A client called my attention to well-respected copywriter and advertising author Bob Bly’s Finis, his post about retiring from writing books.
Bob’s writing about exactly my market: the non-fiction book caught in the headlights of Google. I feel his pain and I share many of his concerns, and I’m sorry that he has decided to retire from the business, but I’m not retiring from the book business just yet.
Alas, publishing is dead again. Really, it keeps dying over and over. This time it’s the Internet.
And boy, the children’s book market was in the doldrums before J.K. Rowling and Daniel Handler showed up.
Uh oh, flat is the new up in the computer book market. And what happened to home and garden books and all those “nesters?” They too have hit the skids.
And why doesn’t anyone talk about how high gas prices have also affected the book market?
Year to year sales at B&N and Borders, honestly, aren’t that great. It’s true. And I agree with Bob that the decline in the importance of books in our culture is a huge problem for the industry. We need to encourage our kids to read and we need to create books that rival or complement other experiences.
I also agree that there are lots of crap books published. Who cares about a novel “written” by the “famous for being famous though not as famous as Paris,” Nicole Richie? Well, sadly, more than 100,000 buyers did.
But, is the Internet killing the non-fiction book?
Well, some kinds of non-fiction books, sure. Encyclopedias have had a heck of a time. Straight-ahead references, well I can find pretty much any answer I need at Google or Wikipedia. Still, somehow, the “for Dummies” and the “Missing Manual” series continue to grow.
And the internet seems to be actually helping the writers at Boing Boing, who turned a cool but obscure zine into one of the top blogs in the world.
Plus, it looks like new franchises such as O’Reilly’s Head First series, which does books that are immersive and can’t be easily duplicated by online Q&A, are doing just fine. Not to mention MAKE or CRAFT, which aren’t just books but are also marketed as magazines.
And Rachel Ray is doing very well in all media everywhere, thank you very much. Tell me, was she even a blip on anyone’s consciousness five years ago?
In the sales and marketing arena I guarantee you that Seth Godin and Malcolm Gladwell are seeing great advances and selling lots of books, and they’ve built incredible unique selling propositions, some may even call it a platform: namely, hundreds of thousands of people care what they have to say.
And about those crowded shelves? Not to be arch, but Bob Bly himself told his readers to write books so that they could become known as experts in their field and generate multiple streams of income. It’s still good advice, but it sure has a way of crowding those shelves!
Honestly, publisher obsession about “platform” is okay. Publisher curiosity about the sales on your previous books is fair. Lower advances in a time of diminished expectations, that’s a drag and I know that from personal experience, but over time new books and authors will enter the market and some authors will write meaningful and useful books that sell well regardless of the advance.
Fundamentally, it’s hard to be relevant and new every year. What’s increasingly difficult about publishing is simply competition and the authors and publishers who are suffering are either not publishing books that readers want or need, or need to re-assess their own priorities and goals. Much as Bob has.
I know that with our new baby we spent at least as much time at BabyCenter.com as we did reading What to Expect or Ina May. Publishing has to change, but it has always had to change, and it will continue to change.
The “new new thing” eventually gets out front. The problem is that no one is in charge but the marketplace, which is always disconcerting to the establishment!
New writers will emerge that will topple old sales records. New series will emerge too.
And George W. Bush’s advance for his memoir will probably exceed Bill Clinton’s.
C’est la vie.
The king is dead, long live the king.