Congratulations! You are reading the ten-thousandth online article about the death of print, as tallied by our crack team of people who thought that sounded like an impressive number.
I realize I'm walking down a well-trod path here, but this column was written partly because, like you, I am rather sick of the Print Is Dead!-No It Isn't! tug-of-war. I want to kill the argument as humanely as possible, by recommending a slightly less Manichaean approach to the question. In the process I hope to complain a lot.
Point #1: Print has always been elitist
I don't think people outside of the industry fully understand how gamed the system has been in favor of the "big five" publishers. (Is it five now? I remember when it was, like, ten or twelve.) The cost of bringing a print book to market is so high that not only are the big publishers the only ones who do it, the entire system is set up so they are the only ones who can.
All of my novels are available in print, but you can't go into any bookstore and find one. You should be able to get the store to order a copy on request, if they aren't cranky, but that's not really the point of the brick-and-mortar placement. The point is to get a book in front of someone who is browsing, and doesn't know your books exist.
The biggest reason you will not find copies of my books in a bookstore is that I'm published by an independent. My publisher's distributor is one of the largest in the world, and the books are returnable ('Print-On-Demand' books are not usually returnable for credit if they do not sell, which is the excuse provided by bookstores for not carrying them) but no national book chain will carry them because of the indie label.
On top of that, the deals small publishers have to make with distribution companies are pretty outrageous. If you want to know why indies have to price their print books so much higher than the market average, it's because between the print costs, the cut the distributor takes, and the cut the bookstore takes, they'll lose money with a smaller price point.
Here's the thing, though: this has always been true. What's changed is that writers no longer have to play this game.
Point #2: E-books are still the future
I've been publishing or trying to publish novels for over a decade now, and it has been quite an interesting decade.
- To get a publishing deal I needed an agent
- To get an agent I needed to spend somewhere between months and possibly years researching and mailing
- After getting an agent that agent then had to spend somewhere between months and years getting a publisher interested
- If the agent didn't get a publisher interested there were no other options
I was actually told by an agent that if I took an unpublished novel and either self-published it or published it with an independent, the book had to be a runaway success or none of my future books would be taken seriously by a large market publisher. Essentially, the entire system was set up so as to say, not only do we not want to publish this book, we don't want you to publish it anywhere ever, and if you do we won't speak to you again.
This is an insane system, but up until very recently a writer had little choice, because the big publishers were the only ones who could get books into bookstores. Big publishers are still the only ones to get books into bookstores, but that's not nearly as important because there are no people in those bookstores any more.
Holding a virtual monopoly on an industry only works if people are interested in the product of that industry, and every year there are fewer and fewer people looking for print copies of books. That doesn't mean print is going to go away, but it does mean if a publisher's business plan is predicated on having no competition for readers, the publisher is going to fail eventually. No amount of ranting about the quality of indie- and self-published e-books is going to change that.
Point #3: Self-publishing might be the real future
Here's a sentence every published writer has uttered at least once when talking to a self-published author:
"Wait, you made how much?"
If you want to know what self-publishing is poised to destroy, it's not print. It might be indie publishing.
Right now the one thing a self-published author can't do is get print editions into brick-and-mortar bookstores. But indie publishers can't really do that either, and now that e-books are nascent there are fewer reasons for authors to even consider producing a print edition at all. That's bad news for print, but worse news for independent publishers.
There are plenty of valid questions to ask about self-publishing that I'll save for a future column, but it's enough for now to say that the stigma once attached to self-pubbing is no longer as onerous. If a writer can put together a well-edited product with a good cover, and either build or work with a pre-existing fan base, going through a publisher doesn't make as much sense as it used to, and the e-book market doesn't much care if it's self-published or not. This can only hurt the indies.
After my last under-contract book is published (Immortal at the Edge of the World is due in October) I will be looking closely at self-publishing as an option. I've already started by publishing a short story--shorts being a category that was effectively impossible to monetize before e-books--to see what the market is like. This is not a reflection on my current publisher; it's me coming to grips with the new marketplace.
I'm hardly the only one. In fact, I'm probably behind everyone else.
Conclusion: Print as niche
I think we've already seen the book industry convert from mostly print to mostly e-book, but that doesn't mean print is ever going to die. What it does mean is print may someday occupy the same category once reserved for independent publishers: niche. That may sound drastic, but stay with me. Niche means (according to the online dictionary I just used) "publishing books that are intended for a very specialized market". This is usually the word we use to describe independent publishers that produce books for a narrow group of buyers rather than for the general interest reader, but it fits print publishing just fine from where I'm sitting.
The people who buy print editions of books are rapidly becoming a specialized market. That is the future of print.