In the past, a large publisher’s most profitable strategy was to publish a relatively small number of different books with wide appeal, those for which they believed there was a large market. The large volume offset the cost of editing, cover design, printing, and promotion. This made perfectly good business sense. There were a few predefined genres, and books that fit the currently popular trends in each of those were what ended up being published and displayed on the limited shelf space in bookstores. This model worked well for the publishing business, but it didn’t provide much variety for readers.
When I was a kid, I read mostly space operas and sword and sorcery epic fantasies. That’s what the stores sold, and for speculative fiction, that was about all they sold because that is all the traditional publishers were publishing, which they did because they sold…
These books were often very much alike. If you tore out the title page, there is a good chance you would not be able to guess who wrote the story. They were as generic as fast food hamburgers and for the same reason—mass appeal, low cost, predictable content, and reasonable quality.
It seems that traditional publishers are still working to this model, and if you really want to read a new post-apocalyptic, dystopian, paranormal, vampire romance with demons, zombies and a teenage wizard, they’ll have one for you.* They’ll probably have dozens, in fact. That kind of stuff sells. They know this because they’ve already sold a bunch much like them. This doesn’t mean any of these books are good, nor does it mean all of them are bad, but it does mean that readers who want something completely different are going to have a hard time finding it.
Fortunately, the constraints of limited shelf space and mass appeal no longer apply, although I don’t think traditional publishers know this. Many authors and readers may not, either. Things are changing, though, and the change is good.
Online retailers do not need to be concerned about shelf space. This allows them to follow a different model. They can offer a wide variety of items to suit different needs and tastes rather than focusing on a relatively small number of currently popular items. Amazon may have been one of the first to adapt this idea to books, and they quickly came to dominate the book market because of it.
Then they went a step further by creating the Kindle, which made them the leader in digital books as well. They further expanded their eBook selection by encouraging writers to bypass traditional publishers and sell their books directly to readers (who had Kindles). I’m sure this wasn’t out of some altruistic concern or even due to some sense of duty to rescue the art of fiction from the doldrums. They are a business after all, and the primary business of business is, as we know, to make money, and I suspect Amazon is making a respectable profit from digital book sales. I have no idea how many eBook titles they now have available, but I imagine it’s a lot. They probably don’t sell many copies of most of these, but a few here and a few there can add a very large pile of nickels and dimes to their bottom line.
I did not realize how truly limited my book selection had been until I received a Kindle as a gift two years ago. In the years BK (Before Kindle), I got books from the library, brick and mortar bookstores, and online, but all of those books were published on paper through the gateway of a traditional publisher. I had no idea what I was missing. In the years AK (After Kindle), I have found many books that were fresh, different, that defied genre and convention, and, because of this, they were great reads. But they didn’t come from traditional publishers, which are still working to the old model of formulaic fiction for mass audiences. Many of the most enjoyable books I read last year came from small, independent publishers or were self-published by the authors.
The rise of indie publishing makes more books available to readers. But quantity is not what makes indie revolutionary. If all it did was increase the number of new vampire romances or zombie apocalypse stories released each year from a hundred to ten thousand, it would hardly be important. The greatest contribution of indie publishing is that it makes many different kinds of stories available to readers.
For a publishing business, the purpose of producing books is to make money. For many (but not all) indie writers, the purpose is simply because they have a need to create and share stories that are not like those coming out of the big publishing houses. Sure, indie writers would love to make piles of money, but few expect to, and I don’t think it’s why most of them write, especially those who are consciously not following the mass-market book trends. What this means for fiction readers is greater variety, more books, lower prices, and a better chance of finding a book that is fresh and wonderfully different.
I used to read about twenty new books a year. Now I read about seventy or eighty. The main reason for the increase is that I can now find more books that appeal to me. And, if this wasn’t enough, ‘indie’ eBooks tend to be much cheaper than their traditionally published counterparts. Many indie books are free. Not all of them are good of course, but not all the books published by traditional publishers are, either.
I have come to view traditional publishers as something akin to fast food chain restaurants. They offer items with wide appeal and consistent quality. I’ve found that some traditional publishers of speculative fiction tend to do this better than others do, but their variety remains limited and the difference between them is like that between Burger King and McDonalds. Indie publishers are more along the lines of local mom and pop diners. Some are good and some are not, but a few offer great things you cannot find anywhere else.
This is a good time for fiction writers. They can write stories they believe in and offer them directly to readers. It is a good time for readers whose tastes do not match those of the crowd. It is still difficult to find great books that match our individual tastes, but, because of the rise of indie publishing, those books are far more likely to be out there. What is now desperately needed is a way to sort through the many thousands of indie books available to find those that we’ll absolutely love. Variety is great, but it can be overwhelming.
*This is a slight exaggeration. Most popular books won’t have all of these elements. There is only so much, um, ‘stuff’ that will fit in any one bucket.
My email circle of friends and (self-imagined) world problem solvers recently discussed the expanding role of e-commerce. As with most of our conversations, this one began with something else. One member of our august group forwarded an email of dubious accuracy, which ostensibly related humorously poor predictions of future events by people who could be considered experts about such things.
Here they are:
- “Man will never reach the moon regardless of all future scientific advances.” — Dr. Lee DeForest, “Father of Radio & Grandfather of Television.”
- “The bomb will never go off. I speak as an expert in explosives.” – – Admiral William Leahy , US Atomic Bomb Project
- “There is no likelihood man can ever tap the power of the atom.” — Robert Millikan, Nobel Prize in Physics, 1923
- “Computers in the future may weigh no more than 1.5 tons.” — Popular Mechanics, forecasting the relentless march of science, 1949
- “I think there is a world market for maybe five computers.” — Thomas Watson, chairman of IBM, 1943
- “I have traveled the length and breadth of this country and talked with the best people, and I can assure you that data processing is a fad that won’t last out the year.” –The editor in charge of business books for Prentice Hall, 1957
- “But what is it good for?” — Engineer at the Advanced Computing Systems Division of IBM, 1968, commenting on the microchip.
- “640K ought to be enough for anybody.” — Bill Gates, 1981
- This ‘telephone’ has too many shortcomings to be seriously considered as a means of communication. The device is inherently of no value to us,” — Western Union internal memo, 1876
- “The wireless music box has no imaginable commercial value. Who would pay for a message sent to nobody in particular?” — David Sarnoff’s associates in response to his urgings for investment in the radio in the 1920s.
- “The concept is interesting and well-formed, but in order to earn better than a ‘C,’ the idea must be feasible,” — A Yale University management professor in response to Fred Smith’s paper proposing reliable overnight delivery service. (Smith went on to found Federal Express Corp.)
- “I’m just glad it’ll be Clark Gable who’s falling on his face and not Gary Cooper,” — Gary Cooper on his decision not to take the leading role in “Gone With The Wind.”
- “A cookie store is a bad idea. Besides, the market research reports say America likes crispy cookies, not soft and chewy cookies like you make,” — Response to Debbi Fields’ idea of starting Mrs. Fields’ Cookies.
- “We don’t like their sound, and guitar music is on the way out,” — Decca Recording Co. rejecting the Beatles, 1962.
- “Heavier-than-air flying machines are impossible,” — Lord Kelvin, president, Royal Society, 1895.
- “If I had thought about it, I wouldn’t have done the experiment. The literature was full of examples that said you can’t do this,” – – Spencer Silver on the work that led to the unique adhesives for 3-M “Post-It” Notepads.
- “Drill for oil? You mean drill into the ground to try and find oil? You’re crazy,” — Drillers who Edwin L. Drake tried to enlist to his project to drill for oil in 1859.
- “Stocks have reached what looks like a permanently high plateau.” — Irving Fisher, Professor of Economics, Yale University , 1929.
- “Airplanes are interesting toys but of no military value,” — Marechal Ferdinand Foch, Professor of Strategy, Ecole Superieure de Guerre, France.
- “Everything that can be invented has been invented,” — Charles H. Duell, Commissioner, US Office of Patents, 1899.
- “The super computer is technologically impossible. It would take all of the water that flows over Niagara Falls to cool the heat generated by the number of vacuum tubes required.” — Professor of Electrical Engineering, New York University
- “I don’t know what use any one could find for a machine that would make copies of documents. It certainly couldn’t be a feasible business by itself.” — The head of IBM, refusing to back the idea, forcing the inventor to found Xerox.
- “Louis Pasteur’s theory of germs is ridiculous fiction.” — Pierre Pachet, Professor of Physiology at Toulouse , 1872
- “The abdomen, the chest, and the brain will forever be shut from the intrusion of the wise and humane surgeon,” — Sir John Eric Ericksen, British surgeon, appointed Surgeon-Extraordinary to Queen Victoria 1873.
- “There is no reason anyone would want a computer in their home.” — Ken Olson, president, chairman and founder of Digital Equipment Corp., 1977
I didn’t fact check any of these quotes, and I’m sure some are inaccurate or at least taken out of context, but the point of the email, I think, remains valid. It is difficult for anyone to predict what comes next. It may be even more difficult for experts in the field because they are so heavily invested (intellectually, not monetarily) in the status quo.
Of course, our email discussion drifted to computers and how none of us imagined a time when we’d need more than a couple of floppy drives and a dot matrix printer, then it shifted to what we use our computers for now, and eventually it evolved into a discussion about internet shopping.
That’s when I brought up Borders Books and its unfortunate demise. I would never have predicted it. I went there often, and the place always seemed busy. People would go there to shop, browse, seek help from polite, knowledgeable employees, or just sit and sip coffee at the in store cafe while working on their thesis or next book. I loved this place. But I must reluctantly admit that if Borders did not have what I wanted in stock, which most often was the case, I went home and bought it from Amazon.
That got me thinking – a dangerous habit, to be sure, but I can’t seem to help it. Was the closing of Borders indicative of some broad paradigm shift that extends beyond just their business model? The explanation I most often see for Borders’ failure is that they were slow getting on the e-book bandwagon. I don’t know if this is truly part of the reason. I’m sure it’s not the whole reason. A retail store that sold CDs and videos also went out of business near me and it brings me to wonder if there may be something even more fundamental underlying the issue that may affect not only other bookstores but all other types of exclusively brick and mortar retail stores as well.
A physical store has to limit its inventory because of space. This was not a problem when peoples’ tastes were limited by whatever radio, TV, and magazines made popular, and when consumer choices were limited to what major producers made available. The internet is a game-changer. It expands our options and allows us to sample different things we would never have been exposed to without it. Before the internet, many of these things probably would not have existed. They would have been squashed in infancy because major producers did not feel they fit current tastes, and people’s tastes were largely constrained by what these cultural gatekeepers allowed to become available. Of course, I am speaking mainly about books and music now, but it may apply to other areas, too.
My first experience with this was with music. What you heard when I was young was whatever they played on the radio. That was pretty much it, and it was fairly limited. I won’t say some of this wasn’t great music because it was, but a composer or band that created something different that music producers did not think they could sell easily would have little chance of wide exposure. If you didn’t live next door to these garage bands and heard them practicing, chances are you would never have had a chance to hear what they came up with.
Digital music changed this. Bands could reach out to the world on the internet. I recall the first time I heard an online recording of a song by a then fairly obscure European band, which quickly became one of my favorites. I had never heard music anything like this before. I loved it. I’m not sure where I found it, now. It may have been on YouTube or possibly provided as a link in an email from someone, but the point is that before the days of the internet, I would never have heard this. It certainly would never have been played on the radio because it did not fit an established genre and I doubt any producer would think it would ever become popular. I doubt it could be called popular now.
This is the point I’m driving at. Mass popularity may soon be an outdated idea. The things people know, believe, and like are limited by their exposure to them. With a worldwide internet, they are exposed to more, so their tastes can become more diverse.
Small publishers, music producers, and individual artists can now compete for audiences. I find that much of this ‘indie’ stuff appeals to me more than that which is cranked out by big companies. Physical stores won’t carry it. They couldn’t if they wanted to. Even if the worldwide market for it is large, it may not be big enough in individual areas to justify a carrying it in a brick and mortar store, which can only stock that which they can sell in enough volume to turn a profit. If your tastes deviate from mass market ‘pop’ stuff, the local store may not be the place for you to find what you will most like.
We are just starting to see this with books and music. I seldom find music I like in stores because they don’t carry it. Yes, they can order it (usually), but so can I. In fact, I can get it instantly by buying the MP3 album. The same kind of thing may be happening now with books.
I still shop at physical stores. Sometimes I even browse. But if I’m looking for something in particular, chances are I’ll be shopping for it online.