Another excellent Publishing Business Conference and Expo took place last week. Having three keynote speakers provided a very interesting cross-section of information and opinion. Amazon was the focus for the first two.
I know, it sounds like a game show hosted by Regis Philbin. But there are a couple of recent events in the publishing industry that could be seen as either good or bad news on first blush, but may actually be just the opposite. Let's start our game-- I. Random House/Penguin Merger finalized, a.k.a "Go Big or Go Extinct" That's one of the advertising slogans from the recent movie "Pacific Rim." Judging from reviews and tickets sales, it sounds like that movie might have managed to do both.
There’s been a great deal of conjecture lately about the future of the bookstore: What will happen to the B&N stores (especially if they do plan to reduce the number of stores)? What about independent bookstores? Will Amazon crush bricks-and-mortar stores out of existence? Oh, lordy, will there even be such a thing as a bookstore!?!?
Not surprisingly, this all made me think of a song. Under time pressure to have a song for the first Earth Day concert in 1970, the great Tom Paxton created the gold standard for songs about ecology when he wrote “Whose Garden Was This.” In it, the singer lives in a future world where flowers and forests no longer exist, birds no longer fly and he’s only seen pictures of blue rivers and heard recordings of breezes. In the end, he desperately makes us swear it’s true that “The forest had trees, the meadows were green, the oceans were blue and birds really flew.”
With all the issues facing bookstores today and all of the conjecture (some might call it sturm und drang) about the future of bookstores, it made me wonder: Will Paxton’s great-granddaughter one day write a similar song about bookstores? Will she make us swear that we went to a place where we could touch a printed book at all, let alone before it arrived in the mail?; where we could say to another human being, not an algorithm or a database, “What do you recommend?”
The Guild (formerly called The Bookbinders’ Guild of New York) was formed in 1925 by a group of 35 craftsmen who met to discuss significant developments in bookmaking. Today we are a volunteer organization with membership of more than 500, from the ranks of all type of publishing staff, vendors and freelancers. We sponsor educational trips, hold monthly informational programs and help to raise money for the Literacy Assistance Center. In 20 years we’re very proud to have raised over $320,000 for the LAC.
Last week was our biggest annual event—the 27th annual New York Book Show. Each year entries are submitted from around the country for books published in the last year. Entries include either covers/jackets or complete books, and are separated into categories. Just within “Children’s Trade” we have “picture book”, “young adult”, “pop-up”, “covers and jackets”, etc. Judges who are expert in specific areas volunteer their time and expertise.
Then in the Spring we show off the winners and have a big celebration.
Steve Earle wrote: “The revolution starts now / when you rise above your fear / And tear the walls around you down / The revolution starts here.”
Thankfully, time has finally brought us companies (big and small) that are re-thinking traditional content distribution business models. They’ve done this based on shifting technologies, shifting culture, sinking economies, new demands, and have begun creating new approaches. There are many out there, I wanted to mention a few examples.
The returns are in on sales for Amazon and Barnes & Noble from the holiday sales period. Remember that “surge” that I mentioned in my last blog? Like the song says “it ain’t necessarily so.”
On the one hand, Amazon had its biggest holiday season ever, with the Kindle Fire being its number one product—specifically the “#1 best-selling, most gifted and most wished for product."
Meanwhile, Barnes & Noble sales were down almost across the board—in stores, on-line and sales of Nook. Revenues were down 12.6% from the previous year. The good news is that sales of digital content were up 13.1%, “indicating that at least those who own Nooks are using them to buy content.” While B&N would not specifically break out Nook sales they did say that after Black Friday sales “fell short of expectations for the balance of holiday.”
As we all know, the new norm is that in the next week there will be recorded a big surge in purchases in ebook reading hardware (including tablets, which are not just for reading). This will be followed, of course, by a surge in purchases of ebooks. But what about between the surges? What’s the new level of purchase? The assumption is certainly that each surge builds on itself to increase the overall level of ebook use and purchase… is this true?
Before this surge hits, I thought it would be interesting to take a look at just a couple of the countless reporting of statistics and opinions; and also at something that might have a big post-surge impact.
How did you prepare for your publishing career?
Chances are that, if you’re “of a certain age” (that sounds so much better than “old”, don’t you think?) you didn’t actually train for it. You were an English major or an Education major (or both, in my case) or a Philosophy major or… Maybe publishing called to you—you loved to read, it seemed glamorous, SOMEONE has to be the next Maxwell Perkins, etc. Or, then again, maybe you just fell into it—there was this guy/girl and they worked at Random House…
I live just five or six blocks away from the Con Edison transformer that has been overwhelmed by the nearby East River, causing the explosion and helping send the lower half of Manhattan into darkness for almost a week… and taking cell phone connectivity away with it.
I had time to fill and battery strength to conserve in the iPhone, iPod, iPad and iMac (yes, I drank the iKoolAid).
When John D. Loudermilk wrote (or, at least, got credit for writing) the song Tobacco Road, he did not have the publishing industry in mind when he penned the line: "Blow it up, start all over again."
As we all know, in April the Department of Justice accused Apple and five of the largest publishers with conspiring to raise ebook prices. I chose not to voice my opinion at that point because my immediate reaction was, "Yikes! How much did Jeff Bezos of Amazon promise to contribute to the Obama re-election campaign?"
It seemed wiser to wait a bit, get more input and put together a more reasoned response.
So what do I, your humble blogger, think now? This is is a bad lawsuit. It will do far more harm than good. Here's why.
I'm at this year's Publishing Business Conference and Expo as an attendee and as a returning speaker (what the hell were they thinking?!?). It began Monday with an introduction and two keynote speakers who struck similar themes. And they were themes that some of us were very happy to hear—specifically, those of us who believe that these are incredibly exciting (albeit very difficult) times for the entire publishing industry. And that, furthermore, our industry is continuing to evolve, and is NOT dying.
Recently Barnes & Noble announced that it would not sell books in its brick and mortar store that are published by Amazon’s new print publishing division. Shortly after this, Books-a-Million, Canada’s largest bookseller Indigo Books and Music and the American Booksellers Association also announced that they were joining the boycott.
These are, indeed, interesting times we live in. Have you ever heard of an instance like this? In ANY industry? Competitor B launches a boycott of competitor A, paints it as being for the good of the industry, and gets support from other competitors? Not I.
This week an article in the NY Times went viral. Well, it spread around the publishing industry anyway, so maybe we should say it had a slight head cold? The article speaks to some publishers adding special design effects on the covers of certain titles. The effects include elaborate embossing, special photographs, a shiny gold Rorschach, etc.
On a recent Saturday, the Book Industry Guild of New York held its 19th annual Softball Tournament in Central Park to support the Literacy Assistance Center (LAC).