Could book publishing suffer the same fate as the comic book industry?

Illustration for article titled Could book publishing suffer the same fate as the comic book industry?

As Amazon.com's dominance grows, we're only just starting to see the shape of how different the publishing industry is going to look in another five or ten years. And web developer Baldur Bjarnason has a scary thought: if the e-book revolution and the rise of Amazon succeed in chipping away at the web of bookstores and libraries that help bring in new readers, could books go the way of comic books after the rise of specialized comic book stores?

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Image by Origami Potato/Flickr.

Bjarnason explains:

The analogy I've been using is the comic book's direct market. This enabled comics publishers to cater to their expert readers, those with an intricate knowledge about past continuity and a burning passion for the medium.

But, nobody else went into comic book stores. Kids don't grow up seeing comics on the newsstands or in bookstores anymore. Comics ceased in the late eighties, early nineties, to have a presence in our public spaces and renewal of the reader-base halted.

Publishers discovered new ways of squeezing money out of their regulars, but put no thought to where future customers would come from.

So, today we have a situation where bestselling comics sell an order of magnitude fewer comics than bestsellers did in the nineties (100 000 copies versus a million versus millions, plural, in the eighties/seventies/sixties).....

Novels could easily fall into the same trap. Publishers are raising prices to libraries and, in the UK, cutbacks are threatening their very existence. Bookstores are disappearing from malls, retail parks, and the high street. Retailers like WH Smiths focus more on stationary and general goods than they do books, and what few books they have are dominated by celebrity bios and churned non-fiction. Like comics before, novels are slowly disappearing from the public sphere.

Of course, paperback novels have been disappearing from drug stores and places like Wal-Mart for quite some time, in any case. And lots of people are finding new authors via Amazon all the time — as Wool author Hugh Howey could tell you — but it's still a scary scenario. [Baldur Bjarnason, via Tim O'Reilly]

DISCUSSION

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Chip Overclock®

I worry about this. But I also have to frequently tell myself that I may just be too old to appreciate these new fangled ways. Is it in fact true that people are reading less? This is not a rhetorical question. If so, is that a bad thing, or merely a different thing that I'm too old and set in my ways to appreciate? I don't know the answer to that, either. I love to read and cannot imagine a life without books. But I suspect people said the same thing about burning witches.

What concerns me too about [Amazon.com] and ebooks, despite the fact that I am an avid customer and consumer of each, is that an ebook is really nothing like a book, as Mrs. O and I have recently discovered to our regret. I have the EMBASSYTOWN ebook on my Kindle. I can't loan it to her, nor even give it to her. So I don't actually own it. I merely license it. And the license costs as much as the hardback copy of the book, which I can loan or give.

While I appreciate the convenience of my Kindle and ebooks, this has actually led me to consider giving up on it and going back to physical books. I'm on the fence right now, but may quit adding additional ebooks to my Kindle and eventually phase my use of it out.