By: Emily Taylor
When discussing books, we often speak of them as objects without origins. Even the question prompt for this essay – “what does the future hold for books?” – focuses on the product itself, rendering their authors and the writing process invisible. There will be no additional books without a future for the people involved in their production, and thus I will determine the imminent role and value books will play in the near future by examining publishers, distributors and authors.
I argue that the mass distribution of books by online stores (Amazon) and physical box stores (Chapters, Walmart) has distanced readers from authors in a way that causes them to consider books to be a physical or digital object or “product”, rather than an enriching (educational, entertaining) experience brought into being by the ideas and skill of a talented individual. As Packer quotes Dennis Johnson, co-owner of Melville House stating: “Amazon has successfully fostered the idea that a book is a thing of minimal value… it’s a widget” (2014). Much like other cultural industries, where the capitalist practice of fetishizing works of art prevails –a film or a song just becomes a torrent file (Lawrence, 2010; Fisher, 2012) – the final “product” of the book and its creation by an author are separated in public consciousness. I predict that if this devaluation continues, it will encourage the current literary environment which massively profits large distributors like Amazon (Packer, 2014) and forces publishers to readjust roles (Gonzales, 2010), but will drastically alter and dichotomize the career path of authors, making it even more difficult than present (Morrison, 2011) for talented individuals to consider writing as a full-time profession.
In order to succeed in this current and near-future environment, authors will need to choose between emphasizing their ideas (content) and brand (author personality), or the community (reader discussion) and experience (participating in building the narrative) associated with their book. This will make the author visible and valuable, thus improving the possibility of sustaining themselves by writing.
Bargain Books in a Bin: How We Got Here
Before distributors were able to benefit from the long-tail business model offered by digital and high-quality on-demand titles, authors largely relied on publishers and independent bookstores to support them in positioning their books and introducing them to readers (Lloyd, 2008). The average book’s physical copies were limited by shelf space and thus seen as a exceptional commodity. Unless it was a best seller, there would only be a few copies of any given title on the shelf (Shatzkin, 2011). A publisher’s brand or a bookstore owner’s passion for an author would add to the value of the experience of finding and purchasing a book, wherein readers would relate to authors and their narratives on a personal level by being individually paired with a press or title (Morrison, 2012). Book signings and tours were more popular – putting the writer and their process on centre stage (Wasinski, 2013). Even if the author was an introverted personality, their publisher could spin that into mystery, allure and theatrics with dedicated marketing (Morrison, 2012).
By stark contrast, when a reader walks into Walmart and sees bins upon bins of the same book, covers marred by massive discount stickers, the allure begins to fade. The book becomes parallel to an apple, toy, or shirt in a bin – a disposable product meant for short-term fulfillment, judged solely on its apparent physical value. Especially with the increase in high-quality at home printing (Mill City Press, 2014), when a consumer looks at a book as an object, they quantify it as a certain amount of ink and paper that would never hold more value than $20.00 at Staples. This massive loss in perceivable value of the physical book paired with the initial low pricing of digital books in an attempt to persuade hesitant readers to “try out” eBooks (Packer, 2014) fostered the current toxic capitalist consciousness that strips books of their production process and creators.
Mass Distributor Haven: Loving the Long Tail
The high-supply, sporadic-demand book sales environment is the perfect habitat for online mass distributors like Amazon and Google. With their infinite “digital shelf”, they can display everything from best-selling million dollar titles to the most obscure hobbyist’s coffee table book. Sales of products other than books unlimited by physical space – toys, clothing, electronics and anything else you can imagine on Amazon – funds any potential losses in storage fees or web hosting costs caused by poorly selling titles. Much like the Netflix of the film industry (Leonard, 2013) and the iTunes (Lawrence, 2010) of the music industry, because Amazon and Google have almost all the books and a vast majority of readers – Amazon “constitutes a third of any major house’s retail sales on a given week, with the growth chart pointing toward fifty per cent” (Packer, 2014) – they can afford to sell items for $0.99 because they’re going to sell billions of them (Wilke, 2014).
As time passes, I predict that mass online distributors will only grow larger. Print on demand will become more advanced with better printing and shipping technology. Suggestions based on user data from social media, search history and past transactions will make discovery (ads) even more targeted, especially for Google which already collects and stores unfathomable amounts of user and search data. I completely expect Amazon to attempt to partner with Facebook given its disadvantage in this respect, which will allow it to leverage social and behavioural data to hone promoted content and target users with books guaranteed to pique their interest. The only way mass online distributors may need to adapt is they will need to provide less proprietary formats, improve encryption and allow sharing across devices (Sloan, 2014) – decreasing piracy and increasing customer satisfaction. They can and will learn from video game providers like Steam in this case, which has seen major success with the long-tail business model (Hunt, 2012).
Independent, small and physical distributors will not reap the same benefits. The only way they will survive is by following the lead of the independent theatre and vinyl music industries (Fox, 2014), wherein they will need to identify a hyper-targeted niche and develop loyalty with an audience through on-the-ground personal interaction. They will need to cater to bibliophiles’ need for “experience”, by providing beautiful ambiances, incredibly knowledgeable and social staff and possibly even expanding into the realm of libraries and coffee shops by providing an environment where customers will want to spend extended periods of time. Chapters has already taken this route by implementing Starbucks, but they may fall victim to the online mass distributors (or convert entirely to Indigo online) because they are ‘too corporate’ and cannot cater to the highly targeted niche audiences (Kitching, 2014) to which I refer.
Whether in a small or large space, an online or physical store, or with a mass-targeted or hyper-niche audience, there will always be a place for books to be sold. The real question we must examine when determining the future of the book is where these distributors will find new books themselves.
Publishers Reposition: Quality Control
Publishers, like distributors, are not destitute either. Although they have shifted away from their roles as marketers, coordinators and leaders of the book making and selling business (Lloyd, 2008), they still play the absolutely fundamental role of ensuring quality and relevance for their audiences. Smaller publishing houses may have perished due to the inability to fund new projects with best sellers (Strauss, 2014) and from having to fork over 60% of profits to Amazon (Packer, 2014), but the concept of a branded institution that chooses which titles are “worth reading” is a lasting need in the literary industry. Much like magazines – Vogue, although moving online is still “Vogue” and holds its loyal readers and advertisers by the purse strings (Halliday, 2013) – publishers will need to hone and build their individual brands in order to attract and maintain their followings. Similarly to the film (studios) and music industries (record labels), their audiences will trust a particular brand to provide a particular standard and flavour of content (Wittkopf, 2014). As the market becomes increasingly flooded with self-published and low-budget content, the role of the publisher as a gatekeeper to quality literature will become more important than ever. The houses that realize this is their fundamental purpose and restructure accordingly will survive by finding authors, editing their works into masterpieces and publishing content that suits their corner of the larger audience of readers.
Author Identity Crisis: Where Do I Fit?
Authors face the most dramatic and potentially drastic change in their role. Authors are not like musicians – not even Stephen King, Margaret Atwood or J.K. Rowling would fill the likes of Rogers Arena every night in hundreds of cities for months on end like Lady Gaga can (GagaDaily, 2014). The content of the book is the entire experience – there is no current “concert” equivalent in literature. Authors are not like actors, who are paid during the production of the film and not afterward, depending on their performances’ success at the box office (Kilhefner, 2014). Although they may not reap royalties from the film itself, they will benefit from interviews, merchandise and future acting gigs (Kilhefner, 2014). Authors cannot follow suit of the film, music or video gaming industries, which have arguably adapted and are finding their place in the long-tail business model (Lawrence, 2010; Hunt 2012; Sloan, 2013; Schweizer, 2013; Pfanner, 2013; Sommerich, 2014). Authors must fundamentally redefine their place in the market, or risk complete erasure.
Dichotomization of Authors: Popular or Dissent?
I predict that there will be two fates for successful authors, depending on the type of narratives (fiction and non-fiction) that they provide. Both will need to rely on an acute awareness of themselves and their unique personalities, the stories they tell and the audiences they are seeking – a previously minor factor in an author’s career path, now brought to the fore. Without the support of publishers, distributors and salespeople, authors will need to shift their perception of the writing career to include finding a place for one’s own work and standing up for its value by making their brand and writing process visible.
If an author is selling a popular, publicly-relevant and topical narrative, they will need to follow the lead of the video game industry (Hunt, 2012) and pursue crowd funding until they garner enough attention to merit a publisher’s support. I predict that innovators in the publishing industry will develop more crowd funding platforms dedicated specifically to authors’ needs (Pubslush, 2014), wherein they promote “trailers” for their books, build a personal brand and preview bits of content (character profiles, narrative outlines, first chapters) in order to entice readers’ interest enough to fund the rest of their writing process. Unlike Kickstarter or Indiegogo (Grant, 2014), these platforms would ideally rid of the “all or nothing” approach where all funds must be secured based on the small amount of content they initially provide in order to receive any compensation at all. An author-centric crowd funding platform would allow interested readers to donate immediately and independently of others, thus providing the author with a sustainable stream of funds in exchange for more and more content, until the book is complete and they would receive their final copy at no additional cost. Once an author finished their first (or first few) books and attracted enough attention, a publisher would approach them and assist them in honing their craft and developing their audience in exchange for a portion of the royalties – not unlike the music industry, wherein record labels wait for artists to build an audience and write quality music before stepping in and helping them take their art to the next level.
This process would not be independent of the mass online distributors. In fact, Amazon is currently developing a similar crowd-funding platform that would help self-publishers secure enough funds to complete their books, reports GoodReader (Kozlowski, 2014). Many platforms exist for authors to pursue crowd-funding today (Grant, 2014), but not to the level of targeting and sophistication to which I am referring. This catering-to-the-masses technique would work for already-established authors, authors of genre fiction and any author that cleverly aligns with a viral topic and leverages its existing audience, because they can combat the current “$2.99-$9.99 price standard” (Smith, 2014) with scale. The digital and physical books will be created cheaply and simply for minimum production cost and ease of printing on-demand (Biggs, 2014). Ultimately, authors of popular narratives will increase the visibility and perceived value of their books by emphasizing their content (topical, popular stories) and their brand (author personality and publisher clout), and will succeed by selling many copies for fewer earnings from royalties.
I believe there is also a place in this market for authors with dissenting opinions. Many skeptics predict that the need to cater to the public in order to support oneself as a writer dooms quality, critical thought and alternative prose (Lloyd, 2008; Morrison, 2011). However, I argue that so long as an author is able to connect with audiences and tell stories that resonate with their niche, they will succeed regardless how alternative their ideas may be. The journey will be longer, more difficult and will involve writing for little to no profit in the beginning – Packer cites a survey that found that “half of all self-published authors make less than five hundred dollars a year” (2014) – but I believe with the right strategy it is still possible.
Authors of dissenting narratives will begin through grassroots writing efforts online such as blogging or using social media to spread awareness for their given cause. They will need to fund themselves through other means during the production of their first digital-only book, and self-publish their title on Amazon or Google without the help of a publisher, to optimize their royalty rate (Bollyut, 2014). Then, by using online forums like social media and offline environments like protests or related events, they will slowly build an audience by having a personality or cause that people can believe in (Morrison, 2014). The controversy and discussion their ideas generates will increase their visibility on social media, through blogger reviews and online news coverage – all of which will rank their book higher in Amazon and Google’s relevance algorithms (Patel, 2014). Once they rank high enough and have developed enough of a following, their higher royalty ratings will hopefully sustain them financially as they develop more content.
The success of this vision depends on several policy changes that many authors are currently fighting for on and offline. The legal battle over the right to determine the cost of one’s own work will need to be won, so that authors can increase the price of their books (Bollyut, 2014). Which, with the new promotion model I am proposing, their audience will understand because they are personally connected with the process of writing and realize that the cause within the book is more valuable than its pages. Alternatively, self-publishing and ecommerce must be easier to conduct natively (without Amazon), in the case of wildly popular authors who can build a large enough draw that they can directly distribute their eBooks.
The physical copies of these books will be limited edition and require aesthetic, collectible and quality design (Catone, 2013) that serves to position the book as a token of one’s support of the ideas within. Owning the physical copy of the book will be a statement of identity and belonging to a community of similarly minded people. Purchasing the title – often directly from the author – is a gesture of support rather than the exchange of money for a commodity object. Consumers will consciously purchase the ‘journey’, not the ‘destination’, but the more beautiful and displayable the final product is, the better. Ultimately, authors with dissenting ideas will need to emphasize and promote the experience of the book and the community surrounding it in order to restore its perceived value and thus earn financial success through smaller amounts with much higher royalties per book through self-publishing or direct distribution.
Implications: Why Does This Matter?
What are the implications of the new literary landscape I have predicted? Both positive and negative change will come for authors, publishers and readers when we emphasize content, brand, experience and community to restore the perceived value of a book. As many optimistic supporters of self-publishing have proclaimed, the democratization of the publishing industry made possible by digital distribution may allow more dissenting ideas a chance at being heard (Anderson, 2004; IDEO, 2010). A recent example is Packer, who proclaims “Amazon has made it possible for hundreds of thousands of writers frustrated with the limits of traditional publishing to have their work read” (2014). Without needing to cater to popular opinion, the brand of a publisher or a current trend, unique narratives have a (digital) platform to stand upon – albeit a small one. Increasing the diversity in pricing in the manners I have explained will possibly reverse the overall devaluation of books, because consumers will begin to associate the price of the book with the quality and rarity of the ideas within, rather than the book as an EPUB file or a bunch of inked paper within some pretty pieces of cardboard. Reconnecting audience and author will hopefully demystify the book, revealing its origins in the valuable knowledge and creativity of a talented individual.
Optimism aside, many negative effects may come of this new author career path. Glaringly – less people will dedicate their lives to writing due to the immense amount of personal effort and sacrifice involved (Morrison, 2011). Like actors and musicians, authors will need to fight to be heard while relying on alternate forms of income before they can make a living writing. The economic divide between successful and failed authors will increase dramatically, because unless they have the means to support themselves financially while still having time to write, they won’t write at all. This may further eliminate the dissenting voices, especially from oppressed peoples. Introverts, technophobes and people lacking knowledge of marketing and audiences – arguably the traits of many great writers past (Schocker, 2013) – will simply not be able to publish work in this market without employing full-time support from an expert, resulting in a massive loss in potential stories told. Ultimately there will be a loss in quality, creative and exceptional content, given fewer authors will have the time, means and motivation to hone their craft.
So to the resounding question: “What can publishers do to change the value perception of their ‘content’, regardless of the ‘container,’ or is that battle already lost?” (Gonzales, 2010), I answer that the fate of books rests largely on the shoulders of authors armed with stories and the drive and funds to tell them. If we are to reverse the devaluation of the book, authors must personally connect with their readers to restore the visibility of themselves and their craft. Books where the author is relatable, personable and believable will flourish and generate profits for their creators. The market will favour authors that can act as personalities or public figures, and introverted or unlikable authors will fall to the wayside. People with a passion for publishing and literature must educate others on the process of writing and the financial reality of the publishing industry’s business model. Books will prevail if authors learn from the music industry by becoming idols that readers will want to get to know and support by buying their work (Shapiro, 2013). They may also learn from film: readers must enjoy the experience of a work (film/book) and feel compelled to share and discuss it with a community of supporters for the title (MPAA, 2014), increasing its experiential value. By making the creator and creative process visible, authors and their supporters will increase the value of the content, brand, experience and community of books and thus ensure their sustainability.
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