Frankly Speaking: The Publisher-Retailer Tug-of-War
Creating a book is one thing; selling is something completely different. Gutenberg was both printer and publisher, as was Aldus, Plantin, Caxton and almost all the early printers. In the 1600s, book publishing, bookmaking and bookselling diverged.
As a kid, I haunted libraries because the books were free, and during the 1950s, I latched on to paperbacks. Most content consisted of the classics because they were in the public domain. Thus I read the classics only because they were 25¢. I bought those paperbacks from a metal rack at the corner Rexall or took the subway to Greenwich Village to visit Paperback Book Smith, a bookstore just for paperbacks.
At Brooklyn College, I bought my used textbooks from Barnes & Noble. One used textbook I bought for a course had every line on every page highlighted. Visiting a proper bookstore meant a trip uptown to Manhattan for Doubleday or Rizzoli, or a stroll to the many bookstores on 4th Ave.
When I got my first job, I spent money on books. I joined the Book of the Month Club and Doubleday Book Club, and loved opening the mail to embrace that monthly hardcover book. Soon bookstores were popping up everywhere, owned and run by colorful proprietors. That's when our family decided to open a bookstore just for mystery novels. The process was facilitated by the wonderful people at Ingram Book Co.
At the same time, the seeds were sown for book superstores. It was not so much their extensive inventory that was a concern, but their discounting. Books are sold to the retailer at a 40-percent discount, and it is hard to exist on margins lower than that. So when Barnes & Noble came to town, the 15-year run of our mystery novel bookstore came to an end, and some of the family went to work for B&N. The American Booksellers Association (ABA) had just sent us a letter congratulating us on reaching 15 years. It was bittersweet. Borders and Books-A-Million became familiar at shopping malls and as large, free-standing stores.
Stumbling Out of the Past
I worked with publishers and printers on how to typeset books with new technology as we phased from hot metal to phototypesetting, desktop publishing, and then on-demand printing. Then came computer screens that displayed typography, and the Internet as both a content-delivery channel and a retail channel for print and electronic content.
Over time, all of these technologies merged and became portable, enabling us to carry a bookstore in our pockets on mobile devices. This is one of the fundamental changes in the book world, and it has adversely affected traditional bookstores.
As the world of bookmaking changed, so did the world of bookselling. First, though, other bookselling outlets evolved—books could be acquired in pharmacies, convenience stores and other non-book retail locations. Now, just as the superstores killed off most of the independents, so the online bookstores are killing off the superstores. There was a gigantic B&N at Jack London Square in Oakland, Calif. I was there recently, and it is shuttered and silent.
Now we are into the age of the electronic book, and our bookstore is the screen. Our book is the screen.
Add to all of these trends the mechanisms that allow individuals to self-publish their own books in any form.
It is self-evident that most book publishing models are part of the past, and as publishers wrestle with the present and future, they are stumbling badly.
Publishers have long had intermediaries between them and book consumers, and much of the confusion in the book market comes from these relationships. Different channels price books differently and demand higher percentages of those prices, just as the publishers are seeking higher margins. Publishers think that consumers will seek out their own websites to buy books—this is like having bookstores that only sell one publisher's books.
An e-book does not have the same cost factors as a print book. It is disingenuous for publishers to price e-books near print book prices. The entire issue of digital rights management needs to be resolved. Consumers balk at paying a high price for an e-book that cannot be shared or read on different readers.
A printed book is standardized in terms of reading. E-book formats are all over the lot. The upheaval in book publishing, making, selling and reading will continue for a while. All stakeholders will dig in and try to protect their turf. But the time has come to make e-books as sharable and usable as print books. The whole book infrastructure is not sustainable as it now exists. It must be reinvented. The question is: Who will give first?
Literacy and books built this nation. Literacy and books can renew this nation. But not at $14 for an e-book that you don't own and can't transfer to a different device. Eventually the only bookstores will be the ones for old books … which people will buy and cherish. BB
Frank Romano is professor emeritus at RIT School of Print Media and the author of 45 books.