Sunday, August 31, 2014

Ego Is A Two Way Street

Last week I ranted on in a post about how a lot of indie writers may be getting too big of a head about the rapid rise of their market.  I pointed out the pitfalls and tried to warn people that the traditional publisher and large book store still rule the roost with the majority of the reading public, most of whom are unaware that there is even a battle underway.

That said, this works in both directions.  Roughly a generation ago, big chain stores like Barnes & Nobel and Books-A-Million came in and completely changed the market for books.  They had cheap prices and a large enough stock that the average reader could find whatever they desired.  This WalMart approach to book selling devastated the mom-and-pop bookstore that had been on top for most of the previous 50 years.  Borders joined them, and a new era was upon us.

However, a funny thing happened on the way to this glorious new world order - the chains got overconfident, even cocky.  Having crushed their competitors, they were now unwilling to adapt when Amazon came on the scene.  Why would they?  After all, people still liked to look at books before buying them, and you couldn't hold a computer screen.  They tied themselves to traditional publishing and snubbed their noses at everyone else...because they could.

Then things started to change.  Sales began to drop, even during peak times.  Revenue was no longer guaranteed, even though books were still being written.  There was this new ebook thing, but they were just an extension of books, so obviously everyone would follow their habits to the bookstore.  And since traditional publishing and large chains were inexorably intertwined, there was nothing to worry about, right?

The indie scene changed that.  Rather than embrace the change and recognize they were in the business of selling stories, not selling just what some people said were stories, the big chains let the market pass them by.  The funny thing is that they continue to snub them and make placement ridiculously difficult.  Some standards are good, or else big chains would be overwhelmed.  However, unless you're either a traditional author whose publishing house is in their good-boy list, or you've sold enough that you are unable to be ignored(by like, say, making the NYT Bestseller List), the larger chains won't even acknowledge you exist.  This is a mistake of catastrophic proportions.

The traditional market is hurting as more writers are opting for indie.  This has created a self-licking ice cream cone whereby the chains think they have to charge more for a dwindling supply, making even more likely for writers to leave and customers to go elsewhere.  In the face of this, larger chains continue to refuse to change.  Like the horse and buggy industry of the 1890s, they've been the only game in town for so long that they forgot that it's not horses and buggies people want, but rather a mode of transportation.  Similarly, it's not the hardcover that readers want, but the story.

Unless they change, I think these larger chains will be gone by 2030.  While they're disappearing, they'll stubbornly insist it's the economy or that the public has eschewed books in these dark times or some other piddling excuse that lets them ignore reality.  All the while they'll look down their noses at the indie scene and just know that such a route is for losers.

I mean, why not?  It worked so well for the recording industry.


  1. I love the reference to the music industry :) The difference between the transition of the book industry and the music industry, is that music was a semi-seamless transition to the weightless avenue of music (we all caught on pretty quick that it's easier to enjoy a few songs when you don't have to switch out a CD for every ONE you want to listen to). But what will make the traditional and indie books different - and what will take out the middle man of corporate bookstores - is that there will be diehards who love the printed, hardcover or paperback book. I'm hoping the indie bookstore becomes very smart and learns along the way how to support both indie writers and traditionally published ones!

    1. I would like that as well. There seems to be a stubbornness to adapt. Hopefully there'll be a breakthrough.