Friday, February 4, 2011

Notes from Digital Book World, Part 2 of 3 Parts

By S. J. Rozan

Session Three: Organizer Predictions

Mike Shatzkin of the Idea Logical Co. made some predictions about issues publishers will need to address in the next year or two:

• Sooner or later, brick-and-mortar bookstores will disappear -- the chains sooner, the indies later.

• Publishers have always been dependent on intermediaries to reach their customers. Now the nature of the intermediary is changing. Publishers should not try to sell directly to consumers, but they should have a two-way street going, to reach out to consumers to make their products visible, and to gather names.

• Agents, who traditionally "cureate" before publishers do, will see their roles change mightily in the e-world.

• Ease of e-delivery world-wide will eventually make the concept of foreign sales for English-language books obsolete.

Session Four: Enhanced Content

This was a largely technical talk about multimedia and displaying across multiple platforms. The important fact for the writer is that a new set of standards is about to be released, called "epub3," that will make it much easier to provide content to all e-devices: not only written content, but photos, graphics, video and sound. (SJR note: I give smell about five years...)

Session Five: e-publishing in Europe

The gist of this session was that English-language e-publishing in Europe is a very confusing situation, while translation e-publishing of books written in English is controlled differently in different countries -- both the publishing itself, and the distribution channels. (SJR note: this is an area where an agent is absolutely essential, I think.)

Session Six: Presentation from Google

(SJR Note: This was an irritating mix of platitudes and generalizations. Google claims to see its mission, now that it's in the book business, as "reading unbound." Readers can choose what to read, where to shop, and what e-device to read on. All that was possible before Google, but they've integrated the experience. The two facts writers might want to consider are: one, that Google is "partnering" with independent bookstores -- it's a little unclear what that means right now but it's something to keep an eye on; and two, that their third largest-selling category is "thrillers." Since in the rest of their top 10 there was nothing about mystery or suspense, I think Google lumps crime and mystery all in that category.)

Session Seven: The Future of Brick-and-Mortar Bookstores

This panel of financial analysts was focused on the chain stores, which means largely B&N, with some attention still paid to Borders, and some to Books-a-Million. They raised some interesting questions, while making only one statement: brick-and-mortar bookstores will continue to exist for another two decades, if not longer. They'll exist in changed form, though. Points made:

• The big box was never a good business model for bookstores. Certain business practices exist for bookstores that don't exist for other retailers: discounts, returnability, agency pricing. All function against big boxes.

• Amazon right now is willing to make no profit, even take losses, on ebooks to gain market share. This, among other things, makes the financial future hard to predict for B&N, which sells both hard-copy and ebooks. Amazon does, too, but doesn't devote the huge square footage to the hard-copy books.

• There's a lot of talk about B&N "re-purposing" a chunk of square footage in each store, but for what new or sublet purpose, no one's sure.

• Google is aggressively pursuing local indie bookstores (see more, below) for its own purposes; for whatever reason, though, indies may get an online presence from this that will further cut into B&N's advantage of scale.

• What may be outmoded is the idea of "bookstore." While the selling function will take a back seat to e-commerce, the physical experience of being among books, authors and people who can make informed recommendations might end up being provided by something/someplace else. This might, for example, be an aspect of the industry that publishers take over, as part of the "added value" they bring. (again, see more, below)

• Bottom line: industry analysts are not recommending their clients invest in any of the bookstore chains at this time. (SJR note: given the generally optimistic nature of much of what I'd heard so far, this was a bucket of cold water.)

The above morning sessions were all-conference. In the afternoon -- after a decent box lunch -- I went to three breakout sessions.

Session Eight: The Future of Independent Bookstores

(SJR note: this session had a true-believer quality that made it hard to judge the realistic nature, or lack thereof, of what the speakers were saying.)

Points made:

• Indie bookstores have long been doing direct-to-consumer targeted marketing.

• One viable option for an indie bookstore is to partner with a "mission-driven organization with a constituency." The example on the panel was a bookstore within a museum, which began as a museum giftshop but has grown to be a destination in itself, a store with the added advantage of a connection to the art on the walls.

• Another indie talked about curation and recommendations online, with online ordering and a pick-up-in-store option. This store depends to a certain extent on signed copies, which ebooks just can't provide.

• Mentioned also was the idea of a small-bookstore bank, extending credit to indies. Right now, the burden of bookstores' undercapitalization is borne by publishers in the form of credit and returnability. Small publishers can't afford these, which keeps the very products out of indies that they're best suited to "curating."

• Google, as mentioned above, is aggressively pursuing partnerships with indie bookstores. What this does for the store is provide a channel through which to sell ebooks, to keep customers from "migrating" to Amazon, etc. What it provides to Google is a source of local customers to whom they can then target ads from local businesses.

• All panelists were optimistic -- as some of the publishing execs had also been -- that we might be entering a new golden age of indie bookstores, as ebooks take away the big boxes' cheap-and-quick part of the business, leaving the specialization and curation in the hands of stores educated and nimble enough to do it.

--To be continued...

S.J. Rozan is the award-winning author of 12 novels, including the mystery series featuring private investigators Lydia Chin and Bill Smith. Her most recent work, On the Line, finds Bill in a high-stakes chase to locate the kidnapped Lydia. For more information about S.J., go to

S.J. Rozan photo by Marion Ettlinger.


Steve Brewer said...

Thanks for this excellent reportage, SJ!

Barbara said...

Fascinating reports - looking forward to part three. And thanks again for being there.

Mike Shatzkin has also recently told me (in comments at his blog) that libraries are over because people don't want them and with electronic access to everything, the library as a place is dead, though librarians may be able to sell their services somehow. Newsbreak: libraries so aren't dead, and I would be very surprised if many librarians could make a living selling their reference skills. I am not betting on his predictions.

I'm also not at all sure about enhanced books, at least for fiction. I even get peeved with book trailers that include characters from the book. Hold it, imagining what they look like is my privilege, and I wouldn't want the spell broken if I'm reading by having pictures and video inserted. (And the movie is never as good.) For non-fiction ... yeah, okay.

Helen Ginger said...

How ironic that the indie stores might be the survivors after they were so decimated by the big box bookstores.

Barbara said...

Re: Shatzkin - I should clarify that he meant people don't want libraries enough to fund them, so he expects public libraries to disappear. Given the massive community involvement in supporting libraries when they are threatened with closure in many communities, I still think he's wrong.

And yes, surviving indies have proven their worth and I believe will continue to be community resources devoted to matching books and readers.

Leslie Budewitz said...

SJ, thanks for the terrific reports.

The comment that the box store was never a good model for bookstores, and B&N's hope to shrink some of its larger stores by leasing out of the space, create an interesting possiblity: will the chains retrench from big boxes to smaller boxes, possibly in malls or downtowns rather than as stand-alones -- going back to the model they left behind? This might be one of their better options for viability, although they are no doubt stuck with expensive leases. Borders may be looking at that option in a bankruptcy reorganization, hoping to get out of some of those leases and move to smaller spaces in malls and downtowns -- many have open spaces and may offer more flexible leasing options.

NancyM said...

Terrific reporting, SJ. And what a lot of buzzwords to decipher.

I recently read Steve Martin's novel, OBJECT OF BEAUTY, which had photos of the paintings he was writing about. A lovely--and non-intrusive--way to enhance a story. I wonder if readers are ready for my kind of photography in my books? Or will I need to hire a real photographer?

The continuing strength of libraries was indicated in the Bowker research that SinC commissioned, so don't count 'em out yet,

Barbara said...

Nancy, one writer who has lovely b&w photos in his books is Mark Coggins. He's the guy with the really nice camera who you run into at Bouchercon and LCC. His photos enhance the stories nicely. But they are used at the beginning of chapters, so don't interrupt the flow, which is what I (non-visual person that I am) would not care for.

Robin Agnew said...

Wow, this is depressing, though not surprising. I'm not sure how publishers could be the "curators" - wouldn't that apply to a more specialized market? How would they get to customers? Also, what the heck is going to happen to the billions of books that already exist...

con said...

Again, great reportage and thanks, S.J. What will replace hand-selling in the Brave New World?