Monday, November 7, 2011

Book Business Is Turning Into A Library

Amazon has found another way to win customers at the expense of the book industry. It’s creating its own version of Netflix by having Kindle owners sign up for an annual plan called Amazon Prime, where subscribers can “borrow” a new book each month. The annual fee is $79.  Each month subscribers can get a new book but only when they return the previous book (Amazon makes it disappear off your Kindle).  It is not clear how publishers or authors are compensated.  There are 5,000 titles to chose from but the six largest book publishers wisely have not offered any of their titles.

It’s only a matter of time before competitors, such as Apple, develop some Netflix type plan. Eventually the major publishers will cave in and participate.  And again the pricing of books and their perceived value will take a hit.  Commoditizing books is awful for the industry.

Is there an upside to this?

Some publishers believe  or hope that some people will gain success to an author via Amazon Prime and as a result of a positive introduction to his or her book, readers will become fans and pursue the purchase of the author’s other books.  Or maybe the reader will simply wait for the next book to become available for free.

Consumers may not have big budgets during a recession but they can afford to pay more than $1.99 for a book.  The problem is one day the recession will end but not for publishing.  We’re being trained to accept a book is only worth a few bucks. Further, the low pricing model doesn’t mean consumers will buy more books. They’ll just pay less for what they do buy.  People don’t have endless hours to read a zillion books. They spend their time on other things – movies, TV, web-surfing, video games, work, eating, traveling, chores, having sex, sleeping, seeing doctors...well, you get the point.

A book will soon cost less than a daily newspaper or a magazine, which shows you how screwed up the pricing system is.  Book deflation poses a real danger to publishing.

What’s next?  Will authors write books for free or maybe publishers will have to pay people to read their books instead of people buying them?

Books are not to be sold like other items.  Look at restaurants.  They will have price specials or do 2 for 1 drink specials because they need to get people in during the slow times of a day or week or they want new people to sample their wares.  If they can win a customer over, they will get repeat visits at the full price.  But if you keep selling books for a dollar or two, readers will not readjust to paying ten times that for a book.

Think about that.

The industry is cannibalizing itself and creating its own depression.  I could be wrong, of course. Maybe a new model of flourishing writers will come about and there will be new winners and losers, just as any system has winners and losers.  Charging $30-$35 for a hardcover book is not good for the industry either. We need a balanced, reasonable pricing structure that is not based on format (e-book vs. paper) nor by sales venue (online vs. store) nor by the length of the book or by other cost factors.  A book should be prized and valued and people should pay accordingly.  It’s not so much what it costs a publisher to bring a book to market, but how much demand readers have for a book that dictates price.  But soon all readers of all books will come to expect to pay just two dollars for one because the industry cheapened the sense of worth for a book.

Think about that.

Is the end going to be that books take on sponsors and advertising in order to survive, much like newspapers, magazines, and other media forms do?  Will there be enough corporate money to go around?  I don’t think so.  Will the reader be happy with all of these ads?  Probably not.

Think about that.

Interview With Book Illustrator Mark Edward Geyer

1.       As an  illustrator of over 30 years, how hard would you say it is for someone to crack book market? I’ve been illustrating book titles for the last 17 years. Over the past 33 years I’ve done editorial and product illustration, architectural rendering, greeting card, newspaper, and, most recently, book illustration. I think it’s probably harder today than it’s ever been. It seems that there are legions of illustrators trying to break into the industry. That said, if you have a portfolio of stunning work and enough perseverance, I think that sooner or later, opportunities will come your way. There are too many almost-good illustrators trying to find work today. I believe that no matter how much a person goes to art school, if he or she does not have talent and does not also know the difference between artistic enthusiasm (which is commonplace) and inspiration (which is more rare), then that person is really not cut out for making a living at illustration. 

2.       What do you love most about being a part of the publishing industry? I love working for and with people who, like me, love the whole culture of books. The editors and art directors I’ve worked for have exhibited a lot of faith in me and that gives me confidence at the drawing table. I love working for a team of people who are trying to steer a book into the best possible creation that it can be. It’s a wonderful feeling to be part of the process. It’s also very gratifying to know that my drawings are reaching a large number of readers. 

3.       Where do you see it headed? I’m not sure. Maybe printed books and e-books will coexist for a long time to come. When I think of e-book sales growing so fast, I think of how photography was once thought of as spelling the end for all portrait painters, and yet, portrait painting is still around; and so are photographic studios where you can go and have your picture snapped. You have a choice. I agree with the school of thought that says: if there’s so much dread that printed books will disappear, then that must mean that a lot of people would like to go on buying them, and, as long as that appetite exists, publishers will satisfy it.  

4.       You are best known as the illustrator of Stephen King’s Rose Madder and The Green Mile. What did you enjoy about those experiences? Everything. I had been primarily an architectural renderer for about fourteen years when I got the call to do the Rose Madder title page illustration back in 1994 and the next year to illustrate The Green Mile. I had also done some magazine and newspaper editorial illustrations and those images are what landed me these two book jobs. I was recommended to Viking and Dutton by Stephen King. I had been mailing my editorial samples to publishers for a couple of years in the early 1990s without any success, so I decided to mail the same samples directly to Mr. King’s office with a letter that said that I’d love to illustrate one of his books. 

5.       What advantages/threats does technology and e-books pose for a book illustrator? I love today’s technology in terms of being able to send images by email, research subject matter on Google, post work on my blog; the list goes on. As far as e-books go, I actually like the way my work looks in them. I prefer seeing my work in print, however, and I don’t think that e-books are signaling the end of print. But, maybe I’m being naïve. Maybe someday publishing houses will require all their illustrators to create on a computer. If that day comes I will be unhappy, because I don’t see myself drawing on a screen with a stylus—in fact, lately, I’ve been going in the other direction: experimenting with crow quills on heavy paper. 

Brian Feinblum’s views, opinions, and ideas expressed in this blog are his alone and not that of his employer. You can follow him on Twitter @theprexpert and email him at He feels more important when discussed in the third-person.

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