The Book Industry: What's Next?

Two driving factors come to mind in discussing book trends:

  1. How many books are written and published
  2. Rapidly advancing technology

How many books are written and published

In the late 1800s, there were between 3,000 to 5,000 new books published a year. During the depression years, there were around 8,000 to 10,000 new books published a year. By the 1940s, the figure was 7,000 to 11,000. In the 50s it was 11,000 to 15,000. Then things really started to explode: 1960s= 15K to 30K; 1970s= 36K to 45K; 1980s= 42K to 53K; 1990s= 47K to 68K. By 2005 the number was in the 172K range, and now between the US and the UK, we may be talking over 600K per year.

The really sobering stat is out of the 172K US number, only 1K sell over 50K copies. In other words, writers, reconsider quitting your day job. Very few authors actually make a living from their book sales. Now, when you consider how difficult and competitive it is to get accepted for publishing, especially by the agented major publisher route, you’ve got to wonder how many books were written every year. The number has to be staggering.

Now, let’s look at the book marketing and retail side. With these numbers, how do you get your new books seen, acknowledged, and desired? Every day more and more outlandish attention-getting techniques are tried. Even if you don’t consider all the previous decade’s new books and just look at one year’s crop, where do the retailers find room to put them? In the big box stores such as Borders and Barnes & Noble, they have enough shelf space at best to display 60,000 titles at any one time.

In the smaller independent bookstores such as I own, we’re talking maybe 10,000 to 20,000 at most. The book retail business is like trying to force 100 gallons of water through a tiny funnel. For you readers, you have a shopping choice of being overwhelmed by the numbers or hoping for a very knowledgeable book clerk who can make excellent recommendations and do a good job at hand-selling.

Now I haven’t addressed the online experience yet. In addition to Amazon and Barnes&, there are a myriad of other electronic catalog experiences out there. Some of them are online-only businesses and some are extensions of bookstores trying to stay in the game with all the venues. The choices are daunting. For example, The Book Barn’s (my store) landing page entitled GRREAT Books uses the book distributor Baker and Taylor’s 2 million book/music/movie data base. Again, the number of choices is daunting. A positive note is that self-publishers and print-on-demand are becoming more respectable if they are done right.

Electronic Media and the Emerging Technologies

So far, I’ve only addressed printed books. Now we add audio books, tape, CD, or downloads and ebooks in all their different formats. Publishers and retailers are flailing in their attempts to keep up with the various technologies. New marketing and distribution channels are developing at the expense of more traditional ones. Many folks are trying to jump on an already speeding train. Some will fall off and hurt themselves. We’re already seeing many alarming stats.

Traditional publishing isn’t finished. There will still be a market for traditional print books, but ebook readers such as Kindle and iPad are very attractive to some, and not just to the very young. Older folks are joining the ranks of fans for these devices for both comfort and flexible convenience. I’m 65. I have arthritis in my fingers and wrists. Reading a 1,000-page printed book becomes a painful process for me. As my vision gets worse, print becomes more difficult to see. The electronic readers are lightweight and will become more so, making them easier, less painful to hold. Their text font sizes and selections allow the reader to use whatever is most convenient to see—the reader chooses for convenience instead of a publisher choosing fonts and sizes for cost effectiveness.

Although I currently don’t have a reader, I see the day rapidly approaching when I will. How will bookstores service that market, or will it be the exclusive domain of the online sources? Will bookstore become a place to come to have your reader refueled with the latest ebooks, which they will download for you? I can see that as a possibility for the aging baby boomers who don’t want to bother doing it themselves, but will they be enough for a store’s survival.

Looking into the future

I’m no prophet, but my military intelligence background trained me to think in contingencies. Here are some trends and timelines I see developing:

  1. Printed books will be around for a couple more decades, but will gradually ease out of the picture.
  2. The models for publishing and marketing are already changing to accommodate the changing technologies. The future is here today.
  3. People are becoming far more visually (graphics not text) oriented.
  4. Technology already in place to allow writers to become speakers as software turns their spoken words into text, bypassing the keyboard barrier. We think and speak much faster than most of us can type.
  5. As self-publishing becomes more powerful and accepted, the inevitable explosion of works produced will become massive; however, with the technology to organize and provide conveniently quick searching, it will become easier to find exactly what you’re looking for. This will make Long Tail Marketing king (which has already begun to happen).
  6. Expect to see far more multimedia approaches to the providing of information. Already we have book trailers as well as movie trailers.
  7. Finally, marketing will become a much more fluid playing field with increasing complexities. Nothing is sacred, only what works well this time and that is guaranteed to change. Marketing will require far more creative thinking and mental flexibility. Reaction times to the market will be shortened greatly by necessity.

There you have it for now. Like anything else these days, all this prognostication is subject to change.


This is a cross-posting from Bob Spear‘s Book Trends blog.

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