The Book Business Revisited

The day before yesterday or thereabouts, Borders Books announced bankruptcy and the closure of more than 200 superstores, following its announcement last month that it had deferred payments to its creditors, including the monies it owes to my publisher. Yesterday, one of the largest Australian bookselling chains announced bankruptcy.  Last week, the Canadian distributor for my books [and all those titles released by Macmillan and its subsidiaries] announced bankruptcy and immediate shut-down.  And now, Walmart has removed the already small F&SF section from at least some [if not all] of its stores. The circulation numbers of print versions of F&SF magazines are generally down once again, as are the paperback book sales. On top of that readers are complaining to me that they either can’t get ebook versions of my work outside the USA… or that there are only a few titles available.

Needless to say, this is a worrying time for authors, especially new authors or those whose recent sales numbers are considered “borderline” by their publishers.

What tends to be forgotten in all these stories and depressing financials and figures is that, at least in the United States, the past fifty years have been either a golden age in publishing and writing [that’s if you’re an optimist] or a prolonged “bubble” [if you’re a pessimist].  Prior to a century ago, only a few handfuls of writers could make a living strictly from their writing. Even some thirty years ago, Isaac Asimov calculated that there were less than 500 U.S. writers making a living wage in speculative fiction, and most were barely scraping by. Over the past two decades, I’d wager that there well might have been ten times that number.

Will that level of “prosperity” continue? 

I hope so… but I’d have to say that I have my doubts… for a number of reasons.  First, despite fluctuations on a year by year basis, surveys indicate that the number of young people reading books continues, overall, to decline. Second, the number and geographic range of book sales outlets is also declining, and this will be accelerated if Borders Books fails, which, unhappily, is looking more and more likely despite the attempt to remain in business through bankruptcy restructuring.  Third, the rate of high-level functional literacy is also declining.  Fourth, the range and scope of other entertainment options, particularly visually-video-oriented and interactive ones, is increasing.  And fifth, the amount of uninterrupted time free for reading is also declining.

Now… I’m not saying that reading or books will vanish, but unless these trends reverse dramatically, book readership will continue to decline markedly, and eventually, so will book sales, more than the annual declines over the past two years.  Some of this longer-term decline will be masked when more and more baby-boomers retire, because they will have more time to read, and most likely will, but as they die off, they’re not likely to be replaced, and book sales will decline more significantly.

So… for those young writers who are selling well now… I’d recommending saving a lot more than you are at present because the good times never last forever.

15 thoughts on “The Book Business Revisited”

  1. Bob Howard says:

    Alas, I share your doubts and agree we’ll continue to see a steady decline in reading of books. My own family serves as a model–we’re all avid readers, or have been. Many of my sibs and other relatives have slowed their pace considerably over the years, however. That might pick up, as you say, with retirement, but that’s also countered by the fragmentation of attention with all the social media and other competing e-toys. It’s really an addiction for some of them and their constantly bombarded by the never-ending stream of electronic stimuli they just can’t seem to ignore. And none of them hold their attention for more than the briefest slices of time.

    One would think this growing short attention span might foster at least a modest growth in appetites for shorter fiction pieces, but I think “short” in this case would have to be a page or two at most. The only bright spot is the e-reader. I know you share the opinion of most authors in a reluctance to fully embrace this, but it seems to me that while it cannibalizes at least a bit it also is opening up a new audience. For some fans, like myself, it almost doubles your sales–I’ve begun acquiring ebook versions of your books, all of which I already own in hard copy. For many new e-reader owners I’ve talked to, though, the new platforms have encouraged far more experimentation and sampling of authors than they’d ever have tried before. Nothing will ever replace the reading experience of “real” books, but having a library in your hands for traveling is really hard to beat.

    So on balance, as much as I regret the passing of Boarders (my local store is closing), I am at least a little hopeful for the long term.

    Curious to get your take on the explosion of self-published ebooks out there and how that affects the publishing picture.

    1. For the most part, I don’t see self-published books changing the overall publishing business except in one particular. That one area is the unique author who gets rejected by the publishers, then self-publishes and strikes enough of a chord that he or she sells tens of thousands of copies — and then invariably gets picked up by a publisher. This is happening more and more, but what it means is that self-publishing is becoming another avenue to being published by a “name” publisher.

      1. Daze says:

        The other self-publishing alternative is people like CJ Cherryh buying or taking back the rights to her out-of-print books and republishing on the web ( – though she also says on her blog that some of her royalty checks are as low as 10% of what they used to be – which, if that’s the reality for a 3-time Hugo winner with 60 published novels, doesn’t look good for the aspiring …

  2. Grant Edmunds says:

    The good thing about the future is its unpredictability. I’m not saying this won’t happen, and I’m certainly not saying bad don’t prepare for bad times, but books are precious, and somehow, I don’t see them being drastically limited for more than short period of time. It might be our bad luck to see that short period of time in our lives, but it will be short.

  3. G.Thomas says:

    I was just at Borders last night as I had an hour I needed to kill before I picked my daughter up at a local university and it is no wonder they have declared bankruptcy if what I saw was the standard for their stores elsewhere. The parking lot was full of cars but the majority of the people, mostly college aged, were clustered thickly in the cafe using the free wi-fi and perhaps scarfing a minimum of baked goods and drinks to justify the use. Another cluster of middle aged people, half a dozen or so, were lounging on the “comfy” chairs together reading books. I was terribly curious to know if they were going to buy the books or if they were treating the store as a library. I should be generous and perhaps assume they were a book club meeting there (I have my doubts about this as they didn’t seem to be a cohesive “group”). Only perhaps two people other than myself were actively browsing books in the shelves though there were two or three people at the e-book kiosk. I didn’t see many people at the check out counter the while time I was there at all. Sadly even I didn’t buy anything as I prefer to give my business to the local Books-A-Million or Barnes & Nobles (I’ve never cared for the “vibe” in the local Borders for some reason.)

    My house is cluttered with books everywhere you look (mostly bought prior to a decade ago)and my children, aged 20 and 17, are also book lovers so I feel my wife and I did a good job instilling a love of books and reading in them. With a rare exception however, my children actually buy more books than I do these days. I blame it on a personal price bias as I grew up in the seventies when paperbacks were $1.75 to $2.25. Todays prices when adjusted for inflation probably aren’t any more expensive but I still find it hard to drop $9.00-$10.00 on a simple paperback though my daughter has no such qualms. Financial matters and the recession have driven me to the library where I check out the vast majority of the books I read (one a week or so these days). If I buy a novel it will more than likely be a hardback from the bargain tables at the aforementioned Books-A-Million.

    I find this whole business very troubling and I do not know where it will end up. I have however decided to try and make actual book purchases more frequently than I do. If I had been at one of my prefered book stores last night I may have bought a new paperback edition of The Magic of Recluse and perhaps a copy of Jared Diamond’s The Third Chimpanzee. That would have been an impluse purchase however and whether I stop by a book store soon and make those purchases depends on how I feel after doing bills and balancing our bank account this weekend. I miss the days when I bought books without a second thought!

  4. Alan says:

    estimates 2000 authors who claim to make a living from S.F. (in the US). 5000 might be a touch on the high side. Still, a four-fold growth is not to be sniffed at.

  5. Richard Hamilton says:

    Is it that there are more gadgets to play with so I’m less likely to read, or is it that there are times where there just aren’t enough books I’m likely to be interested in to feed a 3-4 book a week habit?

    Maybe it’s both – with time and money both finite resources, I’m less likely to take a chance on unfamiliar names, especially when physical book stores that promote browsing are spread ever thinner.

    Also, as years go by, I’m less averse to re-reading something, which of course doesn’t profit authors or booksellers.

    Still, there are plenty of loose ends I’d read about. There are still a number of unanswered questions about the arrival of the Cyadorans.

    But back to the subject: a previous comment mentioned
    price bias (being accustomed to lower prices for books years ago).
    Add to that that while books, being manpower-intensive,
    are subject to a lot of inflation, gadgets keep coming down.
    Over 30 years, books have gone up perhaps 5-fold in
    un-inflation-adjusted prices, but gadgets…my new iPhone
    could compete with a supercomputer of 30 years ago except
    for storage capacity, at the price of a few hundred dollars rather
    than a million or more, and it doesn’t need an entire room,
    special cooling, power, and attendants, etc, but fits in my pocket!
    (given a “jailbreak”, I’m half tempted to port a mainframe emulator
    to it just to prove the point.)

    On those terms, an interactive gadget is one heck of a value, and
    it’s not surprising that people might not want to pay much for
    content. Never mind that content producers have to eat, too. 🙂
    But the content distribution system is obsolete, and multiple
    markups for distributors and retailers are obscene. More money
    should go to authors/artists (and editors), and less to the
    rest of the parasites that don’t add value to the product.
    Distribution, and even promotion, can cost next to nothing
    digitally, none of this wasteful and archaic “returns” nonsense
    (originated in prior economic tribulations, I think), etc. The only
    time I want to pay for someone’s brick and mortar store is when
    I want to just look around, not knowing what question to ask to
    find what I want. A waste of gas going there the rest of the time.

    The Kindle looks promising as a gadget, but the price of eBooks
    plus that of a reader that’s as accessible as a printed book is
    still less than appealing, although it would at least solve the
    space problem; I wouldn’t have to put up more shelves for
    a few thousand books.

    Right now, I gather that eBooks are usually priced so high in
    part because of the size of the retail markup, but also because
    they’re often by-products of producing paper books. If the whole
    channel was digital beginning to end, with all people that don’t
    directly add to the creation, editing, distribution, and promotion
    of content taken out of the process (and perhaps a cooperative
    storefront (like Ocean Spray is a farmer’s cooperative) whose “stock holders” were actually the participating authors so that it didn’t have to make a profit to satisfy some unrelated bunch of investors), both
    less cost to the consumer _and_ more money to the author ought
    to be possible.

  6. Dov says:

    Your I phone should support ebook readers. There is kindle aps but not sure if amazon is going to agree to high cut apple wants for every book purchased.

    I use my Blackberry to read more often in more locations than I can with dead tree books. I can read in the dark with Blackberry & have couple hundred books on it.

    I can also BUY books and get them on Blackberry or Kindle anywhere I have signal in couple of minutes.

    And when next Imager book comes out it will be on my Kindle & Blackberry before bookstore opens.

    Saves lots of time and money since I am 30+ minutes away from nearest real bookstore.

    1. Richard Hamilton says:

      I’ve got iBooks (Apple’s reader), the Kindle app, eReader (associated with Barnes and Noble), Lexcycle Stanza, and a Border’s eBook reader app. Of those, I mostly use eReader (not that it’s necessarily the best), and only bought a couple of issues of Analog that had episodes of a serial that I’d been waiting for nearly 30 years; everything else was free, public-domain stuff from (advanced formats of items originally from Project Gutenberg transcriptions of public-domain books), or other free public-domain or sample content from the sources associated with each of those.

      Apple’s reader is probably the prettiest (the sample copy of Winnie-the-Pooh that comes with it is complete with all illustrations), although they’re all usable enough. Stanza probably handles the most different formats of those, and has a mechanism to retrieve books from a copy of Stanza running on one’s desktop (although I find the latter to be rather temperamental).

      Reading on the iPhone 4 (or the latest iPod touch with the same resolution) is about as good as it’s likely to get for the small screen size; the high resolution is definitely an improvement compared to previous generations (I still have a 1st gen iPod touch for comparison). But the small screen size takes some getting used to, esp. for eyes that aren’t quite so young any more.

      The main problem I have with eBooks is two-fold: I don’t want to get locked in to one particular provider or reader (so I like that Stanza can read multiple formats, although only one of those with DRM), and I think that the retail markups are nuts: Apple’s is 30%, and I assume that’s about typical. Granted that brick-and-mortar retail markups for some goods are 100% or more, we’re talking digital distribution here; the distribution cost per unit is pennies, there’s no waste, inventory, or returns costs in the usual sense, etc. Digital distribution has probably not done well for music, but the lack of it would be worse; people probably won’t pay $10 or more for an album where only a couple of tracks are of interest, but they might pay around $1.00 per track for what they really want when it’s easier to do that than to rip off a copy from somewhere.

      I think the bottom line is this: digital is a game-changer. Unlike analog media, the 1000th generation of a digital copy is identical to the original. That means that content needs to be priced low enough (aiming for volume rather than unit price) and easily enough available that people will pay rather than steal.

      Unfortunately, that may spell doom for anything of interest to a small market, or, as with some reference works, with production costs so high as to preclude low unit prices.

      Change is always disruptive. Usually it should mean that the underproducing elements of the supply chain (and some products) get squeezed out. Sometimes that hurts both producers and consumers, but what survives should be more efficient.

      It does bother me that the number of gate-keepers are relatively few, most are still trying to achieve customer lock-in, and the economics may not favor content of low-volume interest. The sum of those (although in some sense none of those is new) is, even without need for conspiracy theories, effectively mind control via content limitation. That’s very troubling indeed; we need _more_ ideas (and more variety), not less, to hold ideological and political tyranny at bay.

  7. Macwhiz says:

    I’ve always been an avid reader. I’ve got thousands of books cluttering the house. I never thought i’d use an ebook reader. Then I got my iPad.

    The thing is, I almost always have my iPad with me. As a result, I read more, because now I also have my books with me. When I finish one, I can get another instantly. I’ve all but stopped buying paper books. Besides, the local Barnes and Noble has this annoying habit of being sure to be out of stock of at least one book in any series.

    I wouldn’t have found Recluce if it weren’t for a low-price intro offer on iBooks. I’ve spent the last few months working my way through the whole series.

    Maybe it’s not that people are reading less so much as they’re reading traditional books less.

  8. Mayhem says:

    I still feel a lot of issues come down to a basic lack of stock in the bricks n mortar stores. As you mentioned previously, business has shifted to just in time ordering, with very little stock actually carried on hand. That means when you go into a shop, 9 out of 10 will carry exactly the same range of ‘popular’ titles, with the rest available on order from their warehouse, or more likely from the publisher’s warehouse.

    Genre books tend to be limited to maybe one or two shelves, and most of the stock tends to be what sold previously, which avid readers probably already own.

    I find nowadays except for new releases, I do all my shopping at specific genre stores like Forbidden Planet in London, which at least carry a good chunk of an authors back catalogue, or at second hand stores, which have a chance of carrying uncommon titles, plus I love the feel of rummaging through a good second hand store.

    Neither of which does much to support Borders or the equivalent, as they have actively driven my custom away.

    I fact, its no wonder Amazon does so well, as at least most titles are available, although for me it tends to only be useful when I want a specific title, there’s no real joy in browsing like you get at a proper store.

  9. Bob Howard says:

    My experience at Borders echoes that of an earlier poster in that most customers seem to not be there to actually buy books. All the enticements Borders introduced brought people in but it seems the most profit was coming from non-book sales. I know that’s not likely, but certainly seemed that way.

    My local Borders is on the closing list and started their clearance sale Saturday. I went by today and the check-out line had about fifty or so people. Most had games, CDs and DVDs, children’s picture books and the like–far fewer novels, but still a goodly number. Not sure what this means for the industry. Are books overpriced and only worth it when they are comparatively bargains?…do more casual readers decide to buy a few just because they’re on sale? Are there more readers out there that retailers just haven’t reached? Even our used book stores are going out of business, though, so I think the best hope for the future are ebooks becomming appealing to e-junkies, but with their generally short attention spans, the traditional novel might not cut it. Just isn’t the same browsing on Amazon vs. flipping through likely prospects at a great book store. Ah, well.

  10. Frank says:

    I’ve read the entry from Mr. Modesitt, and the 12 comments so far. I don’t know that I have anything original to say, but I must echo some of the feelings already expressed. I can’t warm up to an Ebook, and still want to hold a physical book to make me fill comfortable and sufficiently at ease to be able to take advantage of the most efficient form of escapism…the imagination.

    I remember reading Heinlein’s “Stranger in a Strange Land” back in the 60’s. Not my first SF novel, but definitely the first one that absolutely kicked me in the head and excited me so thoroughly. When he described how Valentine Michael Smith made things “go away,” it was a real experience of self induced “special effects,” as I saw the whole thing in my mind’s eye. I really hope that the ensuing generations don’t lose that moment of epiphany, as I think that is when you really begin to appreciate what writing…and reading…are all about.

    I also remember watching one of the original Star Trek episodes, when Capitan Kirk said almost the same thing we all are, sitting in his state room, reading a book instead of using his computer screen. He was being portrayed as somewhat anachronistic, but, maybe, that is the point. I don’t think that the electronic medium will kill reading or writing, but it may change it. I’m just glad that I got to live when used bookstores were around and authors, such as our host, we able to ply their trade and produce works that fuel our imaginations.

  11. ted says:

    I’ve seen many kids nowadays playing the video games instead of reading books like I did, and still do. So instead of heading to the bookstore on allowance day, they are off to the video game store. Some of the games actually have a fairly decent story to them, as well as many parts that the player has to read. Unfortunately this is replacing reading as a pass time. Thankfully the many of the games have a fair bit of reading involved, and some even problem solving making them a bit better than mindless button mashing, but they will never stir the imagination the way that books did for me.

  12. Scott Ellsworth says:

    I have over three thousand books in my house, and I have no more climate controlled space to store them. I am now deciding which get replaced by electronic versions, which get an electronic version in addition, and which just get given away. I expect to have roughly two thousand to 2500 left after the culling. (For what it is worth, my Modesitt shelf has holds just about everything you have ever written, with two copies of some. If I find ePub versions, virtually all will be in the “both print and electronic” list.)

    I realized that my buying had changed not long ago. The last half dozen times I went into Borders with a 30% or 40% off coupon, I found not a single title that I wanted. A few times before that, I found figure drawing books that would not work well except in paper form.

    In electronic form, on the other hand, I have found a wide variety of good books. I have over 150 books from Baen, between their free library, CDs, and the fifty books I have bought in 2011. I just picked up the entire Well of Souls series from them, for example.

    Of the last thirty books I have read, 28 were on my iPad. One of the two paper books was borrowed from a friend, the other I bought at a book signing.

    Virtually anything selling under $5 is going to get a long look, and perhaps be bought on a whim. Michael Stackpole’s latest is on my will-buy list based just on one blog post saying it was worth the $6 and the time.

    When you hit $8-$9, it better have a good review, and I had better be sure the author, editor, and illustrator are getting appropriate royalties.

    I usually do not go above that for year-plus-old books.

    New fiction is different – Lois Bujold’s latest was bought in electronic form for $15, a dollar more than Amazon wanted for the hardback, because I wanted it the day it came out, and I wanted to support her and her e-publisher Baen.

    There is one thing that is an absolute deal-breaker for me. DRM.

    I have replaced computers, gadgets, readers, and so on regularly throughout the years. I still have a copy of Eando Binder’s Adam Link, Robot from the late twenties/early thirties, and I can still read it. I am not about to buy a e-book that might cease to work because a publisher went out of business, or the reader failed in the market. That may be uncomfortable for an author or publisher, but if the only choice is a book that may expire, break, or be withdrawn, I will just not buy.

    So, to the extent authors have control over this process, know that there is at least one reader who would buy electronic versions in unencumbered form. There is risk – but there is also reward.


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