Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Get Thee to The Book Shop

If you’ve been following the news lately, no doubt you’ve heard about the terrible downturn in the economy. People are losing jobs; previously solid companies are crumbling; the stock market is creaking and plunging like an old ship; and fear runs rampant.

The publishing industry has been hit especially hard. All major houses are reporting declines in revenues and a near-standstill of sales of both new hard covers and backlist titles, unless of course you’re fortunate enough to have had your book anointed by Oprah or the best of your publisher’s publicity machinery churning ceaselessly behind you. PW Daily reported today that in the month of September: “Sales at bookstores, sporting goods stores and hobby stores fell a total of 1.6% in the month on an adjusted basis. “ For the entire retail segment, sales figures are at a record low. The CEO of Barnes & Noble sent out a memo warning booksellers to brace themselves for one of the worst holiday seasons in history and a high-level publishing executive predicted in a recent keynote address at an industry conference that the “worst is yet to come.”

For debut authors like me, it's dire news, indeed. THE LAST QUEEN came out only a month or so before the market crash hit. The verdict is still out on final sales, of course, it being too early in the book’s life to say; but I can say at times I felt as though I was pushing a hard-covered stone up a hill, not withstanding a brief stint on the Marin Independent Journal bestseller list.

Fortunately, the trade paperback will be published in May, 2009, and as a Random House Readers Group selection, the venues for marketing and publicity are more established.
It has been a sobering experience for me as a writer, discovering that for many of us, books have become a luxury item and many people eager to read a book in hard cover are instead now waiting for the paperback. The reasons are varied, anywhere from the fact that paperbacks are easier to carry to the preference for the format. But in the end, of course, it comes down to price. After all, there is quite a gap between $25.00 and $14.95, the average trade paperback price.

There was a time when the collector value of hard covers was all important; sadly, it seems that time, like so many other golden artifacts of the industry, is fast coming to its end. In the UK, the practice of releasing a new author into the market in hardcover is nearly extinct; it takes a sizeable advance and significant advance buzz to convince UK publishers otherwise. Many houses are implementing original trade paperback imprints and many of these imprints are proving that the public will still buy books— when the price is right.

In the US, however, hard covers still represent a better chance at reviews and publicity coverage by major sources like newspapers. The tide is slowly turning; but ask any author how they’d feel if they had to relinquish their hard cover deal for an original trade paperback one instead, and the shudder is usually palpable. It often comes down to simple economics: hardcover advances are usually higher.

It bears noting that publishers have hardly raised prices in over ten years. I have a hardcover I purchased in 1998 that was $21.99. My most recent purchase was $25.00. Given the cost of paper and shipping, as well as overall production costs that go into publishing a book these days, this is not a significant price increase to keep up with inflation. And a hardcover book is still cheaper than a night at the movies for two or even a decent dinner these days, plus it offers more hours of entertainment than either. Profit margins for publishers, too, remain surprisingly low for most books, given the discounts for booksellers and the antiquated returns system, which can condemn a title to oblivion before it’s even had a chance to find its audience.

I was therefore not surprised that during a recent dinner with some fellow author friends the dominant theme of the conversation was the horrifying state of publishing and our collective fear that together with the nation, our careers are plunging into an abyss. While writers tend to shy away from giving actual sales figures – a left-over from the genteel era in publishing, when discussing your numbers was almost as uncouth as discussing your advance— my friends were touting out their Bookscan and Point of Sale figures with the appalled shock of those who witness a terrible car crash on their commute home, know someone has perished in that twisted wreckage of smoking metal, and feel utterly helpless. It was both refreshing and devastating to experience such unadulterated candor - and hard on my wallet, as I immediately felt the need to hightail it to my nearest bookstore and purchase books as though I were about to be exiled to a desert island with nothing to read.

There are silver linings, to coin a cliché. The fabulous, entrepreneurial author and business woman MJ Rose of AuthorBuzz recently put together a blog ad campaign with 24 authors (including me) who grouped our dollars to gain more exposure and run rotating blog ads promoting reading and books as the perfect holiday gift. Likewise, my publisher Random House is running a similar campaign aimed at motivating consumers to buy books this Christmas. The truth is, a book is still less expensive than most luxury items and can bring its recipient days of pleasure. And books remain the mainstay of our civilization, proof that we are intelligent beings with the capacity to celebrate and explore our shared humanity. With mere paper and ink, entire worlds are shared; often, this world is created by one person who spends years laboring over his or her work to bring it before the public. That is the magic of the book.

We are fast becoming a society of quick fixes and disposable entertainment. We watch ourselves online and discard whatever ceases to please us. We’re bombarded more and more by novelty, compelled to choose the new-fangled over the tried and true. Yet now is the time to rally to our booksellers; to forego that DVD or perfume purchase and give someone we love a book, instead.

We’ll be a far poorer society, indeed, not just in terms of money, if we let our current crisis dictate the fate of the enduring love we have for books.


J.M. Aucoin said...

The truth is, a book is still less expensive than most luxury items and can bring its recipient days of pleasure.

So very true. In fact, books are a great gift if you're on a budget. Dropping $10 - $25 on a book for someone isn't that bad compared to other possible gifts and I've yet to hear the dreaded (or see the expression of), "Oh, you got me a book... how nice." I know at least a couple of people on my list will be getting a book, and I usually end up receiving a few on my own.

Personally, I prefer softback to hardback, mostly because it's smaller, lighter, and easier to read in tight quarters (i.e., trains) than hardbacks, but, yes, also because it is cheaper (I'm not quite the starving artist, but I'm not eating gourmet food either *grins*). Though, I do like how the Alatriste hardbacks are smaller than most hardcovers.

Hopefully more books will be bought because of this lovely economic environment we're in. My crazy, super-stretch of a theory? People will realize the price vs. quality of giving a book as a gift is more than worth it and sales will jump. This turns more people onto reading and a growing reader base. Sure it's a shot in the dark, but we can dream, right? :-D

Pan Historia said...

I'll be buying books just as I always have. I'd rather sacrifice eating at a fancy restaurant than stop buying books. I never did consider them a luxury item but rather a necessity of life. I think right now people are collectively holding their breath to see which way the wind is blowing but once it's clear that things are going to be depressed for a while they will certainly be needing the smaller pleasures they can still afford and instead of that vacation it will need to be a good novel to escape into.

C.W. Gortner said...

So great to hear your opinions. I'm delighted that those of us who remain stalwart and dedicated to books will be stuffing those holiday stockings with 'em. And hopefully, you're right, and the crisis will get people to seek out books as an alternative gift to the more pricey items.