The Business Rusch: Readers, Publishing & The Future
(Changing Times Part Twenty-One)
Kristine Kathryn Rusch
It’s an hour before I normally post this blog, and I’m just getting started. I’d like to say that’s because this is the saga of my entire week (and it is), but the real problem is that I decided to make a few notes on the book I’m finishing before I got to this post.
Three hours later, I finally turned to this blog.
The book is giving me fits, because I can’t seem to nail down the structure. I write books out of order, as those of you who followed me through The Freelancer’s Survival Guide know. I wish I could change this process, but my mind sees books as a mosaic instead of as something linear. When I finish, I have to construct the book, rather like a quilter with scraps of fabric. If I put the scraps together one way, I have one kind of book. If I put them together in another, I have a completely different book.
Because of the recalcitrant novel, I’ve been thinking about structure all week. Off and on, those thoughts have veered from that project to this one. When I first came up with the “Changing Times” subsection of the Business Rusch, I had a pretty straightforward structure in mind, which I even mentioned in the early posts. I would go from an overview of publishing to the impact these changes have on every branch of publishing, from Big Publishing to Small Publishers to Writers to Readers. Once I hit the reader post, I would have another book—one I wrote in a linear fashion.
Well…this time, it’s not my brain conspiring against me. It’s the constant evolution of the industry. As I noted in a post I wrote just after the holidays titled “Rapid Change,” things are moving so quickly that I can’t keep up week to week. I’m afraid if I put all of these posts together into a book—even an e-book—it’ll be dated in the month I take to organize, copyedit, and publish. Plus I’m not sure I can complete this in a month, given my fiction writing schedule. I’m faced with a dilemma.
Also, I haven’t finished all of the topics that I have added to my list. Some of you have asked for a post on promotion; others want to know how to figure out whether or not self-publishing is for them. Before I go further, let me point out that my husband Dean Wesley Smith has started a new series on his blog titled “Think Like A Publisher.” If the first post is any indication, it’ll be a spectacular series and Dean will do some of this business stuff much better than I ever could. So hike on over there and read it.
When I initially started the Business Rusch, I decided it would be for the general freelancer, much like The Freelancer’s Survival Guide. I managed that for a few months. Then I decided I could no longer ignore the elephant in the room—all that change in publishing, which will have an impact on all of us, whether we write or work in publishing or just wander into bookstores now and then.
I’d like to go back to the general business blog, but I fear I’ve lost a lot of those readers. I’ve gained about five times as many readers, however, because I’m talking about the industry in a way that no one else is—not even Dean.
So, while I was thinking about structure all week, I came up with a new structure for this blog. Here’s what I’m going to do for the foreseeable future.
First, I’m going to finish this subsection on publishing tonight with a bit about readers. Then, starting next week, I’m just going to blog about the changes in publishing for a while. I’m not sure how long that will last. Maybe a few weeks, maybe a few months, or maybe a year. I feel like that part is out of my control.
However, I’m going to lose the “Changing Times” header. I’m just going to write a post and see where it goes. I may write new versions of the posts I wrote last fall, just because my thinking is changing and what I said in October may no longer apply to how I feel at the moment. And what I believe here in March may not be what I believe in August, as more and more data comes across my desk.
Sound confusing? Yeah, I get that. But I do have a bit of a plan. I will talk about promotion. I will also talk about attitudes—mostly about how hard it is to shift from the old paradigm to the new one. I don’t believe an all-or-nothing approach is the way to go.
A lot of you have sent me links or pointed out articles on Twitter or found some statistics for me. I appreciate that, and hope you will continue. We’re going to march this new road into the Brave New World of Publishing together.
But to complete this miniseries, let me stop talking as a writer, business owner, former editor, and occasional publisher, and look at all the changes from a reader’s point of view.
To quote the illustrious Chandler Bing of Friends: Oh. My. God!
Or to simply repeat what I’ve been saying all along: Wow! Wow, wow, wow, wow.
We have just entered reader heaven.
Back when I discovered iTunes, I had a problem. Long before music was digitized and available on the web, I had a serious financial issue with music. Whenever I stopped anywhere that sold CDs (or tapes or albums—this is an old problem for me), I bought something. Even when I was broke. Especially when I was broke.
So the idea that I could order any music I heard at any time of the day or night, download it to a device I could carry with me, and listen whenever I wanted was both wonderful and terrifying. Wonderful because I adore music and like much of what I hear. Terrifying because I recognized that I could go broke within a month.
My solution? I never attach a credit card to iTunes or any other music download service. I buy gift cards for myself. When the card runs out, I get another card—at a physical store. When the money runs out on that gift card, I have to wait until I get another before ordering more music.
It’s a way of budgeting my purchases, and it works.
But books create an even bigger problem for me. When I was broke and living on less than $8,000 per year, my budget buster wasn’t music because music stores were easy to avoid (especially during those years when I didn’t have a car). My budget buster was books. I finally had to go to a cash-based system, so that I didn’t buy every book I saw. It worked just like the gift cards do now; if I saw a book I liked, but was out of cash, then I couldn’t buy it. It wasn’t discipline that worked for me; it was the fact that I stopped carrying my debit and credit cards.
I thought the Kindle would be a problem just like music downloads are. but I’m finding that the Kindle has a nifty feature that I hadn’t anticipated: Sampling. I can read about a book, download a sample for later, and read it when I’m ready.
I thought for a while that I was buying fewer books. But that’s not true. I’m buying better books—meaning I’m wasting fewer dollars. I’m actually buying books that I have a greater percentage chance of enjoying, because I’ve already read about 50 pages before I plunk down my hard-earned cash.
The best part of the electronic frontier for me is this: I remember books better. When I read a review about a book that sounds interesting, or if a friend recommends something, or if a former student whose work I’ve loved mentions that she has a book out, I immediately download the sample before I forget about the book. I don’t buy all of those books as e-books. Some—particularly the nonfiction—I buy in print versions. But my reminders live in my e-reader as samples rather than lists that stubbornly remain on my desk even when I happen to be in a bookstore.
I’m not alone in this. Studies are showing that people with e-readers buy more books. And price isn’t as much of a consideration as you would think. A British study that came out this week showed that publishers are winning the book pricing battle. Consumers will pay for content. The key isn’t price; it’s availability.
On March 9, Barnes & Noble chairman Len Riggio spoke to the annual meeting of the Association of American Publishers. He said that publishing is “on the cusp of transformational growth.”
His audience was composed of traditional publishers, and he lectured them. He said, “Too many of us see bookselling as a zero-sum game—that there’s a limit to how many books people will buy and people will read.”
But he doesn’t believe in the zero-sum game. Instead, he says that digital has already shown that “market size is readily expandable and expanding markets lift all boats.”
His key point—for us as readers—is this: “[Readers] have a bookstore, an entire publishing company, in their pockets. The power of this cannot be minimized. If you think there’s a limit to how many books people can read, you’re back in a zero-sum game.”
To back this up, he used statistics to show that the digital book market is “growing more rapidly than almost any sector of any industry has grown in thirty years.” (Emphasis mine.)
That’s amazing, and it will continue because—remember—ebooks right now comprise only about 9% of the market. Not everyone who wants an e-reader owns one. The prices will continue to drop, and more and more readers (even the reluctant ones) will eventually own some type of e-reader.
Let me add some anecdotal evidence here. I live in a small town that lost its main new bookstore a few years ago. To get new books, I had to make a special trip to a city more than an hour away, something I couldn’t do every week. Going online at Amazon wasn’t a substitute for walking down the aisles of a bookstore to find new releases on a weekly basis; I would often miss weeks of releases and never ever know those books existed.
The fact that I can sample on my Kindle replaces the bookstore visit. An even better feature is this: I can order books from small publishers and self-published writers as easily as I can order books from larger publishers. Suddenly the entire world is at my fingertips.
The world isn’t just at my fingertips, but at the fingertips of anyone who owns an e-reader.
A lot of readers are like Dominique Raccah of Sourcebooks. She says that when she discovers a writer, she binges on their work. In the past that meant haunting used bookstores or special ordering hard-to-find books. Now, she just goes through the writer’s inventory on her e-reader.
Riggio is both right and wrong: a reader doesn’t have a bookstore in their pocket. They have a thousand bookstores, all with different content. He believes that soon Barnes & Noble will have a catalog with 20 million books or more.
Twenty million books or more. Wow. Wow, wow, wow, wow. If I hear about a writer, I can find her work that day. Then I can chose the format I want to read that work in—paper, e-book, online. It’s a great world, and the beneficiaries of it aren’t the midlist writers or the start-up publishers.
The beneficiaries are the readers.
We suddenly have the opportunity to read as many books as we possibly can—books that we know we will enjoy because we’ve already sampled them. Books that we might not have found at all in the old system, because the book was out of print or had a limited press run or came out of a small company who never distributed to the big bookstore chains.
Is Riggio right? Am I, as the owner of an e-reader, reading more? Yes. And I am not alone.
I conducted an informal survey of readers at our weekly writers’ lunch. Realize that everyone there is a published writer, and many (but not all) are early adopters. Of the fifteen people who showed up on Sunday, every one of them had an e-reader in the house. Every single person with an e-reader said that without a doubt they were reading more because of the e-reader and the easy availability of books. And every single person there had been an avid reader before they got their e-reader. So their reading went up.
Unscientific, I know. But it was startling just the same.
I believe that Riggio is right. We are facing transformational growth in the publishing industry. Whatever will happen to traditional publishers and the current bestselling writers is a matter for debate. But what I do know is this: more people will buy more books because those people do not have to go out of their way to acquire those books. These readers won’t have to drive to another city to get the latest novel by their favorite writer or remember to order it in paper form on Amazon. They won’t have to decry the fact that book distribution to places like grocery stores is down and that libraries are closing.
Readers can now get the books they want—or they will be able to, as more and more writers get backlists up, and new writers find niche markets. The readers’ big problem will be my iTunes problem: how to keep books from becoming a one-click budget buster.
And let me say that, as a writer, an occasional publisher, and a recovering editor, I like that problem a lot.
As a reader, however, I’m in heaven. I truly am. Now all I have to do is give up sleeping, so that I have enough time to finish my writing and to read every single book that strikes my fancy.
Have I said recently how much I love this new world? I love it as a writer, but as a reader, I love it most of all.
Next week, I’m moving to individual posts on publishing. I’ll take on things like how to rise above the noise of those 20 million books, how to promote (if promotion is necessary at all), how to think about this new world, and of course, I’ll keep up on the changes and trends. Thanks to all of you who have given me suggestions and ideas this past week, and thanks as well to those of you who’ve kept me writing this blog through your donations. You make the moments I squeeze out of structuring the latest (*#!!**) book to write this blog worthwhile.
“The Business Rusch: Readers, Publishing & The Future (Changing Times Part 21)” copyright 2011 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch.