yesterday's front page
… or so today’s lead piece in the Guardian’s G2 section would have it. Reminds me of the hand-wringing that surrounds the music industry in the wake of rapidly declining record sales.
The story is that Waterstone’s, having once been the darling of the book trade and the book-buying aficionado, has been forced by competition from supermarkets / competition from the internet / ebooks / ownership by HMV to become just like any other high volume retailer. They make offers on high volume sales items and narrow down their list of supported titles to a mere 20,000 items in a typical store.
I have enormous sympathy for the idea of selective punters missing out on the titles they’d love to lay their hands on… and I agree that the current pricing policies mean that you end up subsidising the Dan Brown’s of this world when you buy anything off the top 100 list.
But hold on a second: one of the interesting by-products of internet sales, ebooks and print-on-demand should be the ability to open up new markets and distribution channels for authors who do not appear on the ‘long tail’.
Incremental cost of production reduces close to zero… and then that just leaves the small question of trying to let people know the title is out there. That will then begin to call into question the role of publishers in the same way that record labels have been challenged in the music industry.
Of course, there are differences: despite the calamatous drop-off in sales of CDs, the music industry has grown in recent years. But the growth has come from other revenue streams, such as licensing, tours and merchandise.
That will be a tougher act to pull off in the book trade. Adoring crowds in the tens of thousands shelling out £50 to see Dan Brown read excerpts of The Lost Symbol? Maybe not.
I do, though, wonder whether in years to come, we’ll start to see stores on the high street where you can wander in, choose a title that fits that ‘long tail’ description, then browse more or sip a coffee in the cafe attached while waiting for it to be produced ‘on demand’ for you to walk out with after a brief delay. That, of course, complementing a thriving online industry of shipping virtual books to ereaders. And of course those big, fat discounted blockbusters and celeb biographies.
There are a lot of things that will need to happen for that day to arrive, but it suggests that, publishers aside, the future need not be so apocalyptic.