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Thursday, December 21, 2006

The Future of Book Production and Selling

There has been much talk on listservs, blogs and forums about the announcement of the closure of Mystery Ink in NYC and Aliens and Alibis. I am sad to hear about these stores shutting down, but find myself wondering if we’re not on the threshold of the demise of the bookstore, but potentially beginning the journey to rebirth.

Enter a development Stephen Blackmoore alerted me to: “An ATM For Books” - Buying a book could become as easy as buying a pack of gum. After several years in development, the Espresso - a $50,000 vending machine with a conceivably infinite library - is nearly consumer-ready and will debut in ten to 25 libraries and bookstores in 2007. The New York Public Library is scheduled to receive its machine in February…. The machine can print, align, mill, glue and bind two books simultaneously in less than seven minutes, including full-color laminated covers. It prints in any language and will even accommodate right-to-left texts by putting the spine on the right. The upper page limit is 550 pages…

Now, at this moment admittedly we don’t know enough about the quality of the technology and how it will be received, but I’m going to indulge in a bit of wishful thinking. It is my feeling that part of the reason some (certainly not all) independents aren’t surviving has less to do with fewer sales of books and more to do with convenience. We live in an on-demand society, where people want dinner in under five minutes, drive-thru banking and one-stop-shopping. As a result we have seen the rise of online companies allowing us to shop from the convenience of our own homes.

Right now, my book is winding its way through the final stages of production. It will soon (if it isn’t already) be listed with Ingram. Listings on amazon will follow. Theoretically, in a matter of weeks any person will be able to go to any store in North American and order the book in if it isn’t on the shelves.

Gee, what a pain. Order it in? Have to wait? But I want it, and I want it now.

That’s what we tend to think. Despite the distance and inconvenience I’ll drive to three bookstores (and sometimes more) looking for a book I want. If I’ve set my mind on getting something it feels like defeat to go home without it, even if I’ve ordered it in.

There are good reasons to order books into the bookstores. It brings the title to the attention of the staff and shows that there is demand for that book. I went through this months ago, trying to track down one of Steve Mosby’s titles. I finally ordered it in, through a bookstore. It was an enormous headache and ended up costing me more money than if I had just ordered it through amazon.

However, within weeks as I went store to store in the city, I discovered the local chain stores had started carrying his books. For me, the frustration had the payoff of seeing work by a friend make it to the local shelves. I hope when Steve’s new book comes out this spring I don’t have to order it in, but can walk into any store in the city and find it on display.

As an author I can appreciate the merit of ordering through the bookstore. Even if it costs me more money it helps a fellow author.

But as an author I don’t find it so easy to ask readers to do this for me. I feel incredibly conflicted. I want to ask everyone to order the book through their local independent, selfishly, but it doesn’t feel right to ask them to do this when I know that it might cost them more money than ordering through amazon.

Although I live 77 kilometres away from the nearest independent (that would be one way) and it takes an hour to drive there because it’s downtown Calgary, and I don’t shop downtown or do any business downtown at all so I rarely have reason to go there, I do try to make a point of taking business to McNally Robinson whenever I can. The reason is simple: This bookstore does a lot to support author events locally, which is something the chain bookstores don’t do.

Now, let’s think back to this new piece of technology, the Espresso.

I suspect a big part of the reason that independents struggle is that they don’t have the infrastructure and capital to keep as much stock on hand as the chain bookstores. An invention like the Espresso could level the playing field, as far as books are concerned. Imagine eliminating shipping costs, not to mention delays. You go to your local bookstore and they don’t have the book you’re after on hand already. Not to worry: with the press of a few buttons and seven minutes of browsing you can pick up the exact book you’re after and leave the store satisfied.

This means titles never have to go out of print. It means stores never have to lose sales because customers can’t get what they want.

But it also doesn’t mean the end of hand selling.

In my idealistic vision, I imagine going to a store where the staff actually know the books. A certain amount of stock would be printed and kept on hand to entice readers with. Any title could be made on the spot. Perhaps what we’d see is more sample books on shelves for customers to browse through, with less bulk stock devoted to a few titles. A staff person could come in early every day and assess previous sales and know how many of the latest Rankin, Connelly, Billingham titles should be printed. If it doesn’t eliminate the need for store rooms it reduces that need.

All businesses have gone through changes over time. We’ve seen the decline of the general store, which has returned in a fashion as supermarkets that sell clothes, food, shoes, prescription drugs and automotive supplies. It used to be that all restaurants actually cooked their own food from scratch. Now they order in things pre-made. When I worked as a bakery assistant I used to produce the muffins for all the Second Cup stores in the city, but I didn’t work for Second Cup. It’s the beauty of contracting out the jobs.

I think there are several factors which are contributing to concerns with book sales. Consider this, readers. Every time you buy a book you are not simply paying for the production of that book. You are paying for the production of ARCs and postage and marketing packets sent out to promote that book and others. You are paying for shipping.

You’re also paying a certain amount of buffer against the cost of the book being returned/destroyed. Paperbacks, as I understand it, aren’t even sent back. The covers are ripped off and sent back for refund, because it’s cheaper to pay to reprint the book than to have it mailed back for a refund from a store that can’t sell it.

Imagine if we could see a reduction in the cost of books because we’ve eliminated some of the expenses.

Espresso machines could be the catalyst to change. I’m not saying it will be this way overnight. I’m not even saying it will be this way in a year or two. And it’s possible that the Espresso will give way to other machines, better machines, that can better meet demand.

But I think the Espresso is a sign of change on the horizon in the book industry. While many people are nervous about this, I think there’s reason to be optimistic that there are positive things that can come out of new technology.

At the same time, I’m aware that there are many things to consider in the publishing business, things I might be overlooking. I'm interested to hear your thoughts. What are the potential drawbacks to this development in publishing?

No change comes easy. Sometimes, what saves us a few dollars today costs someone else their job. The way I see it, we’re going through some growing pains right now. We can stand still and mourn the loss of independents – and I do... it could spell the end of author events if we lose all independents – but I think we also need to start thinking about the future and what needs to happen in order to revitalize the bookselling industry. I suspect many will regard Espresso with skepticism and fear. But I hope that people will keep an open mind to the possibilities because I suspect that, like all things, it will be the retailers and publishers innovative enough to embrace positive change and take risks who will lead the way into the next phase of book production and selling.