half of the twentieth century, bookstores moved beyond their historical location in downtown urban areas into the suburbs, following Americans, following the money. With the advent of the destination superstores, some of which stocked over 100,000 titles, browsing a bookstore was like a trip to an enormous library. I recall my astonishment at seeing the complete Loeb Classical Library at a huge Barnes & Noble store near Lincoln Center in New York and the complete works of Italo Calvino in a large Borders bookstore on Michigan Avenue in Chicago. Now that particular B&N store is closed and Borders is bankrupt. And that’s the problem: fewer places to find the Loeb Library, fewer enticements to pick up and read Cosmicomics and If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler . . . .
A print book without a bookstore is like our dog walking on the moon (or an article without a journal!). It’s part of the ecosystem, as essential as oxygen and water. Publishers know this and can already see what is ahead for them as the print ecosystem is torn up. A bookstore is a place where readers learn about books, where they buy things simply because they have been handsomely packaged and well-displayed, all of which constitutes a large part of book marketing. Without bookstores people will buy fewer books, and those who are motivated to buy books even in the absence of bookstores will learn about them elsewhere: in newsgroups, from Twitter feeds, and on the Web pages of Amazon. I think I will tweet about Cosmicomics right now.
If people are still finding books even without bookstores, why should publishers care? There are several reasons:
- Publishers are not very interested in having customers find or discover books; they are interested in them finding the publisher’s own books. A large, established print publisher is in a position to get preferred display in a bookstore. But with online modes of discovery, any particular publisher’s advantage disappears.
- As more and more books become digital, more and more business shifts to Amazon, the market leader by far in ebooks. Amazon’s growing dominance worries every publisher, as Amazon stands between publishers and readers.
- At this time the modes of discovery outside of bookstores are simply not as effective as the mode inside bookstores. The collapse of bookstores thus weakens all publishers.
- Since established publishers cannot meaningfully dominate a sales channel that is fading, and no one except Amazon dominates any of the emergent channels, authors have less and less reason to work with these publishers. This opens up a multitude of new competitors.
Which raises the interesting question of whether consumers prefer print or digital formats. My own view (as a dedicated reader of ebooks who also has a pile of print books on the bedside table) is that the print vs. digital battle is overblown. The real question is where you find things. With bookstores collapsing everywhere, the print business collapses along with it.
Let’s imagine someone walking into a bookstore. Choose your favorite–if it’s still open. So I might choose Bookshop Santa Cruz in my former hometown or, say, McNally Jackson in downtown Manhattan. You wander into such a store, where you browse among the thousands of titles. You find something you like, and now have a choice. You can buy it on the spot or you can “showroom”–that is, you can buy it elsewhere, probably online at Amazon. If you buy it on the spot, you will walk out with a print edition.
Showrooming gives you two options: order a print book online or an ebook, which most of the time means a Kindle edition. For the print book the online price appears to be lower than the price in the physical store, but after you factor in shipping costs or the cost of a loyalty program ($70/year for Amazon Prime), there is no compelling reason to order the print book online. So McNally Jackson gets a sale for the print book, and they deserve it, as they curated their shop well and took the risk of carrying the inventory. Amazon gets the sale for the ebook.
But if that bookstore did not exist, what would you do? You might find the same title through a Twitter post or GoodReads or perhaps by searching on Amazon’s own site. (GoodReads, by the way, was recently acquired by Amazon.) You are not standing in a physical store as you consider this. You can order a print edition online, but it costs a couple dollars or perhaps as much as $10 more than the digital edition. Why pay for print when you can get the digital edition immediately at a lower price? The advantage of the physical bookstore–the immediate availability of inventory–is not at play here.
So the question comes down to this: Are you expressing a preference for ebooks over print or are you simply expressing an interest in lower prices? This is not for a minute to dismiss the affordances of digital content (the search capability–though this is not always important for trade books; the ability to look up words in a built-in dictionary; the tool to change the size of the type; etc.), but it does seem that price and availability and not digital affordances are the real drivers of ebook sales.
So the trade marketplace moves inexorably online and inexorably from print to digital. What has not happened, though, is a change in demand. Many people may actually prefer print to digital. The problem is that the collapse of the print distribution network is driving the business to digital despite what individual consumers want. In other words, the switch from print to digital is an emergent property of the changing ecosystem, not a matter of consumer preference.
During the past couple months I have been in untold conversations about eliminating print from the journals world. Newsletters make this case every day, and SSP is sponsoring a Webinar on the topic. Are we getting ahead of ourselves? Are we dropping print because it is convenient for librarians or because scholars prefer it? And when we ask what scholars prefer, have we really given them the option?
Trade publishers pine for bookstores. Part of this is nostalgia, but part of this is an awareness that their businesses were built for one ecosystem and another one is evolving before their eyes. People may clamor for print (which would reinforce the publishers’ historical position), but the marketplace is increasingly becoming reluctant to provide it.
The simple truth is that with one exception, every link in the value chain must be profitable or the entire chain breaks. Bookstores are breaking and are taking the entire chain along with it. Amazon’s hands are outstretched to receive the new customers, to play its dominant role in the new ecosystem.
The one exception? Authors. Most authors don’t now and have never been able to live on the proceeds of their work. A few do, and do so spectacularly. That spectacle draws authors in: it’s not the prospect of a good and interesting job but the chance to win the lottery that makes a writer out of a normal human being. When we express regret at the passing of the old print paradigm, don’t shed a tear for the authors. Our sympathies should be with the booksellers, who held it all together.