The Times they are…

October 17, 2006

In Sunday’s Times, Bryan Appleyard wrote about the future of books. It’s a great article and deserves to be read in its entirety, but since we’re here we’ll note the key points, which are tantamount to articles of faith around these parts:

“Over the past decade, power in the book industry has drained away from publishers to the bookshops.” This is incontestably true, and Appleyard notes its main effect: publishers must now pay the booksellers vast sums to have their books placed in the areas of their bookshops in which they will sell. Without front-of-store positioning, and the stacks of cash that secure them, books don’t sell in bricks-and-mortar stores. I’d tell you the sums, but then I’d have to kill you. The corollary is that “this has shifted publishers’ lists dramatically downmarket.”

“Books are about to hit their iPod/iTunes moment, when new technology drives down costs, transforms the medium and provides simplified, targeted distribution.” For Appleyard, this means the POD revolution: the book you want, in your hands, anywhere. While I’m very attached to this model, I’m going to stick to the belief that as soon as a digital reader looks enough like a book for readers not to care, who’s going to want to keep killing trees? We’ll stick with him for the moment, though.

“People love books but — because of poor education, the decline of the quality of bookshops and the mistaken marketing wisdom that real books were a strictly minority interest — they could find nowhere to think and talk about them.” I don’t have a point here: this is just a great quote. And we – meaning people + technology – are going to solve this problem, any moment now.

“Starbucks is indeed looking at [POD].” Really? I would love to know where this came from. That said, it’s hardly surprising. Why go to a bookshop, and then to your nearest cafe, pub or even park, when you can just pick the book up at your final destination? Plenty of other people are looking at POD too, promise.

“There will be a fundamental difference between a book bearing the HarperCollins or Faber & Faber logo and one bearing that of some teenage bedroom geek.” This is where we get into sticky territory. The key here is that the big publishers, following years of consolidation, have budgets that allow staggeringly pervasive levels of promotion and marketing, which will drive readers towards their products even if they are of lower quality than the bedroom geek’s. But the music revolution has shown that bedroom geeks can also direct the industry, c.f. the impact of myspace. Where is the myspace for authors?

“The effect will be seismic, almost certainly more radical than the impact on the record industry of MP3 technology.” Are you getting it now? The Times says so. Come with us.

“Thus, the truth known to bloggers and surfers alike: that real books — “the long tail” of the business, as it is fashionably known — are infinitely bigger than the tat market we are currently being offered by the malign finances and politics of the industry.” Welcome to Book 2.0.


Because we enjoyed this so much, we should put in a link to Mr. Appleyard’s personal site.

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