Post-Digital Armageddon: Jonny Gallant reflects on the future of the book trade

EBOOKS. Or should that be e-books? Or even ibooks if it’s Apple as the vendor. The fact that the book industry can’t even agree on its basic terminology is perhaps telling in and of itself, but however we spell the word, the ebook challenge isn’t going away anytime soon — but physical books, according to some, might be. Whatever your views on the matter, you need to move fast if you’d like to see those views taken into account in Christian Retailing magazine’s latest Vital Signs survey: the deadline for entries is this weekend, no later than November 13th.

And now my thanks once again to Alban Books’ Jonny Gallant as he follows up on his earlier contribution. Are we ready? I think not: welcome to the Post-Digital Armageddon…

Jonny Gallant, MD, Alban Books

Jonny Gallant, MD, Alban Books

AFTER MY LAST UKCBD GUEST POST, I was literally swamped by 2-and-a-half suggestions that I explore the promised Digital Armageddon further. Just for you I have looked into my foggy crystal ball and examined the entrails of 3 chickens (that’s publishing lunches for you) to come up with a few highly speculative visions of the future.I have long had a publishing mantra: “The author is not the enemy; the customer is not the enemy”. It’s something worth remembering every now and then. We’re all in this together, so why does it feel like we have competing interests?

With that in mind, I have had a go at being an author (writing under a pseudonym, I may be on your shelves… though probably not) and, last Christmas, I thought I would have a go at being a bookseller: I spent a fascinating day on the shop floor of Waterstone’s West End, Edinburgh. I hope it was just a seasonal anomaly, but 80% of queries were for the latest Katie Price or the bestseller from that irritating meerkat. I was also the victim of a bookselling cliché: someone came in and said ‘I can’t remember the title or the author, but it had a blue cover’. On reflection, that may have been a set-up. What I spectacularly lacked though, was the ability to recommend suitable titles.

This leads me to my first point: More than anyone else, the Christian Bookseller has a great responsibility to suggest ‘the right book’. No matter how sophisticated the algorithm, Amazon will never be able to offer the depth of knowledge, understanding and empathy that a good bookseller can provide. It’s an oldie, but a goodie.

Those of you who have seen my book, whatever you think of its contents, will probably agree it is a beautiful object. And if the physical book, as we’ve come to call it, is to resist the challenge of the ebook, it has to look like something worth buying, worth keeping.

— Julian Barnes, acceptance speech for the Man-Booker Prize 2011.

Secondly, after years of driving down production costs and creating more and more thin-papered, flimsy paperbacks, trends suggest that e-readers will e-radicate (excuse the pun – I promise it’s the only one) these grotty-glued excuses for books. There will no-longer be the ‘disposable’ printed book. Publishers are now starting to think about making a physical book something special again. The consumer will have no idea quite how special that book is unless they can actually see it and hold it before parting with their cash. Amazon can’t offer that either.

Thirdly: The way I see it, Alban is a sales and marketing operation. Inventory management is a necessary by-product of what we do. Those of you who have ever rung us up in urgent need of 25 copies of Esler’s Conflict and Identity in Romans only to be told you will have to wait 6 weeks will know that inventory management is an imperfect science. Digital or even POD books are able to negate this frustrating problem. Sadly, this is often going to knock the B&M bookseller out of the equation.

How can we persuade people that the 20% VAT we pay on a digital book pretty much negates all the savings on print and freight?

Finally, my greatest fear for the industry is the devaluing of the book. Discounting books to consumers has led, inevitably, to readers believing that £8.99 is an unreasonable price for a paperback. It is even worse with digital product – how can we persuade people that the 20% VAT we pay on a digital book pretty much negates all the savings on print and freight? None of us in this business is working to much (if any) profit margin, but the readers seem to find this hard to believe. The way that Amazon have sold books at a loss and vilified those publishers wishing to sell their digital product at a price they choose makes me furious. Sadly, I can offer no solution to this massive problem. My concern is that it will inevitably lead to an increasingly amateur and hobbyist publishing industry.

To conclude, things have got to change and they may well get worse before they get better. In the long term, I think that there remains a market-viable argument for the high street bookseller – especially the niche and specialist bookseller. I think that the product (and the service) will gradually become more high-end. I don’t know if publishers will still be shipping books over from the US in five years time. I don’t know if, in five years time, we will purchase an unedited, poorly-marketed, terribly-designed, ill-thought out ebook and think “what have we lost?!”

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12 thoughts on “Post-Digital Armageddon: Jonny Gallant reflects on the future of the book trade

  1. Thank you and well said. It would be wonderful for this to go beyond the book trade, as “the rot has set in”. A good friend who has shopped in “real bookshops” all his life has suddenly gone Kindle/Amazon, because of “the ease” of it. Achieving things as quickly as possible seems to be the way of life these days and people lose so much in the process.

    • Seems to me it’s not so much a case of losing so much as throwing it away: imagine if the Dead Sea Scrolls had been ebooks — would they have been there 2,000 years later to be discovered? By adopting ebooks, especially under the Amazon Kindle model, we’re exchanging ownership for licensed copies, throwing away the permanent for the ephemeral — and on top of that, ditching the principle of no tax on reading.

      • The chances of a shepherd boy throwing a stone and hitting a pocket sized Kindle in a cave would be a lot less than a few stone jars with scrolls in. So they probably would not have been discovered. Beside the fact that he would probably not hear the stone hitting it because of the loud music in his ear phones and being too absorbed in his mobile phone.

      • I too have a real problem with the licensing model of a kindle.

        What happens when i’ve read a book and want to resell it? What happens when I want to lend the book to someone else, but that one-time 14-day lending option has already been used, or the publisher never enabled it in the first place?

        What happens when the publisher decides that they don’t want me to read the book any more, and remotely removes the book mid read?

        http://www.nytimes.com/2009/07/18/technology/companies/18amazon.html

        What happens when you have the first edition of that book… you know… the one with the risque spelling mistake… only to have it silently updated while you sleep.

        I don’t inherently have an issue with digital—the vast majority of music, film and television i now buy is digital—I don’t even have a stand-alone CD or DVD player any more—but at least with iTunes I know what i’m getting. I still own the files—albeit digitally—and they are mine to do with as I will. I can see them, move them, put them on a CD or DVD where they can never be touched without first breaking into my house.

        If I rent a movie, I know it’s temporary, and pay accordingly, and if Kindle offered a “book rental” mode, i may feel differently, but the idea of not really knowing what Amazon is going to do with my files worries me, the idea that they can edit, swap or even remove them remotely feels like a violation.

    • I agree. I like Alban, but if my customers want them, and other wholesalers or suppliers have them—even if that supplier is Amazon—then I have to go elsewhere.

      I’d love to see Alban books available on the same day as their US release date, because, like it or not, we exist in an international world, and people expect things to be released at the same time.

  2. There’s much on topic I could say here, but I find I’ve already said it on here and elsewhere before and don’t feel like repeating it, suffice to stay I still stand by every word of it though!

    I do though find it funny that Jonny, or anyone else in publishing, should think that there are ‘disposable’ printed books – if there are then certainly paperbacks aren’t them – in my shop we resell them over and over again 😉

    Readcycling – it’s good for the community and the environment and yes even good for the economy!

    However hardbacks or those stupidly annoying large format ‘B’ paperbacks we suddenly seemed to have started producing here in the UK as the US dropped them – well that’s another issue altogether! Can’t sell them on for love or money it sometimes seems, and giving them away doesn’t work either, our local Oxfam have started refusing them!

    • But surely that ‘readcycling’ is indicative of these books’ disposability? These are books that people are disposing of — OK, not by trashing them, but not keeping them either … whereas with ebooks, under the current Kindle licensing model at least, that option simply doesn’t exist: download then delete if not wanted seems to be the only option…

      • Phil,

        Ok if we are being pedantic then everything is disposable at core – even, sadly, people and relationships! Especially and perhaps even more so in our digital economy 😉

        But I take the opposite view and I see readcycling as being indicative of the fact these books are not disposable, the person that has read it may not want it for a variety of reasons – like they are dead now and their family is clearing out their house, or they are downsizing premises, or just having to empty shelves before the books really do take over the house or the spouse leaves in protest! – but the book itself is not disposable to them, they do not just bin it as they often do with assorted other papers and junk and old clothes that no longer fit, they don’t take it to the skip or burn it on the bonfire, instead they take it somewhere where they hope it will be passed on, and enjoyed as much as they did, they still hold it to have value – and not just monetary value 😉 Thus the paperbook is not ‘disposable’.

        However the ebook – yes you are right, that is disposable.
        (and i can say this as an avowed and long time ebook reader).
        Once read, unless one I know I can really read and enjoy it again, it is for me immediately deleted, I’ve read and enjoyed the story so the data file is now no longer needed, it serves no actual purpose, can’t be shared and by it’s nature it satisfies no other cravings of possession.
        If it is one that I enjoyed a lot, then I buy the paperbook version to keep, to admire on my shelf, to share with others, to re-read at my leisure or when tidying my shelves.
        There is in that physicality a presence that ebooks just don’t have and i’m doubtful ever really will.

      • Here ya go, Melanie: to help bring that physicality into being:
        http://smellofbooks.com/

        It’s been around for a while, of course, and and I should point out that there was a product recall back in 2009 … do note the date…
        http://www.prismdurosport.com/news/smell-of-books-recall-announced.html

        Love that you follow up a beloved ebook purchase with a pbook: excellent 🙂


        [Smell of Books: h/t Paul in Canada, http://bookshoptalk.wordpress.com/2011/11/15/well-really-it-was-just-a-matter-of-time/%5D

        • xD that’s just totally mad and a great gag gift, a bit like the car airfresh that claims to be new car smell – can’t say it makes a clapped out banger feel like a new car again, but they do make you smile at the lunacy.

          As to following up ebooks with pbooks – I think an awful lot of people actually do that to some extent, certainly most of the ebook readers I know are of a similar nature 😉

  3. http://www.christianretailing.com/index.php/newsletter/latest-etailing/23518-readers-e-book-satisfaction-is-growing?

    I’m thinking in part that the wait is between a hb version as opposed to pb. I think if pb and ebook pub dates were synchronised then the preference rate might be a little different – certainly I know many folks I talk to by it on kindle first because the kindle is released at the same time as the hb and they don’t want to wait for a pb – add into that the cost differential and why are we surprised by this news – if indeed any of us really are anymore.

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