E for Victory

When exactly will e-books overtake traditional books in sales (and even reader preference)? Perhaps in the next two
years, according to some publishing friends. Perhaps earlier, according to some colleagues.

Barnes & Noble’s retail sales are still slipping (down 1% during the second quarter compared to last year), though not as drastically as they had been. That’s thanks to sales of Barnes & Noble’s e-reader, the Nook – whose sales increased 85% during that same period, on sales of $220 million. People who live near Barnes & Noble stores have probably seen how the stores have been reworked to make room for in-store Nook boutiques, and a host of non-book related merchandise, from coffee mugs to toys. That’s the nature of the world today: stores can’t live by books alone. At least Barnes & Noble has come up with a way to offset the loss of income from the sale of traditional books. But for how long? The stores may undergo further redesign, as the “e-verse” grows ever larger.

And publishers, who’ve been surprised by the speed with which e-books have been accepted by consumers, are trying to reorganize their business models. They are well aware that the time and expense that goes into the editing and marketing of a book must change from a system where it can to take a year or more from the acceptance of a manuscript or a proposal to the actual publication of a book. They are aware that today’s world of instant publishing can, in effect, pass by traditional publishers.

But, as a friend who heads a giant publishing concern told me, publishers are trying to emphasize what they’re good at: the editing of books and working with authors on various aspects of their book projects (from rights to personal encouragement). Publishers are becoming more attuned to the need to work with authors, especially nonfiction authors, as managers rather than the company that prints their books.

What does this mean for authors who are just starting out or entrepreneurs sticking their toe into the publishing waters? It means that publishers are becoming more amenable to the digital representation of authors’ ideas, and the idea of platform-building. The book tour is likely becoming more and more of an old-fashioned event, to be replaced by a greater reliance on social media and interaction with readers through online conversation.

The retail landscape is still littered with the corpses of failed enterprises, but the battle for the reading public is not yet lost.

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