Industry News Summary
"Writing is easy; all you have to do is open a vein and bleed." --columnist Red Barber
Sitting here in my office, surrounded by books, loose sheets of paper, computers, assorted detritus and (lots of) silence, I'm finally getting around to writing this industry news column. The past couple of months have been extraordinarily hectic. Getting a new boiler and hot water heater, as well as plumbing repairs to the shower and kitchen sink--all before Thanksgiving!--while necessary, were a distraction that put me behind on a lot of commitments. But, that stuff and the holidays are behind me, and I did manage to get well enough along with assignments to be able to set aside some time to write about what's been happening in the publishing industry. What follows is a cross-section of different news items that caught my eye this past few weeks.
The good news for the industry is that things are definitely improving, though no one should start celebrating. In an article about retailing titled, "Strong Finish to a Tough Year," Publishers Weekly contributors Judith Rosen, Claire Kirch, Marc Schultz, and Wendy Werris reported that the closing of the Borders chain has actually proved a blessing in disguise for the more savvy independent retailers. In an informal polling of a selection of independent stores nationwide, collectively the group noted an increase of 20 percent in sales over the holiday season. All noted that though they could never compete with Amazon or the ebook readers on price, they countered with service and event sponsoring and participation which included, whenever possible, the promotion of local authors. Speaking anecdotally, two years ago the independent bookstore Greenlight Bookstore opened in the Brooklyn neighborhood of Fort Greene. The first year proved so successful that they expanded in the second year. They're active in the community, setting aside space in the store for community events, and have a long list of local author book lecture and signing events. In addition, they've partnered with the nearby Brooklyn Academy of Music to operate its kiosks.
They're also pretty savvy business people, for when I visited them to show my latest book, Saga of the Sioux, with the intent of setting up a book signing, the manager I talked to, while impressed with the book's appearance, declined stating that "young adult non-fiction doesn't sell well for them." Well, yeah, I had to grant her that a book about American Indians in the West would be pretty abstract to urban kids in the heart of the largest borough of the largest city in the United States. And, truth to tell, I figured any attempt to pitch any of my other non-fiction books was an uphill fight, because before I approached the manager, I scouted out the store and noted that their--small--history section was waaaaaaay in the back tucked in a corner behind some shelves (and the number of military history titles was even smaller). You'd almost think I was looking for the store's pornography section. But I digress.
One of the better articles on the subject of independent retail bookstores surviving in today's market is Slate magazine reporter Farhad Manjoo's article, "Independent Bookstores Are Not Doomed," which can be viewed at: www.slate.com/articles/technology/technology/2011/12/independent_booksto... (got all that?). Basically Manjoo confronts the whole Amazon vs. Indie store situation with a clear eye and does a commendable job doing a chapter and verse assessment of today's book buying playing field and offers practical advice in how the limited resource indie store can tilt it in its favor.
As for sales themselves, Publishers Weekly noted that mid-December print book sales totaled 23.4 million copies. This was down 14 percent from the similar period in 2010, and the article noted that the two major reasons for the decline were the closing of the Borders chain and the increase in ebook sales. Unfortunately, I don't have ebook sales figures, though they have continued strong and one pundit predicts that they soon will account for 40 percent of revenue.
Moving over to the publishing side itself, one of the more fascinating items I ran across was an article by William Skidelsky of The Observer titled, "21st-Century Publishing Builds on a Healthy Radical Tradition." The article goes on to describe the different and innovative efforts of four new publishers, both here and abroad. The article can be found at the (slightly shorter) url: www.guardian.co.uk/books/2011/dec/18/book-publishing-digital-radical-pio....
One of the publishers mentioned in the article is Unbound Books that seeks to revive the nineteenth century publishing practice of subscription publishing in England. Launched in May 2010, Unbound Books "acts as a forum for authors to pitch books directly to readers, who, if they like the sound of a project, commit money right away, before the book has even been written. Each book has a target number of pledges it must receive to be viable (generally between 500 and 1,000). Pledges have different price points, with the cheapest being an ebook and the most expensive being a signed hardcover and launch-party invitation. The pledge money is held in an escrow account, and if the book doesn't receive enough pledges to make the project worthwhile, all money is returned. The article goes into details about the program. The other publishers are taking other innovative approaches to incorporate ebook and print formats.
Well, I see on my computer clock that it's now time for me to go to the post office. Got to mail off to my publisher a CD containing the latest batch of World War II articles (July-Dec 1943) that I culled from the New York Times archives, and pay some bills! See you next month!