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The New Realities of Book Publishing

The New Realities of Book Publishing I recently spent an interesting afternoon with a group of writers. I was on a panel discussing “The New Realities of Book Publishing” at the annual conference of the Writers’ Union of Canada. The panel was moderated by author, Katherine Govier, and the other panel members were Anne Collins, Publisher of Knopf Random Canada Publishing Group and vice-president of Random House of Canada, and Michael Tamblyn, Executive Vice-President of Content, Sales and Merchandising for Kobo (kobo being the e-reader backed by the bookstore chain Indigo).

As you can imagine there was much discussion about e-books and how they have affected traditional publishing and bookselling – and what this means for writers.

I’ve been selling books since I first worked in a bookshop part-time as a teenager – that’s a long time ago. Many years later, selling books in Toronto, before moving to Parry Sound in 1988 to open Parry Sound Books, we were hearing about how the Sony reader would put an end to books and bookstores. Of course, it didn’t, and I don’t think the new generation of e-readers will either. There will, of course, be readers who will choose to read books electronically but I hope there will be enough who will want the pleasure of reading a real book – ink on paper, with bound pages – to keep book stores like mine in business. My feeling is that e-books will only satisfy some readers – and perhaps not replace all books for these readers. I may be an ostrich.

There is no doubt that there has been an impact on booksellers – book sales are down – e-books were the Christmas gift of choice for many this past year, and some readers have made the change. Some, I am happy to see, are already coming back for the experience of reading a real book. There are all sorts of other reasons for a decrease in book sales – and retail generally at the moment, but there is no doubt among booksellers that the e-book is having an impact – and we are all looking for ways to stay in business. My feeling is that we should keep doing what we do well – serving our customers – recommending great books to them, and providing the best service we can.

The man who developed and manages the software I use in the bookshop (one that is used in most independent bookstores in Canada) has come to the conclusion that there is no way Independent book stores can make a profit selling e-books. He has done all the math – and for me just confirmed what I already suspected, I would be better spending my time selling real books as I always have. For me bookselling is about using my expertise, the knowledge I have about books, sharing that with my customers, and all of the things that make a good book store great. I believe I will keep enough of my customers coming back for more – and attract new ones.

I have a concern about the future of publishers – especially Canadian publishers. Anne Collins is very well respected in the industry – she has chosen to publish many award winning novels, but she is now finding that she is having a much more difficult time convincing her foreign-owned company to publish – unless she can come up with a convincing marketing plan. What does this mean for the literary first novel? Will publishers still be able to invest in emerging literary writers – the ones I want to read and recommend to my customers.

Publishers are struggling to find a sustainable business model for the sale of e-books. Amazon claims they are now selling more e-books than real books – but they are not claiming that they are making the same or more profit.

So what does this all mean for writers? Writers are being asked to sign copyright agreements for not only print books, but future e-books. This might sound great – your book will never go out of print – but it might therefore flounder forever in e-book land only and never see itself on real paper again after a small first print run.

Michael Tamblyn was a charming and obviously intelligent young man but he has a job – one it seems he is doing well – promoting the wonderful world of the e-book – to writers and readers. I am already hearing people say they have down-loaded books without making payment of any kind – clearly the author will not be paid a royalty for that transaction. If no one is making any money on an e-book what is it’s future, and ours as publishers, booksellers and writers? That’s a question way too big for me to answer  - and it seemed no one else could either. It is indeed a new reality - and one that all of us are watching with concern.

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