Sunday, January 15, 2012

How It's All Changed

David Morrell and his many works.
Last weekend, I was fortunate enough to listen to David Morrell speak* about the current state of publishing. If you're not familiar with Morrell, then perhaps you're more familiar with a certain troubled and misunderstood Vietnam War veteran who was the main character of Morrell's fist novel forty years ago. First Blood, starring the titular character Rambo, spawned a successful 80s film franchise that most men still stop and watch in awe when flipping through the local cable channels.

I'm not here to talk about Rambo, but I am here to highlight some of the main points David Morrell makes concerning the past, present, and future of publishing. Morrell, himself, has seen numerous changes in the publishing industry over the last four decades, but none quite as dramatic and rapid as what he's seen in the past few years with the rise of e-books, the closing of major bookstore chains, and self-publishing.

To begin, let's take a trip into the past, way back to the 1980s. In 1986, the model for the promotional tour was invented. Before this time, authors didn't tour from major city to major city in a ten-week promotional tour that left them functioning in a haze and wondering when sleep would finally come. Most cities had their local authors and that was about it. The local bookstore (if there was one) was about the only place in town a person could find a book to purchase. The idea behind the book tours was to introduce new authors to other regions of the country. Initially, it was a grand success. But since the idea wasn't to make money off the tour, publishing houses knew they had to balance out the $15,000 price tag. This was to come through sales and recognition (i.e. an author finding his/her way to the top of The New York Times list). Eventually, the tours ground to a halt because the numbers weren't matching up. Book tours were not driving up sales, so by the late 1990s the extravagant city hopping came to an end.

The top ten publishers represent 72%
of the total market.
About this time, 'The Big 5' was born. Major corporations thought it a good idea to buy into the publishing world. (I'm not sure why they thought this to be a good investment.) Basically, 'The Big 5' gobbled up all the little guys creating the top five publishing houses (recent data shows these to be Random House, Pearson, Hachette, Harper Collins, and Simon & Schuster). This meant that most other publishers out there (i.e. Doubleday, Knopf, Little Brown, Pocket, etc.) became divisions or imprints of the large publishing houses. For the author, if a book was/is submitted to the publishing house and is turned down, then it is turned down by every imprint or division under the publishing house's umbrella. This, of course, has made it harder for the author to get his/her work noticed by one of the major publishing houses.

Along with the birth of 'The Big 5,' came chain bookstores. They started in the mall environment where numerous people shopped everyday. (Who doesn't remember going to a Waldenbooks or a B. Daltons? On a side note, check out this sad article on a closing mall bookstore.) Because the bookstores had grown in size from the little bookstore around the corner to a larger location with a larger clientele, the incentive to write grand, long-winded tomes became quite the trend (even Morrell professes to have written one of his own with The Brotherhood of the Rose). Bigger stores meant bigger-looking books, thus pushing the less than 300 page novels off the shelves to make room for the 500-600 page doorstoppers.

A Borders flagship store in Ann Arbor, Michigan
Before long, large brick and mortar stores were conceptualized and Barnes & Noble and Borders became anchor stores in strip malls. When you look back at the history of these monstrosities, it's interesting to see that Borders's (which was acquired in 1992 by Kmart) history as a major bookstore lasted less than twenty years. But why did they go out of business? Morrell says that it has much to do with an unsustainable business model. Books were just a small portion of sales for a business that also sold CDs (downloadable music is slowly killing the CD industry), movies (same goes for movies as for CDs), toys, and nicknack stuff that really doesn't need to be sold in a bookstore. In essence, Borders couldn't keep their boat afloat. And the same is happening to Barnes & Noble, who recently stated that Nook would be becoming its own company. Doesn't inspire much confidence towards investing in B & N now, does it? 

Surprisingly enough, not all is lost. If anything, bookstores are reverting to where they were way back in the 80s. The local bookstores are once more blossoming. They can become important members of their communities by offering a knowledgeable staff (when was the last time you found one of those in Borders?) and author events that highlight local and national works. 

Kindle Fire
And, of course, the industry would not be what we know it today if not for e-readers. Amazon, who tends to be hush-hush about sales, says they move at least 1 million Kindles a week. (At $79 a pop, many people found these under the Christmas tree.) In the last quarter, Apple shipped over 11 million iPads. 1.5 million Nook and Nook Colors have sold in the last quarter as well. Morrell says that he believes roughly 100 million people in the U.S. alone own e-readers. But with so many of these on the market, Morrell sees the market reaching its highest levels of saturation this year and then leveling off in the years to come. So what does that say about the future of e-readers? It's a pretty healthy forecast. E-readers and self-publishing have changed the game when it comes to getting published. But in a good way? I'll let you be the judge!

Are you one of the 100 million people who owns an e-reader or tablet? Has it changed your reading habits and do you see it co-existing with physical books? Do you believe e-readers have revolutionized the market in a good way? Do you like the idea of the massive brick and mortar stores becoming, once again, the mom and pop places around the corner?

*David Morrell spoke at the SouthWest Writers monthly meeting on Jan. 7, 2012. His speech was entitled "The Current State of Publishing."

BTW ~ If you're interested to read any tips on preparing for the LSAT, pop on over to The Random Book Review and see what I have to say about my experience.


  1. Your post Sister Mary, Mary has made me feel positively prehistoric. I don´t own a kindle, I never seen an e-reader (although I have read e-books) and I thought tablets were what Egyptian and Assyrians used as writing pads, but I do remember the coziness of Dalton´s and Barnes & Nobles and even Rizzoli and Brentano’s (that is Jurassic). I remember the days when thick was in, when a fat book (just like a Beefsteak Charlie’s flank of beef) meant a juicy, delicious, comforting tale. I may become a published e-book author, but deep inside I´ll know the format cannot replace the good feeling of cuddling with a novel in your bathtub. It´s like the demise of video recorders, whatever replaced them was never as good as the Real McCoy

  2. I do love the revitalization of the small, cozy little neighborhood bookstore. (We have 3.) As for ereaders, I don't have one, and while I don't mind reading books on my laptop, given a choice I will always buy/borrow a paper copy. I just like it a whole lot better, and for some reason it seems far easier to read for me.(Could just be psychological.)

  3. I've owned an ereader for a year now and it's definitely changed the way I read. I find paper books somewhat clunky now. And I love the convenience of my kindle. I can pop onto Amazon and download a new book whenever, where ever I want.

  4. Ooh, provocative post! :) I learned a lot from this, first of all, so thank you. I was wondering how/why the mom-and-pop bookstore across the street was thriving when Borders failed: I feel like I understand that better.

    I am an e-book enthusiast, but I've never bought anything self-published. To me, those are two different issues. However, I was really heartened to read about Amanda Hocking, who's raking in money after her self-published books went viral. (Here's her story, if you haven't heard of her:

    I buy more books, now that I have an e-book reader, than I did when I had to drive to a store to get a hard copy. One reason is that I can shop with the click of a button. Another big reason is that I'm out of bookshelf space: we already have a houseful of beautiful paper books (about every other book I read is a paper book). I have dozens of books on my Kindle, taking up no more space than a single book. And I can take all those books with me, wherever I go. So people like me are probably helping authors (I hope), since we're buying more of their product.

    Interestingly, my teenage daughter prefers paper books. I bought her a Kindle for her birthday ... she has yet to crack it open. So you've got young company, Violante! :)

  5. I remember very well the author book tours in the late 90's. I was a graphic designer at a local bookstore (which I'm happy to report is still in business) and we had several book signings throughout the month (more so than any chain bookstore in the city.) Recently an author friend of mine mentioned her book tours and I innocently (and excitedly) asked where was she going and she said "they're BLOG book tours!" So I guess things have changed a lot! I understand publishers may not want to pay for travel expenses anymore but authors, remember you can always do local book signings. In my experience in bookstores, we were always happy to accommodate authors (it meant more book sales).

  6. One more thing. For a long time I feared for my local bookstore ( as others in town closed) but this one has lasted and while I worked there, it was the largest one in the city (more than B&N or Borders). The advantage of local bookstores is that they're not subject to corporate policies and such. Local stores can make their own decisions about the books they buy (they know their market) they can plan events to promote a particular author/book and they have their own marketing/advertising team.

  7. I still have no interest in owning an e-reader. I'm not against them in general, but I think print books are beautiful. And thanks for this post--very interesting.

  8. Violante - Don't feel ancient! There are so many out there who don't own the technology that gets shoved at us on a daily basis. I have a strong feeling that many tablet owners don't really use them for reading purposes (unless they're big Kindle fans and that's why they bought the new Fire). In actuality, I recently read an article that said one of the top ten products to disappear before the end of this decade are e-readers, which will be replaced by all tablets. I would personally say don't break out the money for one until you really feel you need to.

    Li - I, too, enjoy the smaller bookstores. To be quite honest, I always had a hard time finding what I wanted at Borders and then would turn around and buy it for cheaper on Amazon. When I think of little bookstores, I always think of "You've Got Mail" and how Meg Ryan's store was essentially forced out of business by the big chains. Oh, and even though I have a Kindle, I enjoy a paper book much better as well.

    Lynda and Stephanie - Ease and accessibility are the beauty behind the Kindle! Oh, the clicking and buying that goes on. We will all go broke by using so much of Amazon! But, yes, e-readers have completely changed how society reads books, and if it means more books being read, then I'm all for that. Although, Stephanie, I agree with you about self-pubbed books. I've read a few and haven't been overly impressed. There's been somewhat of a disconnect created among authors, agents and publishing houses and somehow that connection needs to come back.

  9. Lorena - I enjoy your insight on local bookstores. I agree that it's very important for authors to make that local connection by doing book signings at the local bookstores. If we're supposed to do all the promoting legwork now, then we better get used to the idea of putting ourselves out there and starting in our own backyards.

    Missed Periods - Print books are beautiful! That's the one sad thing that's going away with more and more electronic media. We forget that there's artwork on the cover and what the pages smell like, and for me personally, I don't ever want that to go away.


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