Every time any writer speaks to a group, somebody in the audience invariably asks, “What’s going to happen with e-books? Are we seeing the end of published books?” Nobody knows the answer to that, so all we can offer is a half-way informed guess.
Even though e-books currently account for only a small fraction of book sales, we can all see that electronic readers are improving and becoming more popular. Even people who shudder at the thought of reading a book on a little screen agree that some giant tomes would be a lot easier to handle on a light-weight Kindle or Nook or iPad. Authors are debating whether to go electronic or to remain true to traditional publishing. Some, like me, are experimenting with doing both.
Plenty of books are being published and distributed the way they always have been. American book publishers shipped about 3.2 billion books in 2010. But even with all those publications going out, bookstores are in big trouble because they can’t compete with Amazon’s discounted prices. Small independents have been hurt most, and an increasing number are transforming themselves to on-line stores and offering special items like signed first editions. Chains are suffering too. Walden Books left the malls, Border’s is holding on by it’s fingernails by not paying rent or paying its vendors, and Barnes & Noble is pushing its Nook and stocking shelves with novelty items that don’t have anything to do with books.
My personal prediction is that some giant corporation will buy Border’s or Barnes & Noble and turn it into a mass-market publishing/marketing company like Germany’s Weltbild. They’ll combine electronic, online, and in-store sales, with a POD operation by which each store can run off low-cost paperbacks when their stock gets low. Small independents will specialize in nicer hard-bound books printed on good acid-free paper and charge premium prices for them. Those books will become collectors’ items and be valued as fine art. Amazon will continue to sell discounted hardbacks and trade paperbacks, but they won’t be of the fine quality that the small independents sell.
No matter what the publishing future brings, people will always read books, buy books, love books, trade books, give books, borrow books, and write books. Authors will still be underpaid, editors and agents will still be overworked, and story-obsessed kids will still read forbidden books under the covers by flashlight.