New Age of Publishing – Guest Post 4 – Chuck McKenzie, bookseller

My posts about the new age of publishing continue apace. This time I have a post that I think is awesome. Chuck McKenzie is a great guy and a personal friend. He’s also a writer but, more importantly in this context, he’s a bookseller. One of the traditional, old-school kind that sells actual paper books from a brick and mortar bookstore. His career depends on the continued success of the “old” publishing model, so you might find some of his views rather interesting. I agree with him on almost every point. Take it away, Chuck.

NB: the personal opinions expressed in the following post are not necessarily those of Dymocks Booksellers.

I manage a Dymocks store in Cheltenham, Victoria, and, as a traditional print bookseller, I’m often asked by customers walking in off the street whether we stock either e-readers or e-books. Most are only mildly surprised when I tell them that we currently don’t – ‘mildly’, because, after all, aren’t e-readers the natural enemy of the printed book? What tends to surprise these customers more is when I go on to tell them that at some point we certainly will be stocking e-readers, and that we’re currently in the process of seriously researching the pros and cons of what’s available on the market, and what products are likely to be released in the near future. The latter seems to be a source of surprise largely because most traditional booksellers still insist upon pretending that e-readers simply don’t exist, full stop.

To a certain extent, this reaction is understandable (if not particularly sensible): Change is scary. Change is also inevitable, and – especially where industry is involved – it’s vital to adapt to Change. Look at what happened within the music industry when downloads became available; the industry failed to move with the times sufficiently quickly, and suffered greatly as a result.

Likewise, e-reader technology is here to stay, regardless of how much the bookselling industry might wish it were otherwise; depending upon where you get your figures, anywhere from 10-20% of all purchases now made online are of books, with an increasing slice of that percentage being e-books. Why, then, does the bulk of the bookselling industry continue to ignore the issue?

There’s no simple answer to that. I suspect that the old attitude of ‘keep steady and everything will return to normal eventually’ has much to do with it; the Australian bookselling industry has just entered year three of an industry-wide recession, and traditional wisdom suggests that the drought has to break sometime soon. Problem is, the increasing popularity of e-readers – not the only factor affecting book sales at present, but certainly a growing one – is not an issue likely to evaporate once the current financial crisis ends. It is, again, a permanant change to the industry, and one that booksellers absolutely need to roll with in order to survive.

Which brings us back to the industry (and customer) perception that e-readers and printed books are natural enemies, and cannot be kept in shared enclosures.

To which I say: Bollocks.

It may surprise some to hear this, but I’m of the opinion that – certainly in the long term, and possibly even in the short-to-mid term – e-reader technology will be a boon to the bookselling industry, and not just to the e-book side of things, either.

Consider: while there are currently still issues regarding the availability and formatting of product for e-readers, eventually it will almost certainly be the case that any e-reader will be able to inexpensively access virtually any published work that has ever seen print, from ancient classics to the latest releases. Now, this may just sound like another way of stating that everyone will eventually download all of their book purchases, thus relegating traditional print publishing to the scrapheap of history, and certainly this is a concept that has seen a vast amount of discussion – both positive and negative – in recent times.

The one point that people almost always seem to ignore, however, when discussing the inevitability of the Universal Download, is that people like books.

Physical, printed books are something that virtually all readers – no matter how tech-savvy they are – seem to enjoy owning. Aside from the pure enjoyment of reading itself (which one can also get from reading off an e-reader, granted) there’s pleasure to be gained – for many readers – from the simple act of holding a book in one’s hand, the sensation of turning the pages; from displaying one’s treasured titles on a bookshelf for all to see, and being able to take a book down off the shelf to find that quote or passage that’s been eluding you. You can’t get an e-book signed by your favourite author, either (although I can see the possibility of alternatives: perhaps including a video function on a future e-reader that allows you to record a personalised message from John Scalzi or Peter V. Brett when you meet them).

So, if we take the line that printed books will endure in the face of burgeoning e-reader technology (if only due to the culture of nostalgia surrounding printed books), is it not still possible that sales of printed books will plummet as sales of e-books continue to soar?

I’m actually of the opinion that they won’t. Here’s my reasoning:

a) Yes, sales of e-books will continue to rise dramatically: no question about it. It’s even possible that people will eventually buy all their books in e-format (at least initially – I’ll explain in a moment). This increase is likely to be driven as much by the comparatively cheap pricing of e-books as by the (eventual) ease of access to and availability of product.

b) With the increase in sales of e-books is likely to come an increase in the number and quantity of titles sold. After all, with the $24.99 that you would traditionally have spent on the latest print-edition fantasy blockbuster, you can now purchase up to three (or more) e-books. [That’s $24.99 Australian dollars and yes, book prices in Australia are mental – Alan] And I don’t believe that book-buyers in general will spend less on books just because the cost of books is reduced by electronic formatting, either: rather – as in the case of downloadable music – if buyers have been used to budgeting a certain amount to purchase a physical product, they will continue to spend roughly the same amount on an e-format, with the ‘bonus’ of enjoying more bang for their buck. So: that $24.99 will now be used to purchase that same fantasy blockbuster, in e-format, plus two or three other titles that the reader would not have purchased had they been available only as expensive print editions.

c) So the buyer ends up reading more books overall. Now admittedly, some of these may be books that the reader wanted to read anyway, but would have had to wait to purchase (in print) for budgetary reasons; or they may have borrowed the less immediately-enticing titles from a library to read. However, it’s also likely that the reader will occasionally – again, due to the comparatively low price of e-books – be enticed to take a chance on buying titles that they simply wouldn’t have bothered buying in print; titles that look kinda interesting, maybe a little outside of the usual comfort zone, or that so-and-so recommended; classics that you’ve always felt you should get around to reading, but can’t be bothered potentially wasting good fantasy blockbuster money upon; small-press publications and pulpy ‘summer reading’. And so on.

d) Finally, BECAUSE THE BOOK-BUYER REALLY LOVES BOOKS, it’s almost certain that they will purchase an additional, printed copy of that fantasy blockbuster. The e-book will accompany them on holiday, on the train, to work, etc – but the printed version will have pride-of-place on their bookshelf at home. And odds are that at least some of the additional e-books purchased with that $24.99 – including those that the reader would never have bothered to read, let alone purchase, in printed format – will also be so greatly enjoyed that the reader will invest in printed copies also.

e) All of which means, of course, that people will actually be spending more money on books than they currently do. What will have changed, however, is that all ‘guesswork’ will have been taken out of the process of purchasing expensive printed books, since the buyer already will know exactly which titles they definitely wish to own in print. And people in general are rarely unhappy to invest more money in something if they know they wll be 100% satisfied with the outcome.

Are there advantages to e-readers over printed books? Hell, yeah! As someone with major eyesight problems, I’m all for ‘books’ that allow you to increase the resolution or contrast of the text, or even backlight the screen in a darker environment. And taking twenty novels away with me on holiday will no longer be the packing-space nightmare it is today. But advantages of new technologies don’t always push older technologies to the wall: DVDs haven’t yet destroyed the movie industry; CDs are still the preferred ‘form’ of purchased music in a world that has embraced the iPod; and remember when the humble PC was going to put us all out of work?

E-book technology? Bring it on, I say!

Chuck McKenzie was born in 1970 and still spends much of his time there. As well as managing a Dymocks bookstore, Chuck is a sometimes author of speculative fiction, a reviewer for HorrorScope (the Australian Dark Fiction Blog), and obsessive managing editor of the NecroScope zombie fiction review site. Only one of these roles pays the bills.

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Pretty interesting ideas, huh? Agree, disagree or have a completely different opinion? Leave your comments below.

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3 thoughts on “New Age of Publishing – Guest Post 4 – Chuck McKenzie, bookseller

  1. Very interesting post, thank you. I slightly disagree with
    buying printed copy of the e-book. I use the Amazon Kindle, I have
    bought the two latest bestseller of my favorite author. I have his
    previous ten or so books, but I don’t plan to buy the paper copy of
    the latest ones. Partly because the most important for me is to
    enjoy a book, which I did, and I rather buy another e-book for the
    price of the paper one. Partly because I don’t have space for paper
    books anymore. I would mention another aspect of the paper book –
    e-book “war”: downloading pirate copies for free. The music
    industry suffered huge losses because of pirate downloads, it may
    happen to the e-book industry to some extent. And one more thing:
    aspiring authors often offer their first books on very low price,
    even for free. I have read one of these, which was pretty good, but
    it may not be published on the traditional way, because publishers
    can publish only limited number of books. I don’t say paper books
    will die, lot of people are against e-books, and there will be a
    balance finally, I suppose.

  2. Completely agree. The CD comparison is a very close parallel for me. I often get music in electronic format and if I like it, I’ll buy the CD. For many, there’s a feeling of not entirely ‘owning’ a product in electronic format and therefore a physical purchase is required to count it as part of your library.

    Physical print sales are going to take a hit, but it doesn’t herald the end of the bookstore yet. For all the speculation, it will be another decade or two before we see a significant shift and possibly the demise of physical media. It will be when the next generation (or possibly the generation after that) who are born into digital media that will determine how much longer physical media will survive. For them, a book or a CD will be an archaic novelty item, but here and now, I want a good solid book and a shiny CD to listen to while I’m reading.

  3. Gyula – you highlight the part of Chuck’s post that I’m not entirely convinced of, that being that ebook sales will convert to print sales. I think for a lot of people the ebook will be enough. They’ll have the reading experience and that’ll do. However, I do believe that there are enough bibliophiles out there (I’m one of them) that the industry isn’t going anywhere any time soon.

    I think Graham has nailed a good point – one or two generations from now, when kids grow up with digital mainstream, we may see the trad print run go under. That’s where I go back to previous predictions I’ve made here that the majority of title will be ebooks, with most print editions being POD and only collector’s editions being offset printed. Collector’s editions like limited edition, signed hardbacks and stuff like that.

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