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
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?!”