The Bookstore #8, Publish What?

The latest in the ongoing series of The Bookstore is one that booksellers everywhere will relate to.  With the advent and ease of print-on-demand publishing, bookstores are hit repeatedly by that customer who want to have their book displayed in the store.  These customers are not only persistent, they refuse to understand why booksellers don’t want to stock their title(s).  Usually it has quite a lot more to do with the lack of editing and skill in the work than it does that the majority of these titles are deemed un-returnable, should they not sell in-store.  So, they’re stuck with a crap book with a crap cover that no one will buy for a dollar.  But worse than that customer is the one who has come to believe that booksellers–because they are so entrenched in the industry–have lead-ins to publishers that may be exploited at a moment’s desire.  And that’s where we find Eddie today.  Face to face with a customer who believes himself to be a writer, and is determined to make use of Eddie’s contacts and/or complete and utter understanding of what publishers want.

Franzen vs. Giant Platypus

Tomorrow is August 31st, 2010, which under normal circumstances is only of note because it’s Debbie “Deborah” Gibson’s birthday (and nobody really cares about that since the unfortunate Playboy incident, though Mega Shark vs. Giant Octopus did scare up more fans than the Electric Youth album, as will the forthcoming Mega Python vs. Gatoroid!).  But this is 2010.  This is the electronic age of internet-viral-type greatness.  This is the release date of Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom, which is hitting the ground running with more literary momentum than any book in quite some time.  You will want to buy it.  You will want to opine.  You will want to share it with your friends.  You will want to be the first person in the world to run into the streets yelling, “Dear God, what is this book about, and why can’t I stop reading it?”

Or something like that.  I don’t know.  I’m not reading it.

All I know is that he’s being heralded as a literary genius, the next great American novelist, and maybe that’s true, and maybe it isn’t.  But this is his first novel in eight years–first since the Oprah shunning–and I don’t think any author should be elevated to that type of status based upon a couple of books.  Patterson kills bugs, true, but the fact remains that mainstream America doesn’t give a flip about literary credibility.  There was a push a few years back for Thomas Pynchon’s book, Against the Day, which was replete in reviews hailing it broadly as the next great work of literary fiction, and maybe it was, but now it’s tipping bookshelves over, or holding doors open, and you won’t get much more out of someone who read it than, “Hey, that was that book with that telekinetic pug, right?”

Thus ends my mini Franz-a-rant.

The Electronic Age Doesn’t Care if You Have Pages

The other day, I wrote a blog on the Mercury Retrograde Press site about the advent of technology, and what it means to the book buying world.  In a blatant display of laziness, and continued promotion of ME, I offer it here as well (though I highly recommend a trip to the MRP site!!!).

Here it be:

So, I’m a reader, just like you, and I’ve spent the better part of my life collecting books, selling them to used book stores when I have too many, and then investing the better part of the next few years desperately trying to buy them back.  I like being able to peruse my shelves, touch the spines, journey through the tactile memories of when I first read them.  I enjoy the feel of the page against my fingers, love the process of turning my way through another world (gently…do not bend!), and will never tire of falling asleep with the solid weight of a tome against my chest.

I cannot fathom a life without books.

But the Electronic Age can.  It can imagine a world in which paper is rendered irrelevant, and bookshelves are replete in unwatered plants, and pictures of loved ones, with nary a book to set them apart.  It can imagine a world in which an epic is downloaded, where heroes battle nemeses not across a page, but through the pixelated kaleidoscope of a computer screen.  It wants your books, and no amount of kicking and screaming will turn it away.

And you are kicking and screaming, aren’t you?

Just ask any book aficionado, and you will receive a diatribe against the Machine, unlike any this side of John Connor’s rebellion.  “No way,” they will say, just shy of screaming.  “The book will always exist.  People like to hold a book, to bend a book, to flip pages, and remove dust jackets!  This whole e-publishing thing is a fad, meant to placate the lazy, techno-geeks amongst us.  Just a fad, that’s all.”

Mhm.

To a degree, though, they are right; and to a greater degree they are drowning in a shallow pool of denial.  Motoko Rich of The New York Times recently wrote a splendid article about the rise of the e-book, in which he spends a very short amount of time extolling a very large amount of readable information, all of which is meant to help us understand the financial ramifications of the e-book vs. the traditional paper-bound.  It’s a fantastic read, and is quite the enlightening journey through the numbers involved.  And, in the end, it’s difficult to argue to point he makes.  The current economic downturn has everyone thinking cheap, lean, and efficient.  The publishing industry has been hammered over the past two years, and is reeling in one direction, or another, hungry for any means by which to gain a better foothold on the future.  The truth is–whether we like it or not–e-books are a more cost-effective process.

Here is the crux of his cost-based argument for e-books:

On a typical hardcover, the publisher sets a suggested retail price. Let’s say it is $26. The bookseller will generally pay the publisher $13. Out of that gross revenue, the publisher pays about $3.25 to print, store and ship the book, including unsold copies returned to the publisher by booksellers.

For cover design, typesetting and copy-editing, the publisher pays about 80 cents. Marketing costs average around $1 but may go higher or lower depending on the title. Most of these costs will deline on a per-unit basis as a book sells more copies.

Let’s not forget the author, who is generally paid a 15 percent royalty on the hardcover price, which on a $26 book works out to $3.90. For big best-selling authors — and even occasionally first-time writers whose publishers have taken a risk — the author’s advance may be so large that the author effectively gets a higher slice of the gross revenue. Publishers generally assume they will write off a portion of many authors’ advances because they are not earned back in sales.

Without accounting for such write-offs, the publisher is left with $4.05, out of which it must pay overhead for editors, cover art designers, office space and electricity before taking a profit.

Now let’s look at an e-book. Under the agreements with Apple, the publishers will set the consumer price and the retailer will act as an agent, earning a 30 percent commission on each sale. So on a $12.99 e-book, the publisher takes in $9.09. Out of that gross revenue, the publisher pays about 50 cents to convert the text to a digital file, typeset it in digital form and copy-edit it. Marketing is about 78 cents.

The author’s royalty — a subject of fierce debate between literary agents and publishing executives — is calculated among some of the large trade publishers as 25 percent of the gross revenue, while others are calculating it off the consumer price. So on a $12.99 e-book, the royalty could be anywhere from $2.27 to $3.25.

All that leaves the publisher with something ranging from $4.56 to $5.54, before paying overhead costs or writing off unearned advances.

But that’s not the only reason that we, as the book buying populace, need to come to understand, and even to a degree, appreciate the reality of electronic publishing.  Just look around you.  We live on the computer.  We’re on Facebook, or Twitter, playing computer games, writing, or reading documents for work, getting our news, watching videos on You Tube, or catching up on shows on Hulu.  We have the I-phone, blackberry, the I-Pad (that still hurts to say), and various other mobile devices that have essentially become mini-mobile-pc’s that dominate our days.  How many times have you gotten stuck playing that ridiculously awesome paper ball in the waste basket game?  Generations of children are being raised on this as a normal facet of society, and no amount of reminiscing about rotary phones will change what the future holds.  Computers–the Electronic Age–is here, and it stands to reason that books will follow.  Actually, books must follow.  If we want people to read, then we have to give in to the conveniences they so desperately seek, and allow that books won’t exist if publishers aren’t around to print them.

Me?  I still want to sprawl out on a lawn chair at the beach with a paperback.  I still want to stick my nose in a book, and smell the scent of paper.  And I still want my dream library, wall-to-wall, floor-to-ceiling, replete with as many cobwebs as they can build.  Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to go flop on the bed, with my copy of The Magicians, and read until I fall asleep.