The Decline of Content in the Book Business

I’ve written about the distressing effects that the decline in content is having on the newspaper and magazine industries. With fewer writers, poorly paid and often virtually untrained, there is less to be learned from reading the newspaper, or even the glossy monthly, and readership is falling off accordingly. I am sorry to say that I am now seeing the same trend in books.

It’s no secret that book authors are poorly paid. The “starving author” has been around almost as long as the “starving artist.” And for authors who want to make money, things are not getting better. The average book release from an established publisher sells about 500 copies. Not all book authors receive an advance payment on their royalties, but for those who do, the standard advance is now $500. It is only for the more successful books that the author receives any additional payment. It can take around 1,000 hours to write a really good book, and a book author’s expenses are at least $200, so the financial rewards are a pittance. The average book author who makes a conscientious effort in writing a book is rewarded at a rate of 30¢ an hour, or less. It’s hardly a surprise if authors look for ways to cut corners.

And cut corners they do. “Write Your Book in a Weekend!” is the promise of more than one speed-writing system. These training programs and workshops, for which authors pay as much as $1,000, promise to speed up the book-writing process by taking out all the second-guessing, research, and careful thought. Of course, none of these one-weekend books are particularly rewarding to read.

And even even if a book could be spewed out in one intensive weekend, the expected financial reward is still below minimum wage. Many, perhaps most, authors realize this, and treat their books as loss leaders. They have no intention of making a living, or any money at all, from the book they write. Instead, the book is like an advertisement, to direct potential customers to more expensive products and services.

The decline of content in books is even more stark when you get to the bookstore. Forty years ago, a bookstore presented the pretense of carrying all important books. Ten years ago, better bookstores still made an effort to carry all the important new books. But cost-cutting, the same imperative that drove all the content out of newspapers, has changed bookstores too. Bookstores no longer take the time to know what books they carry, never mind the more arduous task of trying to pick the books that their customers may buy. Today, what you find in a bookstore can more aptly be described as “some” books. Fewer than half of the important new books are ever found in bookstores at all. Even the large online booksellers make no effort at all to carry new book titles. They have some, while others are nowhere to be seen.

It was said about three years ago that you had to have a major publisher and your own television show to have a successful book. Jon Stewart’s America was an example of this approach. But since the economic downturn, there is no longer any discernible rhyme or reason in what is on the bookstore shelves. Even a celebrity with a current hit television series, a well-written book, and a major publisher may be ignored. The book will find its way into the stores, to be sure, but perhaps with only two copies per store, and when those two copies are sold, that’s the end of it. Meanwhile, the written-in-a-weekend books are left behind on the shelves to promote their authors’ business ventures — and nearly everyone who goes into a bookstore looking for a specific new book will go away disappointed.

I almost forget to mention the role that book publishers play in this. The publishers, many years ago, were the gatekeepers of quality in printed books, but they no longer see that as their role. Suffice it to say that an “unagented” author can no longer talk to a book publisher about their book manuscript. And to talk to an agent, an author may have to have a “platform” — that is, something like a television show.

Books as advertisements, authors trying to write faster than they know how to, bookstores with a hit-or-miss approach that misses most of the important new books — it’s a striking parallel to the problems that the newspapers are facing. Writers aren’t getting paid, while readers are finding content that is more and more random and irrelevant. How long will the dedicated book readers continue to march off to the local bookstore for books that even the publishers barely have time to read?

Some book industry insiders and financial analysts believe this is the year that the bookstores will close, the way the record stores did five years ago. I wrote in April 2006 of going around to the local record stores on the release day of a major new music CD, only to find that none of the stores were carrying it. I was surprised to find that two of the stores were already closed, and most of the rest closed within the next 12 months. The record stores’ story, in essence, was that the customers stopped coming in. Could the same thing be happening with books now?

I continue to be more optimistic about this than the analysts I read, but it must be remembered that I was unduly optimistic about the record stores too. Perhaps the prediction that half of the bookstores will close this year, and most of the rest next year, is correct.

If this is the case, it won’t be a pretty scene at the major book publishers. I imagine they will survive, but as a shadow of what they are now, similar to what has happened to the major record labels. They may have to vacate their offices in New York, for example. Hundreds of books in the publishers’ four-year pipelines may get only token releases. And book authors? Like rock bands, they will have to start selling directly to their fans and followers. In 2011, a recording artist who doesn’t have a web page essentially doesn’t exist. By 2012, the same may be true of book authors.

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