I’m not sure I could have chosen a more fascinating two-year period to serve on the NINC board. Maybe the ’40s, when mass market paperbacks were changing the way and the numbers in which the world read. Maybe the early ’80s, when deep discounting introduced the term “mass market hardcover” and reconditioned a huge segment of the readership that had been accustomed to waiting a year to get bestsellers. Of course, NINC wasn’t around during either of those major transitory phases (and I wasn’t born for the first), so being on the NINC board wasn’t an available option. That leaves me with this one, and it has been both a major phase and a transitory one. It’s around this latter point that I want to focus my final president’s letter.
We are decidedly in the middle of–and nowhere near the end of–a transition. The enormous shifts brought on by the introduction of the first new book format to be fully embraced by the public in nearly seven decades are underway, but not complete by a long shot. These shifts are affecting our industry at two of its four most fundamental points: the vendor and the purveyor. The vendor is increasingly, and soon to be overwhelmingly, an online retailer, and the purveyor ranges, more dramatically than ever before, from traditional big publishers to midsize and small independent publishers, to a large and growing number of writers publishing themselves, often quite profitably. We’ve gone over this endlessly throughout the past couple of years and the last thing you need is for me to rehash it here. What we’ve addressed much less is how the evolution going on at the vendor level is going to affect the evolution going on at the purveyor level–and how all of that affects us as novelists.
It’s abundantly clear that the bookseller landscape is shrinking. One major bookstore chain has gone out of business, most of the smaller bookstore chains are reporting flat or declining sales (Indigo reported disappointing results as I was writing this), space for books in non-bookstore retail outlets is increasingly limited, and space for books in the biggest bookstore chain is getting smaller. Online, the market share of the biggest book retailer has gone down slightly, but it is still a much bigger market share than I’ve ever seen one retailer have during my 33 years in the book business. And while there is a strong number two in online book sales, the rest of the competition comprises a stunningly small part of the market–even when two of these vendors are arguably the two biggest online brands in the universe.
Book sales are up, though, in some areas (including those most relevant to NINC members) impressively so, so what’s the big deal?
There might be no big deal at all. However, the big deal might be that this smaller-yet-healthier bookselling landscape isn’t necessarily evolving in ways that best benefit the writer, especially in the e-book world. Soon, online booksellers will be able to sell all e-books for whatever price they choose (this is a result of the Department of Justice ruling against the agency model originated by Apple and the Big Six). You know that there is going to be some very aggressive pricing done by retailers. I’ve already seen multiple instances of books from non-agency publishers selling for less than publishers are selling the books to their accounts; for example, The Nook edition of The Hunger Games, which comes from Scholastic–a non-agency publisher–sells for $5.00 at BN.com when B&N is paying Scholastic $6.50 for every copy it sells. We can expect to see a great deal more of this when superstars like James Patterson, John Grisham, and Patricia Cornwell are available for discounting. We already have some clue of how this might go provided by Nora Roberts.
The Kindle editions of her Penguin books are priced at $7.99 and $9.99 (Penguin is on the agency model for now and therefore sets the price) while her Silhouette titles are priced as low as $3.50 even though the list price is $6.99 (Harlequin is not on the agency model).
What this means if you’re a traditionally published author is that there’s a good chance that your ebooks will be cheaper soon, and therefore more competitive with indie-published books. However, if