adapt or die…

by Toni McGee Causey

Allison and I were in New York last week for the bi-annual PASIC conference. It's a fantastic small con that allows its members to meet with a large number of industry professionals; I'm almost certain that the standing-room-only cocktail party had two industry reps to every individual member. We had panels with publishers, editors, agents, and long-time NYT novelists, and it was incredibly educational as well as just plain fun. (Best part, of course, is hanging out with friends and making new friends. I always come back to writing completely rejuvenated after conferences like this, but this one was especially helpful.)

One of the things discussed at the conference was how the Kindle and Sony e-reader are becoming more prominent and are changing some of the buying habits of the general public. There was an estimate that in a couple of years, there will be a million e-readers of some sort out there in the public's hands, and that doesn't include applications for phones like the iPhone. (There were over 12 million iPhones on the market as of last September–I can only imagine that number has doubled.) iPhones now offer several e-reader apps, including the Kindle and Fictionwise. Amazon's market share is increasing, and while it grew slowly in the past, it's growing exponentially now, so there's an anticipation of it capturing a larger market share. (There was an assertion that Amazon will be selling instead of other booksellers, not in addition to, which means the same number of books, but a shift in power of who's selling.)

There was another assertion made that I disagreed with, and that was that people who are purchasing online are not "browsing." The publisher who made this suggestion believed that buyers are going straight to whatever it was they wanted to purchase, buying that item, and then logging off. So "online" purchasing eliminated the impulse buying that going into a bookstore would net. I disagreed with this because I do browse the online stores. I actually find them easier to browse than a lot of bookstores because I can put in keywords and subject matter and things which I wouldn't have necessarily seen in the store will pop up there for my perusal. I've purchased dozens of books this way.

My question, then, was this: Given the growing popularity of the e-reader, isn't it logical to suppose that in the very near future, all college and high-school kids will be downloading their texts and workbooks and study guides and assigned novels… to their e-readers, which will be much much easier to carry around than the backpacks which weigh a ton now? And, given that as inevitable, wouldn't it be logical to assume that those kids coming up in middle school and grade school will get to a point where holding a book is a foreign thing–they'll have grown accustomed to having their books (many of them) in the palm of their hands. They'll be smart and savvy about how to find things online, between their e-readers and their iPhones and their laptops–and they'll probably make the majority of their reading purchases from downloadable files. And, given that, what is the publishing industry going to do to target that whole new crop of readers with their books? Targeted marketing? Implanted suggestions, like blog ads we have today? Why, for example, not have a link on a sidebar when the kid is studying a subject that then takes them to fiction about that subject? Or other non-fiction, even? Why not have novels related to subjects on "drill down" ads linked inside the texts or blogs that generation reads? 

There wasn't a satisfactory answer, and I got the distinct impression that the publishing industry is thinking that if this happens, it's years down the line. I don't think they're thinking about the current exponential growth of technology. ("Twittering" was a brand new thing to a few of the people there…) 

More importantly, I wanted to know what the publishers are going to do to cultivate these new readers and keep them interested in reading? The popularity of books like TWILIGHT and EVERMORE and, of course, HARRY POTTER, demonstrates that this group will read in large numbers, but it's short-sighted not to grant that they will also be mostly reading online in a few years. They're spending their entire lives online right now, reading tons of material–from blogs to surfing the internet. Sure, it's smaller bites than a novel, but what generation do you remember in the past which has done as much reading as the one we have coming up now?

I began "journalling" online over ten years ago. (Rob, I completely commiserate with the blogging topic-burn-out.) When I started writing online, the journalling community had less than a thousand online journals and I was friends with several of the "old-timers" who began the whole concept. I had found them back when there were less than a dozen online journals. When I started writing online, my family thought I was crazy ("Who wants to write about their life online?") and that this was a fad that would die down once the newness of the internet had worn off. I remember the uproar among "journallers" when the new phrase "blogging" came along. (They hated the term. They had a perfectly acceptable term and there was no use for something new.) (Irony, you see.) I started "journalling" when we had to hand-code the html and I learned enough to get by. (I hated it, and I was one of the "pansies" who thanked all that was holy and electrified when the WYSIWYG editors came along.) Then there was the shock… shock, I tell you, that someone would actually put an ad on a blog. I'm not sure that Satan taking over the internet would've managed quite as much horror and outrage. Then some bloggers like Heather over at dooce started making a living off the blog ads and a lot of other bloggers thought… hmmmm…. income… being able to sit at my computer and generate… income… from babbling… and the world as we know it changed.

Last Monday on Pari's blog, a commenter mentioned that the primary target audience for crime fiction and thrillers was the thirty-and-over demographic. (I am paraphrasing here.) My first gut response was that if that were true, fiction would be dead within a generation. Two generations at best. I buy stuff online continuously; I cannot tell you how many emails I've received from people who sampled my first chapters on my site and then went and ordered my books online, but I've also received a lot of mail from people who found me because they'd just bought something online and used the browsing feature and found me accidentally. These are generally not the over-30 crowds who are shopping
like this–it's generally the younger generations.

I'd raised baby raccoons once–the original story is here–and they adapted to me as their "mom" almost instantly. They didn't even seem to mind. So, too, will the next couple of generations adapt to e-reading as their primary source for material, and if the publishing industry as it stands does not adapt now and start thinking about marketing to that audience and cultivating more of that audience, someone else will. Whether that means Amazon creates a publishing arm or someone else does as the need will become more and more obvious, the future will change how we get our material out to the new audiences. 

What makes no sense to me, and seems to be shooting themselves in the foot, then reloading and aiming at the other… is the price publishers have for current book downloads. At the same price as many hard-backs or trades (with the exceptions of some special offers), it's almost as if the book publishing world thinks, "If we make downloading too expensive, the general public will stick to buying 'real' books and we won't have to worry about this e-publishing thing." That may have even been true a couple of years ago, but now? Now more than a million people will have access to e-readers and millions will have access to e-readers on their iPhones or similar phones (the Blackberry, I think, has a good internet interface), and that number will probably double within the next two years, and will grow exponentially as technology gets cheaper, more powerful and more user friendly. 

People will download cheap, affordable items. Again, citing the source above, in September, Steve Jobs predicted that there would be a "billion apps by the end of the store’s first year of availability, sometime in 2009." Now, many of those apps are free, but many of those are not. I've browed the apps, and quite a few of the top 50 are $2.99 to $4.99. The top 50 of over a billion apps downloaded… can you see the market here? I can. Add to that the fact that people are spending money on using those apps to download entertainment–movies, songs, books. iTunes are 99¢ each. A Jack Reacher novel on Kindle? $6.39–for a novel released back in 2004 and is only $1.40 cheaper than the printed mass market. (Lee is one of the best examples of a super popular author with an extensive backlist.)

I've heard many authors explain that their online sales are a teeny tiny fraction of overall sales… and I can't help but wonder if that's because of the pricing. If I could download the entire Jack Reacher backlist on my iPhone for a couple of bucks apiece? I'd do it. I'd pay more for the newly released novel, but the older ones? I'd download if they were cheaper. There are a lot of newer authors I'd try if I could get their book online for three or four dollars. They'd make roughly the same money, I'd get to try them cheaply, and if I liked them, I'd buy their next book. The first mainstream publisher who starts seriously targeting that market has the potential to grab a huge audience. Sure, it's not what we're used to… but we are not the future of publishing. Our kids are. I want to be around, in their marketplace. They're going to buy stuff… I'd like it to be my stuff. [Can you imagine the first publisher to package their book with a hit song playlist? Or cross-market? Downloads available on blogs?] The profit margin doesn't have to go down for either the author or the publisher–the distribution method cuts out a tremendous burden of costs, so why not go for volume in the pricing system? There is a reason Wal-Mart is gargantuan in the retailing field, including book sales–lower prices. There is a reason iTunes are super popular–legal, cheap downloads. 

Will downloading replace traditional books? No, not for many years at least. If you look at the car industry, for example, there is always going to be a desire by a group of people to have the old muscle cars–as gas-guzzling as they are–because there is an aesthetic pleasure in the owning and the handling and the beauty of such a car. But as great as they are, the industry as a whole moved away from that type of car for multiple reasons, and with the demands of global warming and need for cheaper, cleaner fuels, we're not going to go back to the era when those cars were common. I don't think books will be extinct… but I'd be willing to bet the midlist will change significantly. More critical to publishing's survival, though, is increasing the audience–growing it via capturing the teen market and selling to them as they get older. 

We'd better adapt… 

So how about you? Have you used an e-reader, ever? Purchased online? Is this something you're doing more of now?If you aren't, what about the kids around you? Do they like reading on their computers? 

Congratulations to our own Allison Brennan, who is a RITA nominee in the Romantic Suspense category for this year's prestigious RWA award! Her SUDDEN DEATH is out in stores, now!

14 thoughts on “adapt or die…

  1. Alexandra Sokoloff

    >>wouldn’t it be logical to assume that those kids coming up in middle school and grade school will get to a point where holding a book is a foreign thing–they’ll have grown accustomed to having their books (many of them) in the palm of their hands. << Yeah, Toni, you’ve given a great explanation for why the shift is inevitable (although hopefully I’ll be dead before it completely phases out real books). I understand the appeal of having all that on one device, and I know that the coming generation will read that way because that’s what they’re raised with. I just need more variety and more tactile contact in my life than I can get being on a computer for that many more hours of my day.

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  2. Kathryn Lilley

    Over time, ebooks will drastically reduce the production and distribution costs of publishing books, so it’s inevitable that those costs should be reflected in the cover price. I would think that a savvy publisher would build its ebook market by setting the pricepoint of ebooks slightly lower than the pricepoint of the print versions, reflecting that cost difference. It’s the only thing that seems to make sense.

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  3. J.D. Rhoades

    Kathryn, it certainly would make sense. But this is publishing we’re talking about here. This is an industry that introduces new and unknown writers in the format with the highest pricing and then professes amazement when people aren’t willing to shell out 25-plus bucks for someone they’ve never heard of This is an industry where someone will look you in the eye and say with a straight face, “yeah, you’re right, that doesn’t make sense, but we’re doing it anyway.” And it’s going to bite them in the ass sooner rather than later.

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  4. Mary-Frances Makichen

    Hi Toni,Great post! I’ve been saying for awhile now that I think the big shift in ereaders will happen when someone goes after the textbook market. As my brother, the father of a teenager, pointed out to me, it’s probably going to be after they come out with a color eink screen. They need color for a lot of the photos in, for example, biology books. So I agree it’s not a matter of if, just when.

    My husband recently bought me a Kindle and I have to say I really like it. I wrote about my experience with it on my blog because I think it does change your relationship to the written word. However, after a few weeks I’m definitely a convert.

    I’m with you though, I disagree with whoever said people who own an ereader don’t browse. I browse more now than I did before.

    My biggest frustration actually is finding new authors. When you go online almost anywhere it’s the bestselling authors that are promoted. It’s much more difficult to find a midlist or debut author. However, that’s a bit true in bookstores too, don’t you think? So I’m reading a lot more reviews online to find different authors. Sadly, I wonder if the average reader has the time to do that.

    Thanks for the great food for thought this Sunday morning!

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  5. J.T. Ellison

    Some of the publishers ARE thinking about this, thinking it through and having great success at it. All of my books were released in e-book format at the same time as print, and all of them have a lower price point. Granted, Harlequin has always been a step ahead in delivering what their READERS want instead of worrying about the industry, and trail-blaze all the time.

    I disagree with the generational statement about crime fiction too, Toni. Like you, I have plenty of young readers, and I’m hoping to tap into more of them. The Harry Potter generation has grown up and are looking for substance – they’re finding it in genre fiction – fantasy, sci-fi and crime.

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  6. Louise Ure

    Great post, Toni. I listened to a Walter Mosley radio interview this week where he was making the same point about an INCREASE in literacy and reading because of computers and electronic publishing.

    Another thought about pricing for the ebook downloads … my guess is that some of those purchases will be incremental to what the customer would have purchased in a bookstore, but many more of them will replace used book purchases if they’re priced right. And that means that the author and publisher will at least get some funds where they previously would have received none.

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  7. Tom

    Our granddaughters share a Kindle. Their dad’s waiting to see how much they use it before he buys a second. They live in Maryland; we live in California. Imagine how much easier it is to send an e-book cross-country as an impromptu gift than to have to ship a hard copy.

    So you’re right, Toni. Kathryn and Dusty, too; publishers who want the very same profit per sale aren’t paying attention to how the money’s flowing out there beyond The Hamptons.

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  8. texas reader

    I have wondered where many authors ‘go’ and have learned it’s because their numbers aren’t high enough (maybe they sell in the high thousands instead of high 10,000s), but I liked them. I want to read them. And I look at the back list like this – right now, you find an author you like, you look for their books in the new bookstore. If you really like them, then you start looking in the used book stores as well. If you made the back list available, then those dollars spent in the used bookstores – which the publishers DO NOT have a piece of and which the authors DO NOT get royalties on – become part of the equation. Have they thought of that?

    I have thought about purchasing a Kindle or a Sony Reader, but there are still aspects of them that I don’t care for, and price per book is a major consideration.

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  9. Allison Brennan

    Thanks for the shout out, Toni. 🙂

    I may get an ebook reader sometime, but I don’t like reading on the computer, and I’ve played around with my agent’s Kindle and I don’t think I would like reading on it, either. I can see the benefit of ebooks for travel or taking to my kids games or something, but most of my reading I do at night in my cushy chair in my office. With a book. That I have to expend energy to turn pages. 🙂

    ebooks are simply another format to read books. I don’t think they’ll add to the numbers of books sold, but they are another consumer choice, and the buying public has made it clear that they like choices. (But too many and they’ll run for the hills.)

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  10. Becky Hutchison

    Congrats, Allison, on your RITA nomination!

    Toni, I’m with you on the browsing. Many of my book purchases are online only after a lot of browsing. Through amazon.com I can track what new books are coming out via their publication date and add the ones I like to my Wishlist for later reference.

    Because my house was getting overrun with books of all kinds, I began buying ebooks for my PDA several years ago. It was sporadic with fewer choices, but it did help retain a little walking room on the floors. Thanks to the Kindle’s success (IMO), more and more books are being offered as ebooks, and I buy the majority of my reading materials in digital form now.

    I’ve sampled a variety of ebook stores and like BooksOnBoard.com the most. Their discounts for ebooks seem to be the best, and they usually have additional discount promotions. Like other ebook stores BoB offers excerpts, price comparisons, browsing ability (which is great for me because I LOVE to browse), and reward credit for certain purchases.

    Now that I have an iTouch, I’m downloading ebooks through the eReader application to pick the font, font size, font color and background color, and I can continue taking books wherever I go.

    I still enjoy the different applications for reading on my computer, with Mobipocket reader my absolute favorite. In addition I use eReader, Sony eBook, Adobe Digital Reader and Microsoft Reader. Maybe one day I’ll use a Kindle, but not until it has a good color version. Until then I’ll use what I have. And I won’t totally give up paper copies. They’re what I grew up with and what I love the most.

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  11. kit

    It’s a personal preference for me to hold the book in my hands while reading it or having it on a flat surface in front of me…but I can see the point for publishing to go this route.Our college here is one of the first colleges in the US to go to computer notebooks..so I can totally see them doing it and I had to wonder if the cost of text books would go down as well.Then there’s the space factor..let’s face it…books Do take up alot of room….I personally love being around them, as is, right now…but that’s just my personal preference.Two thoughts jump out at me though…1) going to a previous article I had read …with the information being so RIGHT THERE…would thought patterns change or the way we assimulate knowledge?and 2) would it affect the future of how we write …or how we would tell a story being that it is formatted differently? HHHMMMM?

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  12. toni mcgee causey

    Great conversation today everyone–thank you. I ended up gone all day long unexpectedly.

    The downside to this future is that some of my favorite booksellers are going to be hurt unless they can develop a competitive online presence. (I order from indies as often as I can.)

    kit, great point there about the changes in how we assimilate information. How we tell a story did change from print to radio, radio to film/TV, film/TV to YouTube snippets and gaming. I can imagine a future 10 or 15 years from now where the software to create images is so sophisticated and can run on the average computer that a writer can create some sort of streaming hybrid story-text, with alternate endings and/or story-paths. It is definitely going to be interesting to watch the technology unfold.

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  13. KarinNH

    We just bought my youngest son a Kindle and the most interesting thing to me is that both he and his brother have said it is easier to read the Kindle than a book–that they read much faster on it.

    My older son, a math graduate student, desperately wants one now, especially since many hard-to-find books in his field are available for downloading (still expensive, but not as costly as the print version). He definitely agrees with those of you who feel that textbooks in this format is the way to go.

    I’m always surprised when people lament the end of reading, because all the kids I know read voraciously. And when I was growing up, my reading choice was limited to my small, barely-functioning local library and my parents’ collection of books; today almost anything from around the world is obtainable. These kids definitely take advantage of that. It ought to be interesting to see what happens in the next decade!

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  14. Rob Gregory Browne

    Actually, my first book KISS HER GOODBYE has just gone to Kindle and I’m surprised at the numbers.

    I do think this is the future — and its a future that’s coming much faster than we think. I remember when I first discovered the Internet — there was no such thing as a web page then. It was all text. But within five years or so, EVERYONE was on the Internet.

    When it happens, it happens fast.

    Reply

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