Rearranging books on the shelves of the Titanic as the iceberg gets even closer

Never to be available as printed book

“Printed books are dead,” I told someone recently.

I was having a chat with him because he intends to become an independent publisher. He seemed to me to be surprisingly still wedded to physical books printed on paper.

I pointed out to him that it used to be the case, when you travelled in a London tube train, you saw lots of people reading books and newspapers.

Now – and I do often consciously count ‘em – most people in the late afternoon or evening are looking at smartphones or tablets or occasionally Kindles. And a few are reading the free Evening Standard. No-one is reading a paid-for newspaper. Almost no-one is reading a printed book.

“That’s only in London,” he told me.

I don’t know if that is true. But soon it will be everywhere.

Local and regional newspapers are dying. National printed newspapers and magazines  are plunging off a cliff. And printed books are in terminal decline.

I am in the process of turning my 2010-2011 blogs into an eBook – a soul-destroying process.

I would only issue the blogs as an eBook; there is no point publishing them in a printed book. No-one will buy it, of course, even as an eBook – because they can access the same material for free online. But there might be a few sales if it is pitched very cheap; and it is a tiny bit of self-publicity; and it is a learning process for me.

Malcolm Hardee book. New version published?

Once I understand the pitfalls, I intend to re-issue comedian Malcolm Hardee’s iconic autobiography I Stole Freddie Mercury’s Birthday Cake as an eBook and as a print-on-demand book, possibly in a revised form (the publisher changed the original opening and the chapter endings, making it less interesting). And I have four other ‘books’ partially-ready after that, some to be issued solely as eBooks, some as both e and print-on-demand books.

Print-on-demand means you only print the exact number of books required; there is no wastage.

Yesterday, I went to a two-hour event called Going Indie: The Writer in The Digital Age at the Free Word Centre in London. I was surprised that, there too, there was a reluctance to admit the printed book is dead. Almost all the talk was about the apparent rise of small, independent publishers with an emphasis on printed books and physical bookshops rather than the opportunities for ePublishing, self-publishing and internet retail… although Amazon, of course, was mentioned.

I was interested to hear that 60 million books are sold in the UK every year and 20% of those are cookery books. I do not know how many of the non-cookery books are eBooks. I understand that now, in North America, sales of eBooks outnumber the sales of printed books.

Amazon, of course, dominate. And they have lots of different charts covering different subject areas.

Interestingly, Darren Laws of small British publisher Caffeine Nights yesterday explained how he had increased the profile of one of his books on Amazon.

“We looked at the charts and looked at what was selling,” he revealed. “We saw that, on the numbers, one particular crime fiction book we published was outselling the No 1 sports fiction title on Amazon. Our book had a sports fiction background so, legitimately, we swapped the chart listing for it from crime fiction to sports fiction and suddenly we had a No 1 book. It found its audience readership, it stayed there for quite some time. On eBooks, we were selling a couple of hundred a month on that title: quite good for a small company like us.”

Justine Solomons of Byte the Book observed: “The internet gives you the ability to find someone who’s a bit like you.”

She also, rather oddly, admitted: “I used to choose the books I read by publisher. That’s becoming increasingly important: brands.”

Indeed, some small publishers now have subscribers, rather like book clubs, where their readers pay to buy future as-yet-unknown books from the publisher.

Meike Ziervogel of Peirene Press said: “We publish contemporary European bestsellers in translation so, although our authors are very well-known abroad, no-one knows them here and no-one really cares if they’ve won prizes and sold millions of books abroad. We run a highly successful subscription service. We have subscribers up to the end of 2015, but we have only announced our 2013 catalogue. So people are trusting what we will be putting out. We have a strong brand.”

“You’re going more towards the magazine model,” Justine Solomons suggested to her. “The definition of a magazine is you have a body of work and you have issues from it. It doesn’t need to be journal articles. Granta ran on that model for a long time. You subscribe because you know the sort of stuff you will get. Like The New Yorker.”

Peirene Press also hold ‘roaming stores’ which sell books.

Rebecca Swift of The Literary Consultancy pointed out: “Meike was last seen in Budgens supermarket at Crouch End. This kind of ingenuity and dextrous thinking around how you’re going to sell what you’re passionate about is absolutely vital and goes hand-in-hand with really good publishing.”

“That story underlines why independent publishers are so exciting,” said Rachael Ogden of Inpress. “You don’t find the Managing Director of Random House at Budgens. They don’t get that close to the reader.”

To me, though, all this talk of printed books is like King Canute standing on the bow of the Titanic, talking about re-arranging books on the shelves in the library as he watches the iceberg approach and admires the craftsmanship which went into the building of the ocean-going liner.

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Filed under Books, Internet, Publishing

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