This past week a creative writing teacher-friend of mine wrote me about a student of hers who had signed a book of his to a university press, only to discover that the mom-and-pop book stores were refusing to accept his book because of the deep discount the press was asking for.
What gives? my friend asked of me.
Ordinarily, I'd have had to say,"Beats me." But as the Fates would have it, I'd recently had a somewhat parallel experience with a small publisher over a novella of mine. I'll try to be concise here: the culprit in my case was printing. My publisher had lost her long-time print contract and, shopping for a printer for my novella, had to pass along what turned out to be bad news. Printing itself would cost $9 per copy – – unless the publisher committed to a rather high number of copies.
So we did our number crunching. We quickly realized that to print and market my book would – in the face of deep discount realities – have to be priced at something like $18 a copy. And that would give both the publisher and me chump change in return – at a price some $5 higher than similar books published by the big houses – organizations that can leverage printing prices, at least to a degree.
Similar math for my friend's student made clear that printing was driving the cost of the student's book to an equally outrageous list price.
A couple of days later, I scrolled into my latest e-mail newsletter from hitchnews, and their lead article, "Is this the year of the e-book?" Hitch, of course, was familiar with Amazon's Kindle, the Sony Reader, and news of a new, similar product coming down the chute from Apple.
E-books have been marketed for a few years now, and, as hitch proclaims, e-book reader manufacturers can't keep the darned things in stock. People are buying digital.
Why? It's cheaper. Dollars matter to readers in a down economy. Also, it's compact. The Kindle, for instance, can store some 200 books in its memory. Subsequent versions, if Apple's iPod is any indication, will push this limit ever higher.
This subject is apparently on the minds of many. An interview in the Jan/Feb 2010 issue of Poets & Writers magazine, brought the subject up to Richard Howorth, owner of one of the most famous indie bookstores, Square Books in Oxford Mississippi.
His opinion? Here I'm paraphrasing slightly, but he compared books and digital readers to the sailboat and steamship (or bicycle and motorcycle, perhaps). In Howorth's opinion the sailboat and bicycle were perfect inventions. They served their functions perfectly. But, by implication, so have the steamship and motorcycle.
Also by implication, then, the book has been a perfect invention, and so will be the digital reader, once it's technology stabilizes. Howorth thinks books will continue to be printed, but his worry seems to be – judging by the interview – that books will become museum pieces, relics of story telling.
So. As a writer, I have to look at the albatross printing costs have become.
I also have to look at the almost instant phenomenon digital readers have become.
I have to look at how print my affect my relationship with publishers, as compared with digital. (I now understand, with the publishing industry's reluctance to embrace digital readers yet, why I keep getting the mixed message from agents and editors that my "story is intriguing, but the market is tough out there." The judgment, then, isn't as much on the worth of my writing, as on the intrinsic investment publishers have to make to launch a book.)
All of which means I'm going to be looking really hard at pursuing, not paper, in 2010, but digital.