Amidst all the doom and gloom (Books are dying! Print is dead! The Kindle will destroy us all! Big Publishers want to kill your pets! ARMAGEDDON IS NIGH!!!), I just want to take a moment to proclaim that this is quite possibly the most exciting period to be a reader in my lifetime. Think about it: when was the last time books and publishing were as much a part of the daily conversation as they are now? So enough with the catastrophic headlines. They might draw traffic and get people riled up, but they're empty bloviations. The bottom line is that, in my opinion, the written word is healthier than ever. The health of the book industry is never about the success of one book--it's a rising tide that lifts all ships. And the tide of buzz about books and publishing is perhaps higher than ever.
Sure individual books and authors have garnered their share of headlines--J.K. Rowling, Dan Brown, Alice Sebold, Stephenie Meyer, etc...--but in my thirty years on this planet, I cannot remember a time when so many people were discussing books themselves, the future of books, and what it all means for everyone involved. All in all books have a 'buzz' about them that I can't recall ever sensing. The future of publishing feels like an important discussion well outside the cul-de-sac of the industry itself, and there are more books and book-related discussions than I can remember in a long, long time.
So this is my 'The glass is half full' column, but in fact I think the glass is way, way more than half full. Let's look at a few of these discussions:
--Ebooks are on the rise. Hachette Book Group--one of the "Big 5" publishers--recently stated that ebooks accounted for 5% of their earnings in December 2009. Remember, this is a billion dollar company, so 5% is hardly small potatoes. Back in October, Michael Pietsch, Publisher of Little, Brown, stated that for LB's biggest authors, ebooks accounted for up to 15% of total sales.
--A movie based on one of the most popular children's series in the last decade opened to huge numbers. No, not "Twilight," but "Percy Jackson and the Olympians: The Lightning Thief", based on the first book in Rick Riordan's series, which grossed over $38,000,000 over the President's Day weekend. Oh, and that whole "Twilight" thing? Well "Twilight: New Moon" has grossed over $295,000,000 since opening in October. Add to that the huge success of "The Blind Side," "Sherlock Holmes," "Up In The Air," "Dear John" and "Precious," and the hottest properties in Hollywood are based on literature. And that's not even counting films and television shows based on comic books and graphic novels.
--The Amazon/Macmillan brouhaha over ebook pricing spilled over into the mainstream media, covered everywhere from the New York Times to Gizmodo and earning comments from corporate titans like Rupert Murdoch. In the midst of al this, there was a public backlash towards the retailer in support of Macmillan authors whose books had their 'Buy Now' buttons removed, essentially cutting off their sales from that outlet. When was the last time the public at large cared this much about a corporate dispute about the pricing of books? Book publishing and pricing is no longer Inside Baseball, but something that the public now realizes impacts content creators and distributors, which in turn impacts their lives. I say that's a good thing.
--The Apple iPad was premiered, with Steve Jobs set to launch the new iBooks site, which he hopes will do for books what iTunes did for music. Between the iPad and the Barnes & Noble Nook we are ensured that there will be competition for the Amazon Kindle, so that books can be fairly priced and publishers can find the perfect X/Y axis at which to price ebooks, sell the most copies, without being bullied by one company with a grossly large market share.
--At CES, no fewer than a dozen e-readers were showcased and will soon hit the market. Clearly many manufacturers feel this is a growing industry, and one that publishers hope will expand the book market as a whole, drawing in hesitant and non-readers open to newfangled technology.
--Stieg Larsson, a Swedish journalist who died six years ago, has enthralled readers around the globe with his Millennium Trilogy (The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, The Girl Who Played With Fire, The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest). The trilogy has sold somewhere in the range of 30 million copies around the world (approximately 1 in 3 Swedes owns one), and the Swedish film adaptation is scheduled to be released in the U.S. in March with an American adaptation tentatively scheduled to be released in 2012. Add to that the scandal surrounding Larsson's death and subsequent fight for his millions between Larsson's longtime girlfriend and his family, and you have a thrilling book series with the backdrop of a family dispute worthy of Henrik Vanger himself.
--Book reviews are on the decline...but on the rise are hundreds of reader blogs and social networking sites such as Shelfari, Red Room, Goodreads and Bookcrossing that allow readers to interact with each other, write reviews, and recommend their favorite reads to one another. Not to mention the cornucopia of author blogs which grant us entry into the lives of authors--revealing the fascinating, irreverent and, of course, the truly mundane. Books and literature, at their heart, are communal experiences, and the Interwebs are a fertile soil for these communities to prosper.
--Social networking sites such as Twitter and Facebook (sorry MySpace) host hundreds and hundreds of authors who interact with their fans on a minute-to-minute basis. Authors are now able to construct their very own platforms, a necessity as book reviews and traditional coverage has dwindled. 'Off the Book Page' coverage is more important than ever. And never has it been easier for a reader to finish a book, post their thoughts, then get feedback from the author him/herself.
Enough with the gloom and doom. These days I'm excited to be an author and even more excited to be a reader. Never before has it been easier to find a new release or an out-of-print backlist title, from the comfort of your local independent to the ease of an online retailer to the portability of an e-reader. And never has it been easier for a book lover to communicate with their fellow readers and even authors themselves.
Books are about community and the joy of storytelling. For my money, this is the brightest the present and future of books has looked in a long, long time.
JASON PINTER is the bestselling author of five thriller novels (the most recent of which are The Fury and The Darkness), which have been nominated for numerous awards and optioned to be a major motion picture. His first novel for young readers, Zeke Bartholomew: Superspy!, will be released in the summer of 2011. Visit him at http//:www.jasonpinter.com.