by J.T. Ellison
"Grandma, what’s this?" Our grandson, precocious and brilliant, hands me a hardcover copy of Lee Child’s NOTHING TO LOSE, published June 3, 2008. The pages are yellowing, the spine is cracked. The book is well-read.
"That’s what your granddaddy and I used to call a book, sweetheart," I say with a smile.
"A book? That’s not right. Books aren’t hard like this. This is so thick, and heavy. I like my way better."
His way. All-digital, no paper, no binding. Free for download — every "book" ever written at the touch of a button. The terabyte readers, the size of my thumb, are obsolete. Holographic images make reading more like watching a movie — a device the size of a hearing aid allows the brain to process the words into scenes which act themselves out before your eyes. There are no publishing houses. Everything is accessible online, and the online world is very different from what we had when I was writing books.
Sigh. Yes, I’ve done something I don’t normally do — look to the future to anticipate what might happen to our industry. This is obviously a sci-fi version of events (including the virtual grandson.) With the glut of blogs this week decrying Book Expo, Borders laying off 274 employees, Harper Collins announcing by Summer 2009 all of their sales catalog will be 100% electronic, the huge spike in book trailers, my own publisher, Mira, making every front-list title automatically available as e-books, agents using Kindles to plow through their submissions so they don’t have to lug manuscripts back and forth… I think we need to start facing facts.
The future of the book industry is happening, right now.
Book Expo was less well attended this year, understandable for three reasons — one, it’s damn expensive to travel now. Two, the American Library Association meeting is later this month in California as well — a big travel cost to expect the librarians to undertake. And three — the simple fact that so much of our work is done electronically, it’s not cost-effective for publishers to travel to trade shows. Thomas Nelson, always a major force at BEA, pulled out entirely. If you think of the cost of flying your entire sales staff across country, hotel and food costs, parties to be thrown, renting booth space, putting together a slick and user-friendly booth, having your booth staffed with sales folks and authors, oh, and let’s not forget — GIVING AWAY THOUSANDS OF BOOKS — you can imagine just how much that costs a publisher.
Has the trade show gone the way of the dinosaur? Is it obsolete? There’s certainly no lack of criticism, but I see that every year. I went to Book Expo last year, signed in my publisher’s booth, then spent hours wandering around, overwhelmed with the choices, watching sales folks take meetings with bookstore reps, collecting more free books than I could legitimately carry, and in general had a good time. But outside of handing free books to potential readers (who, remember, must PAY for the privilege of being handed said "free" book by registering for the conference) and holding meetings with booksellers, how effective is the trade show? What purpose does it serve, when in reality, the vast majority of connections are done electronically?
Back in the day when we didn’t have the Internet to access and meet our customers, the trade show was a vital aspect of business. I used to be a staffer at our trade shows for Lockheed Martin, and trust me, many, many deals were made, for billions of dollars. Companies were able to meet the people who were submitting proposals, shake hands and look into the eye of the guy you may be awarding a multi-million dollar contract to. That was very, very important. Now, will the faux-closeness of the Internet, we don’t need to worry about it. We can get to know someone very well through their online dealings. You don’t NEED to meet in person, video conferencing takes care of that.
When Harper Collins announced they were going all electronic, I wasn’t especially surprised. Think about it, most of our major organizations have e-newsletters available instead of mailing hard copies. Emails correspondence from several of my "places" have a tag line at the bottom reminding me not to print the email unless it’s absolutely necessary. The greening of our culture is definitely translating to the book industry. And you know there are more changes to follow. If our next President is of a certain ilk, he’s bound to address the environmental concerns with actual green legislation — it might become illegal waste paper, and then where will we be?
Don’t get me wrong — I did a whole blog about the importance of meeting your "people" face to face. I still believe that knowing your editor and agent is vital. That
meeting the upper management and sales staff of your house is very,
very helpful. But the old way of doing business is just that, the old way. You can have a full and successful career without ever leaving your house now. Scary, but true.
We hear admonishments that we need to embrace the new age, but really, haven’t we already started? Look at what happened here at Murderati this week — we as a "web log" AKA a "blog," were nominated for one of the most prestigious crime fiction awards. This is the first time the Anthony Awards have included a website category. Two years ago, blogging in the mystery community was relatively nascent, with only a few major blogs underway. Now there are thousands, and we tell new writers, "You must have a platform — a website or a blog — to get your name out there." It’s become de rigeur to have a blog.
And let’s take a hard look at what a blog is. Remember the great concept from Stephen King in ON WRITING, where he postulates that a writer and a reader are having a telepathic connection? Right now, we’re communication, you and I. You’re reading my words and getting a window into my mind. If you’ve been a reader for long enough, you’ve watched me grow from an unpublished newbie to an author with six books under contract. I’ve changed and grown over the past two years, right before your eyes. And this blog, the instant communication, let’s me do that. Pretty cool, you know?
We’re giving away the content, too. We don’t charge for you to come read our thoughts. We’re grateful that you care enough to stop by on a regular basis, to engage in the comments, to interact with us. Can you imagine if we’d had this kind of unprecedented access to authors one hundred years ago? Heck, five years ago?
This is another important point in this brave new world. Free content. We’re giving away writing tips, giving away marketing tips — seriously, a new writer can spend a day reading through our incredible archives and learn just about everything they need to know about getting published. When will it come to be that we’re giving our books away for free? I mean, let’s be real — my ebook sales aren’t going to be buying my Lamborghini Gallardo anytime soon, but they’re steadily rising as the Kindle becomes more and more popular. Look at Project Gutenberg. This is going to be the norm sooner than you think.
I’m lately come to text messaging and instant messaging — more because I find it a time suck than a value — but it’s the immediacy of communication that’s sweeping our culture. Heck, I don’t get a lot of email from friends anymore — we’re communicating on Facebook and Aim. I’ve been dragged kicking and screaming into this new age, but as media/geek blogger Rex Hammock points out, no one under 24 emails anymore.
This is what we need to be paying attention to — the Echo Boomers (approx. aged 13-27) expect free digital content, easily accessible and downloadable to their portable phones. Can you imagine what their kids are going to expect?
Demand drives the consumer marketplace, and reaching consumers is our goal as writers. The word to pay attention to is instant. I’m not one to extol the virtues of instant gratification for the younger set — I still stick to the parochial belief that perhaps talking to a kid is better than just showing him a movie — but the market is trending younger, and the Echo Boomers will be making the decisions soon. A Gen Xer just took over Random House. The guy is my age, and he’s running one of the most storied publishing houses in history. I know that may sound really depressing, but for me, it’s terribly exciting. So there you go. Time, unfortunately, marches on.
As bad as I feel for the folks who had a hard time at BEA, I’m glad that everyone is starting to pay attention. Changes are sweeping through our industry, many of them for the better. Will the newer generations eradicate the physical book? Quite possibly. We never though vinyl would go the way of the dinosaur. So my earlier semi-joke about my virtual grandson reading through a mental holographic system? Maybe not so far fetched after all.
Sara Lloyd, from Pan Macmillan, published "A Book Publisher’s Manifesto for the 21st Century" in full this week, and it is an absolute must read for everyone, readers and writers alike.
So, go. Let me have it. Am I nuts?
Wine of the Week: 2006 Fuedo Arancio Nero D’Avola — Fruity and young, but tasty!