Thursday, November 17, 2011

The publishing singularity has arrived

Borders is gone. Meanwhile Barns and Noble is apparently closing its flagship Seattle store and beginning the process of selling fewer books in favor of more book-related merchandise in its surviving outlets. A shelf-space reduction of 50% by according to some reports. At the same time Target and Walmart are also slashing book-selling shelf space in their stores.

Back at the ranch, indie book stores are seeing increased Post-Borders sales.

In cyberspace ebook sales continue to climb. Amazon has unveiled its $79 Kindle, and the print-on-demand Espresso Book Machines network has just gotten access to the backlist of a major publisher. We seem to have hit a tipping point towards...

Towards hard to say.

We're certainly in new territory here, and despite futurism being a mug's game, I'll take a stab it predicting where we're headed. Because, you know, science fiction writer.


Paperback sales will continue their slide as e-ink ebook readers continue to come down in price. Multi-day battery lifespans and easy-on-the-eyes e-ink will remain the biggest determiners of which e-readers swim and which ones sink.  Also, at some point quality color e-ink will allow tablets to became the primary venue that most of the global middle class reads magazines and possibly even books on. In fact, I'll be surprised if tablets don't eventually replace dedicated e-readers entirely in another two decades if not sooner.

In the nearer term, once we see $20 e-readers I'll be surprised if paperbacks survive outside of nostalgia-targeted novelty runs and print-on-demand services.

The surviving shelf space in major book retail chains (if there are any) will increasingly go to pricey ($20-$30) mass market hardbacks from established best selling authors. A niche market in hardbacks for critically acclaimed works or books with cult-hit status may eventually thrive on the margins, just as hip record stores peddling vinyl do.

Actually, I kind of like the idea of hardbacks as the new vinyl. However, that niche only model will probably only happen if the major physical retailers go under in a worst-case scenario for traditional printing. That seems less likely than a hybrid future ink / ebook future to me.

Indiebook stores will continue to stay afloat through a combination of used book sales as well as in-house print-on-demand kiosks like Espresso Book Machine. Or at least if I were an independent I'd be putting serious skull sweat into figuring how to make print on demand work for me at a profitable enough margin.

Indie stores seem to offer a kind of book buying experience that a significant segment of the book-buying public enjoys. Particularly in rural America. Here in the Pacific Northwest it never ceases to amaze me how each small town supports at least one bookstore, several of which seem to sell both new and used.

It's also possible that indie book stores will become social spaces where people go to mingle, peruse, and download ebooks at. I know, it sounds strange, but even in the present day in which the lion's share of PC videogames are downloaded with gamers never owning a physical copy of their purchases, some brick and mortar locations have become destinations for younger gamers to socialize and download games purchased online while at home.

Amazon will of course be the titan that dominates the book selling world primarily with ebooks, hardbacks, manuals, and some paperbacks. Barns and Noble will likely continue on in the role of on-line little sister, though she may eventually be overtaken or even eaten by tech-savvy Google or Apple.

Overall I expect to a constellation of online book retailers like Google and Apple to orbit Amazon for sometime to come. Smaller indie ebook outlets like Smashwords will likely go under.

Why.  Because the larger outlets will have to tackle the major challenge of ebook buying: Separating out promising literary gems from the mass of  poorly written, badly edited works that make up the present bulk of ebooks. Amazon already appears to have begun this with it's indie books page that showcases books by independent ebook authors. Review blogs and online magazines will likely play a major role in this process.

In fact, I'm surprised that Amazon doesn't already have an online magazine that highlights promising self-published authors on its site...

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