The Print Vs. Electronic Conundrum

I think I’ve answered the single most important question about reading with the only truly relevant answer:  I read books in English.  (Add or substitute any language you know as needed.)  It matters not if its on a reader or paper.  Seriously, it’s truly irrelevant.  I pick one over the other for totally random reasons.  Availability, price, mostly whim.  I still buy more print books than ebooks because ebooks feed the impulse buy reflex a little too readily.  That’s fine for music, where songs sell for a dollar, and Apple, Amazon, et. al. have sufficiently spanked enough overpaid, overfed, overdrugged record company executives to keep that model in place.

But a lot of questions have come up that raise questions about the future of publishing.  Patti Abbott wonders what the impact of ereaders will be on book stores will be.  Do ereaders make reading more sterile?  What happens when people decide they can pull books out of the ether instead of driving to a bookstore?

I do have to concede that this is not going to be a good time for bookstores, particularly independent stores.  When I published a novel in the mid-2000’s, I enjoyed going to places like Black Orchid in Manhattan and Foul Play in Columbus.  I still try to meet authors I know at Joseph-Beth here in Cincinnati.  But here’s the unpopular and brutally hard fact no one seems to want to admit:  Readers are buyers, and they buy where it’s least difficult for them.  While I try to patronize indie shops when I can, let’s be honest.  Joseph-Beth is the only indie in Cincinnati, and the idea that I should drive up to Dayton or Columbus to buy books is, frankly, absurd.  I don’t believe bookstores will be extinct, but while we are in a recession, bookstores are in a depression.  So what’s the future?

Let me get back to that.

First, let’s look at what’s driving this.  JA Konrath has embraced the electronic model wholeheartedly to the point where he believes print is dead.  “But these protests and professions of love,” he writes of those saying print is not dead, “apparently aren’t being followed up with ACTUALLY BUYING PRINT BOOKS. All these folks are complaining and insisting that print will be around forever, yet I’ve read from several sources that ebooks are currently 8.5% of the total book market.”

I generally disagree with Joe on print’s impending demise, mainly because he sees ebooks as a replacement for physical books, where as I see them as just another format.  But he does make a salient point.  People are buying less and less print these days.  I don’t blame the Kindle.  I blame the publishers.  They still insist they can make people buy ebooks for more than $9.99, failing to grasp “wedowannapaythat.”  This is an industry that charges $35 for a hardcover and wonders why no one’s buying.  For that money, I can take my family to a matinee, buy them dinner, rent three or four movies on demand, or buy three or more ebooks.  You do the math.

Getting back to bookstores and print.  Are they dead?  No, because people are still buying.  We stubborn consumers just refuse to conform to the Big Six’s idiotic blockbuster mentality.  Even James Patterson, who very much fits and profits nicely from the blockbuster model, knows this.

In the end, it won’t be major publishers doing print.  Some will survive, but it’ll be an afterthought.  Print, like audio, foreign, and film rights, will become subsidiary rights to electronic.  In the meantime, places like Tyrus and Subterranean will come to rule print.  These are niche publishers.  They know their audiences and aren’t wrapped up in publicizing the next oversized advance.  And in the end, people like Tyrus’s Ben LeRoy really don’t care if they ever get huge.  They’re happy putting out books they can be proud of.  When this model of print publishing settles in for the long haul, bookstores will rebound.  There will be fewer of them, but they’ll still exist.

Bottom line, we’re living in a time of change.  Change, if you haven’t been paying attention over however long your life has been, happens whether you want it or not.  You can only adapt.

6 thoughts on “The Print Vs. Electronic Conundrum

  1. Print may not die tomorrow, but I suspect it’ll be a much quicker death than we’d like to think. I only buy kindle now. I’ll buy paper if I have to (something isn’t in kindle, etc.) but my collection of paper that clutters up my entire office/basement will grow no more. The cost of kindle/ebooks vs. paper is a no-brainer and, unfortunately, impossible to ignore (for us). $9.99 vs. $25.00 … not to mention the rereading I tend to do that in many cases costs $0.00 – $.99 vs. $5-10-15.00 (although most rereads I already own in book form–but not Lady Chatterly’s Lover, what I’m reading now on my kindle for $.99).

    And riding crowded subways with a book vs. a kindle makes me feel sorry for those holding books these days (as happy as I am to see people actually reading …). Try riding the Staten Island Ferry and reading a book when the doors are open and the wind is flopping pages all over the place. Not so with a kindle.

    My weight loss continues because I can read a kindle while on the elliptical machine. 30-35 minutes flies by now … I tried reading books on there (recently read a few pages of a manuscript while ellipting(?)) … no contest. Kindle wins big … I stay on the thing longer.

    I always enjoy when a new book comes out to take a long look at the cover, feel the weight of the thing and remind myself that it’s pretty cool that I’m in print (it was a lifelong goal). I uploaded one of my books to my kindle and it just isn’t the same (not for the author).

    Still, that change has come and there’s no avoiding it. I don’t know what will happen for authors except I suspect nothing much will change regarding who stays on top (brand names) and who doesn’t … in my league, I don’t think it much matters one way or the other. Book stores, unfortunately, will be screwed by ebooks. There’s just no getting around that. Loyalty, especially in this economy, will fly out the window over time. I’m sorry to see it happen, but it will. A bunch of great indies went under here in NY first from the B&N’s and now the B&N’s aren’t doing so hot. I believe it’s the economy first and foremost that is responsible for that and gadgets like Ipods and all the other distractions from reading (plus our ever declining readership itself) sure doesn’t help, but over time it’ll be ebooks that win out. When kindles and the like start selling for $25.00 (and they will), the fat lady will be just about hitting her high note. Print won’t disappear, ever … but it’ll never sustain itself over time versus ebooks.

  2. Okay, you guys have to tell me what to do with the bookshelves built into my walls. I am relying on you to find an alternate way to fill them.

  3. So, Charlie, why are teens reading printed books? They don’t really like Kindles. No one ever addresses that one, and the cheap reader doesn’t seem to play into this since they can easily inherit last year’s model.

    Patti – Um… Books?

  4. James, you’ll havd to ask some kids that question. I don’t know you came to “they don’t really like kindles”. Have you run a poll I’m unaware of? Or it could be they cost $189.00 and most kids (even the spoiled ones) can’t afford them (?)

    Who knows … I guarantee (without any way of proving it) kindles will rule the roost soon enough (even with kids … like I said, maybe when they’re just $25.00 (and they will be).

    Patti: Leave the books you have on the shelves. Use pictures of your favorite Detroit Lions (Alex Karras should be one) to cover blank spots. My shelves are loaded with books I’ll probably not use anymore. Trust me, I’m not happy about it, but I have to admit that I LOVE my kindle. It is just so much easier to read with … and the cost of books … the cost.

  5. No, Charlie, I did not take a poll. But I do have a sixteen-year-old stepson. And he has friends. There is, in fact, a whole high school full of kids I get to observe on a regular basis. They carry mobile devices and iPods, none of which meet the $25 rule. What they are not carrying are ereaders. What they are carrying is books, and I don’t mean textbooks. They are reading paperbacks and hardcovers.

    From this, you may take comfort in the fact that damned few of those books are from the Twilight saga. (I’m happy for Stephanie Meyer. I’m glad kids are reading. I, and apparently 2/3 of my stepson’s classmates, don’t really care about Edward and Bella. Quite a few of them, however, watch True Blood, a show that proves Neil Smith should write vampire novels.)

  6. You live in a potentially smart environment. None of the kids (15-25) I see on the subway and trains (probably more dense in population) are not carrying kindles either … some are carrying books, but not as many as 2/3’s … 2/3’s are carrying Ipods … which leads me to believe that those who will go the extra yard (or get their parents to pay) for a high-tech toy, are probably not the reading crowd.

    I hope you’re right about this … I don’t have as much faith in our underlassman (so to speak). I have a 20 year old stepson who reads only what his classes require … and comic books. I doubt he’ll ever own a kindle … but he has read Harry Potter in the past.

    Like I said, I hope you’re right … but I’m not finding the same equations where I travel.

    I prefer Neil do another limbless protagonist; that was original and terrific. I recently tried to read a vampire book by a crime author turned vampire novelist and couldn’t finish it — very well written, but too fucking silly to waste my time.

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