01.01.70 | Martin Grindley
A million e-readers were given as Christmas presents in 2011, the year when digital books broke through to a mainstream audience. The Bookseller reported that e-book downloads may have outstripped paper book sales in the week following Christmas, as owners of shiny new Kindles, iPads and Kobos rushed to find content for their screens.
As the e-book revolution accelerates, has the time come to treat paper books—and the bookshops that sell them—as endangered species? Paper book sales are falling and hundreds of bookshops have closed in the past few years. Bricks and mortar booksellers are at the centre of a maelstrom of digitisation and intense internet and supermarket competition, compounded by wider economic gloom. Many thousands of square feet of retail space have vanished as big bookselling beasts of the 1990s such as Dillons, Ottakars and Borders failed or were taken over. The number of independent bookshops has fallen by 26% since 2006, according to figures from the Booksellers Association. First reports suggest that sales and profits in what used to be predictably bankable trading weeks before Christmas were flat at best in many shops in 2011, at the end of a year in which paper book sales fell by 7.2% by volume.
The recent campaigns to save public libraries from council spending cuts have garnered much press attention and public support from high profile authors such as Alan Bennett, Zadie Smith and Philip Pullman, yet the decline of bookshops has received relatively scant coverage. It might be argued that the Darwinian process of 21st-century capitalism has to take its toll among companies and products that fail to adapt, but few booksellers have the capital to launch e-reader and e-book systems to compete in the way that global players such as Amazon and Apple have done. Waterstones—with or without the apostrophe—has no e-reader on offer yet and its new management has been otherwise engaged with turning around their 300-plus estate of shops on expensive high street sites. Fewer bookshops will mean less exposure for real books and falling sales.
In the 20th century the printed book was able to survive competition for consumers’ time and money from film, radio and television, each predicted at their inception to herald the book’s doom. This time is different; it is not the text itself which is at risk. The contrast of digital ‘ink’ on e-readers has reached the point where reading it is comparable to a printed page. An e-reader offers the potential of hundreds of books downloaded on to a small handheld unit, with extra functions such as a choice of font sizes and typefaces, annotation and an integral dictionary. The iPad is already able to display illustrated books in colour and other e-readers will follow, allowing complex manuals, sumptuous cookery and gardening books, children’s picture books, lavish art monographs and coffee table books to be downloaded rather than bought as paper objects.
Sales figures are showing that digital book sales are ‘cannibalising’ those of paper editions and, as the rush to e-books grows, it is clear that the long-predicted decline of the paper book is playing out. Paper book sales by value fell in 2011 to the level they were at in 2005, despite yearly price increases. As fewer paper books are printed and sold, prices will rise and accelerate the process. Some large publishing houses are predicting that e-books will make up 15% of their sales by value this year, rising to more than 25% in 2013 and even 80% by 2020.
The cultural question is whether paper books and physical bookshops perform roles in society which are worth preserving. Would your high street be the poorer without a branch of Waterstones or a decent independent? As for the printed book—bedrock of culture, learning, memory, history, scholarship, propaganda, religion, amusement and trivia for more than 500 years—would it be able to fulfil its functions if it were delivered digitally rather than as bound paper sheets? Should we rest content while paper books become a specialist high end cul-de-sac like the vinyl LP, beloved only of those with the time and money to indulge their minority purist hobby? Or has the time come to ask whether printed books should be given protection, the cultural analogy to the blue whale or red squirrel?
The real book’s unique selling point is the tactile object itself: the smell and texture of quality paper, the touch and feel of the binding, the typography and cover design—unable to be altered with a couple of clicks—selected by a designer to reflect the category and ethos of the title, the promise of a narrative thread delivering a literally weighty reading experience, calling for time and commitment on the part of the reader. These were qualities lauded by Julian Barnes in his Booker Prize winner’s speech last October and, although they may be appreciated mainly by ageing educated heavy book-buyers, this is a sector which still has influence and spending power; it is no accident that Daunt Books and Foyles, the high street booksellers of choice for this group, are the few exceptions in an otherwise bleak bookselling landscape.
If the paper book and ‘terrestrial’ bookshops are to be defended, how could this be achieved? One possible model may lie with the film industry. My home town of Southend has one stand-alone bookshop, a mediocre branch of Waterstones. Yet a few hundred yards away is a thriving eight-screen multiplex cinema, reflecting how cinema-going in the UK is stronger today than for many years, despite piracy, bit-streaming, DVDs, satellite, cable and terrestrial TV and online delivery. What the film industry has known for years is that to maximise profits, copyright exploitation has to be carefully controlled according to different media delivery platforms.
The trick is in the timing. First the film itself is launched, ensuring that it does not conflict with another major release to ensure maximum media exposure. The big stars are pushed on to the usual suspect TV and radio chatshows and offered up for press interviews to plug the movie, then finally paraded along the red carpet at the Leicester Square launch showing, flashbulbs and corks a-popping. For a nationwide mass market major release, most cinemas will screen the film for two or three weeks, sometimes on more than one multiplex screen and now in 3D if it is available.
Then some four months later (though a timely Oscar or Bafta may extend this and give cinema ticket sales a further boost) the DVD hits the shops and web sellers at a premium price, allowing for another bite of the media cherry and promotion in-store and online. Fast forward another three months or so and cable or satellite suppliers such as BT Vision and Sky Movie Premiere subscribers are offered the film for a subscription or pay-per-view price, usually plus extra when in High Definition. Let the clock move on again and the film finds its way on to the standard Sky Movie or Virgin subscription channel. Several months more pass and at last the terrestrial TV channels bid for the rights to be first to air the film to non-paying customers. Subsequent showing on satellite, cable and terrestrial TV channels and continuing streamed (Lovefilm, Netflix etc) and DVD sales (Blu-Ray, budget edition, the director’s cut...) will keep the money flowing for years if the movie is a stayer. Hey presto, the film distributor has created at least five tranches of revenue from one copyright product and along the way each delivery platform is able to take a slice of the cake, each knowing their place in a rigidly applied pecking order. The whole strategy of the distributors, though, is built upon the high street as the first venue and delivery platform, the primus inter pares of the time-staggered revenue chain.
In the rush to find the ‘next big thing’—universally perceived to be digital books—publishers, literary agents and authors have ignored the vital lesson of timed releases for different platforms and seem content to let the e-book share the podium for first release. Yet in their own industry the paperback is only released a year after the hardback publication. It would be an over-simplification to hope that a model similar to the film industry or paperback releases could be applied to e-books. The book market is much more fragmented, with a vastly greater annual unit output and number of publishing sources.
As the tectonic plates in the publishing industry shift, old rules and customs are being questioned. Relations between authors, literary agents and publishers are being tested as the new world order of electronic book rights and royalties is fought over. One thing is certain: in the febrile fast-changing landscape of publishing, the scramble for the next season’s sales figures and market share against the competition will prevail over longer term worries about the future of the printed book. It is this short-termism that has brought about, with hardly a murmur, the launch of new e-book titles simultaneously with the hardback edition in the general market, damaging one revenue stream with no attempt to build an additional one through a later release in e-book format. Any publisher, large or small, brave enough now to try positive discrimination of a printed edition of a new title by offering it weeks or months before the e-book, would soon find themselves facing the wrath of the mighty Amazon, probably in the form of delisting their titles or, at least, failure to give promotion to new ones. Any literary agent trying to enforce similar conditions would find publishers, fearing these punishing consequences from online retailers, turning their backs on their stable of authors. Yet given the existential question mark now hanging over the paper book, why should real booksellers not be treated like the high street cinema, the first outlet for new releases? Why should the paper book not be given an earlier release than an e-book of the same title?
Perhaps the Society of Authors or the Booksellers Association might take up the cause but only one group has the real power to insist on how their copyrights are exploited in the revenue chain—authors themselves. And of this group only a relatively tiny number of high profile names have the media heft required to fight for the real book with any prospect of success. I can imagine a newspaper petition of influential like-minded authors—perhaps the ones who have so visibly supported the campaign to preserve public libraries—publicly committing themselves and insisting to agents and publishers that their contracts for new titles ensure first publication in hardback paper editions and only some while later in e-book format, perhaps at the same time as the paperback editions. At last authors, so long passive observers in the book revenue stream, could ensure the future of their titles and their livelihoods by fighting for the continued existence of the book itself.