The Future of Books

Over the past year or so, I’ve noted a disturbing trend in newspapers and other media, and that’s the reduction, if not the disappearance, of coverage of books in local media. Oh, The New York Times still has its weekly book section, and the Washington Post still covers books, but coverage has virtually disappeared from many other city newspapers.

Likewise, bookstores continue to vanish. We lost the only “new book” general bookstore in Cedar City this past year, poor as its selection was, and we’re left with a decent used book store and a religious bookstore that carries no non-fiction or general fiction [except for a few “approved” religiously-themed fiction books]. Neighboring St. George lost its only general new independent bookstore, leaving only a single Barnes & Noble, despite the fact that the area has tripled in size over the past fifteen years and has something like 150,000 people. The Salt Lake City area has lost close to ten bookstores in the last five years, and that’s a pattern replicated in most major cities. Sales to Amazon and Barnes & Noble online don’t come close to making up the difference.

Even more to the point, impulse book buying has been decreasing, and will continue to do so, simply because there are fewer and fewer locations that offer that opportunity, and most of those that do tend to cater to existing book buyers anyway. As I’ve noted previously, every shopping mall once had at least one mall bookstore, often two, and I knew a few that had three. Now, it’s more like every third mall – usually the ones located in or near high-income housing – has a large Barnes and Noble… or sometimes a nearby Books-A-Million… and no other book outlets.

John Picacio – the award-winning F&SF artist – has made an interesting observation about this – that the lack of places to browse books – even for people who will buy print books online or e-books – is reducing the number and variety of book titles sold, and that every brick-and-mortar bookstore that closes reduces the variety and availability of titles sold.

Manga, anime, and series “lite” books are taking over a larger section of existing bookstores. Low-cost [i.e., “cheap”] e-books are becoming the new “penny dreadfuls.” And in F&SF, so-called critical readers and publications tend to ignore books that have wide readership, regardless of quality, and focus on books that explore narrow themes in “innovative” ways, again, regardless of quality.

More than one editor has commented to me that, at least for F&SF, it’s getting harder and harder for mainstream F&SF publishers to get even their leading titles reviewed in Publishers Weekly. Part of that may well be that PW cut the rates it paid reviewers and those who now review, for less money, are more interested in their choices than in what’s actually being read. And Locus, which bills itself as “the magazine of the science fiction and fantasy field” routinely ignores “popular” authors in the field and, for years, ignored the very top F&SF best-sellers until, rumor has it, one author’s publisher threatened to pull all advertising. That’s been denied, I understand, but I have my doubts about the accuracy of the denial.

What all this is creating is, to my way of thinking, not only the well-observed shrinkage of the book market, but also a continuing and growing fragmentation of the book-reading market. And please don’t prate on about e-books and self-marketing. Only comparative handfuls of such books ever achieve significant sales. More importantly, they don’t maintain or expand the number of book-readers.

In fact, already the rates of e-book sales are beginning to decline, and e-books, even including pirated editions, are not replacing the sales lost in the paperback market. Moreover, while Americans – and presumably, the rest of the world – are reading more on electronic devices, early research is indicating that they’re reading a larger and larger percentage of shorter prose, e.g., magazines and newspapers. Of course, that goes along with the other impact of the great electronic age – the shorter attention span of the younger generation and the quicker onset of “boredom.”

For all that, I’m certain that at least some good authors will continue to appear and be published… that some technically good authors will be best-sellers…and that lots of shallow adventure and sex-driven will continue to sell in every genre and field. What I’m not so certain about is whether being truly well-read will really mean as much as it once did, or that those people who think they are well-read will actually be that – or perhaps being “well-read” will become synonymous with “reading the well-written obscure and irrelevant.”

As in all things, time will tell.

11 thoughts on “The Future of Books”

  1. Reader says:

    I blame bad parenting, among other things. Too few parents are actively involved these days in their children’s education or educational habits. Now, is this because the affluent tend to enroll little Jimmy or Susie in sports, which requires the parent to be present for practices, and the parents feel that they don’t have enough time to be more involved than that? Is it a reaction to the over-reaching tendencies of pre-college teachers which result in those teachers believing it is their job to instill values in children? That tendency seems rooted in the vast numbers of parents who fail to do any real parenting themselves.

    We have taken a very active role in ensuring that our child sees the value in reading, whether fiction or non-fiction, and also sees us reading in our spare time. Video games, web browsing, and television are there as well, but reading is given an equally or greater prominence in our house. I can’t imagine that’s the norm in our great nation.

    At one time reading was considered to be a privilege, given the expense and scarcity of books, but today, reading can be viewed as a chore, something to be endured, and it is the responsibility of the parent(s) to ensure that it is NOT seen that way.

  2. Joe says:

    I was encouraged that McDonalds is ditching its “happy meals” for “book meals” in the UK. Apparently over 50% of British children really enjoy reading, which is good news.

    http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2260642/McDonalds-replaces-Happy-Meal-toys-books-UK-s-largest-book-distributor.html

    I think it is adults that read less, probably because they work harder, and more of the time, than previous generations did. “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy”. Once they come home, they are too tired to read and instead spend their time eyes glued to the dissatisfaction box, or the internet.

    In economic terms, there is simply too much supply and too little demand. This lead book publishers to flood the market with low quality books trying to find some source of revenue, further increasing supply for a fixed or reduced level of demand. Although book reviews might help people choose quality books, competent book reviewers are expensive, which means enough people must be interested in their reviews to justify their salaries. The fact they are being replaced by mediocre reviewers suggests that too few people care to justify their salaries. And the same goes for authors. The most extreme example are the books written by no-one and proof-read by no-one:

    http://singularityhub.com/2012/12/13/patented-book-writing-system-lets-one-professor-create-hundreds-of-thousands-of-amazon-books-and-counting/

    So far I see no solution. The same problem is affecting journalism, which was previously a good career.

  3. John Picacio says:

    Wow. We both are seeing the same things, Lee — and that scares the hell out of me. We’ll keep fighting the fight though. All best for the New Year to you and family!

  4. I might add, in the interests of full disclosure, that John and I have known each other for something like fifteen years and that he did two outstanding book covers for my work — the cover for the trade paperback Ghosts of Columbia and the cover for my short story collection — Viewpoints Critical.

  5. Tim says:

    I will admit I was a sceptic about ebooks until I purchased an iPad to control my hifi. I then installed the Kindle and iBooks applications and found I enjoyed reading this way whilst listening to music. Where available, I gradually moved across my fiction, sometimes having to go to Abe, Baen or other publishers to get the novels I wanted – such as the Zelazny collections. And iBooks now stocks all the previously unavailable Jack Vance ( who like, LEM describes meals so eloquently).

    My nearest small local town in Suffolk England has two book shops, one of which sells deleted stock and seems to be surviving. The other cannot compete with the large suppliers – and books which are handled poorly in the shop are then unsellable, according to the proprietor. I suspect people look at the books, return home, and order online. So we will soon be down to one.

    The local library was also recently under threat and was saved by petition and our local County Councillor, though I doubt it is really economically viable. The librarians whom I have know for 20 years as my children grew up said that borrowings have reduced dramatically in the past few years; it is only through adding an Internet cafe that they have survived.

    So I believe that the future of the fiction novel is not in printed matter. This is a shame as you cannot (currently) lend these to widen other people’s experience. Reference literature will continue to exist for some time. Note how few notable periodicals are not available in e format.

    PS. I have preordered the ebook for Imager’s Batallion though. I just hope you get a good deal as it is not much cheaper than the hardback!

  6. Lydia says:

    Interesting post with good food for thought, just like the books.

    I have spend most of my adult book consuming life living in small university towns, Oxford UK and Leiden the Netherlands. Both places had many many second hand and new book stores, giving me a massive selection of books to choose from, which I loved.

    For 6 years now, I have lived in a southern city in the US and I have noticed the decline of the bookstore. When I do step into a new books bookstore, they quite often don’t have what I want, so I order most of my books from Amazon. We have a very thriving second hand book store locally, but what has me worried is that when new book stores decline, eventually the number of books for second hand trading will decline.

    I love the convenience of my ipad with kindle app, since I can now read in circumstances where I did not use to be able to read, but for me it is not the same as a real book. I am hoping that real books will experience the fate of radio in the face of television, still there and thriving but on a smaller scale.

    My daughters are both big readers and definitely bucking the trend described in this thread. The first time they brought one of their friends into my living room, this friend exclaimed at the fact I have 3 filled bookcases in said living room. It saddens me that 3 bookcases are a reason to exclaim for kids these days.

  7. Wine Guy says:

    The trend holds up in my part of northern California. My entire family preferentially reads instead of most other leisure activities. Even my daughters (ages 8, 10) have noticed that the local bookstore (B&N) has less and less of a selection of original books. There are some interesting choices of topic sections: ‘Teen Paranormal Romance’ = a la the Twilight series. I used to think that any book that got kids hooked on books was good. After thumbing through some of the things my eldest wants to read, I’m not so sure.

    For the last few years, when the kids go to B’day parties for their friends, as gifts we give B&N gift cards almost exclusively. Of course, last year the B&N here added a toys part to their kids’ section. They call it ‘puzzles and mind enchancing play’ but it’s really just toys.

    As an aside, “Manga” is another name for ‘really expensive and badly written and illustrated comic book.’

    Our local library system lends more e-books than it does hardbacks now. The branch in my (very small) town only remains viable because there are some people who donate regularly and generously, though we are down to 4d/week and one professional librarian. The rest of the workers are either OJTs being paid minimum wage or volunteers.

    I have to wonder if the relative dominance of a few books in the kids’ markets have soured adults on letting their kids read…

    There are enclaves of people (yes, I mean enclaves) around here who do not let their kids read Harry Potter, LoTR, or anything that is remotely frowned upon. There was an attempt at a boycott of a local independent bookseller who stocked ‘Under the Banner of Heaven’ by Krakauer… and this same group along with others regularly clogs up the agenda at the local school district meetings to complaint about books on the summer reading lists and assigned in the classrooms.

    Finally, we turned to e-readers to ensure that the kids had options remaining to them with new choices and because we were drowning in paperbacks. Just an e-ink reader: no netflix, no apps, no angry birds. Just reading.

    1. Kathryn says:

      “As an aside, “Manga” is another name for ‘really expensive and badly written and illustrated comic book.’”

      Wow. Judgemental, much? Manga is Japanese, it’s created (typically) for the Japanese market – although there are Western-created manga series, but they still have Japanese inspirations. It’s often more expensive in the US (and UK) because it typically has to be translated with care as to make sure that the meanings are not lost, the translation itself being an additional expense. And, quite often, there are things lost in translation. On top of that, it’s a pretty specialist market (even though it saw a boom perhaps 10 years ago).

      Also, what is a comic book if not “illustrated”? Surely an “illustrated” is completely unnecessary in that context?

      If you don’t like manga, that’s fine. I’m not a fan of it myself, truth be told. But there’s certainly no need for that sort of comment.

  8. Brad says:

    I went to get A Memory of Light this past Tuesday, when it was released, and I knew there was a Barnes & Noble 15 minutes away, but I figured there might be a closer bookstore I can go to, one big enough to be guaranteed to have the book in stock. I’ve lived in my current area less than 2 years, and I haven’t explored everywhere yet. Anyway, I did some searching and nope. They are just all gone. And I live in a city of 1 million.

    I order so many books off Amazon, or just get them as eBooks, that I never noticed how so many were disappearing until I actually wanted to go to one for a book. On the plus side, we have tons of libraries here.

  9. Alan says:

    This particular commentary promoted my looking back to find out some data (Yes, statistics, they can be made to say anything) about my home town. As a child I made frequent use of the public library. I did not have the money to purchase books with the regularity I do now. Nor did I have space to keep them.

    As a teen I had money from working, though other interests kept me from building my book collection till I was in my twenties. Now I have several thousand books, and lots of shelves everywhere. My collection stays mostly in fiction, though it strays all over. And it does include those fluff pieces with little substance. To balance that there are things from Conan Doyle (the prize of my collection is a signed first edition set in hard back of his completed works), Shakespeare and Poe, amongst others.

    I enjoy a good read, and it saddens me to find out that not only is the library I went to as a child closed down. The historical building it was housed within is scheduled to be sold at public auction. Two stories above ground, two below ground. Nearly 20,000 sqft of wonderful library. An historical monument that is passing into history.

    Ah, but back to those statistics I promised. In the last decade, my home state has shown a 40% reduction in library budgets, despite more services being offered, especially online and computers in the library for public use. There have been more than a dozen major library closures, reduced hour in most facilities and nearly two dozen community libraries closed. The state has now shifted over to privatized libraries, promising that the private company will be able to run the libraries without reducing hours or services further.

    I have noticed the decline in bookstores as well, and it saddens me. Makes my life more difficult too. My wife used to be able to count on any visit to the book store being an hour or more, just because of my tendency to browse, finding a few new authors to ‘try’. Now I don’t get that browsing chance. There is no ‘real’ book store near me. The one store near me is privately owned and run. Considering the cost, I rarely go. At B&N online I can get the upcoming release by Kim Harrison, Ever After, for about $18. That’s hardback, delivered to my door. Purchasing it at the local private store? ~$28. Hard to compete with a 30% price difference.

  10. Wine Guy says:

    @kathryn: perhaps I was hasty with Manga. Ask my opinion about most of the medical journals that get sent to me unsolicited. Compared to what I think of them, Manga is outstanding literature.

    And yes, I am judgmental. I remain human and will be so until the end of my days.

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