Rise of the Reader

How books got wings

New York, 2014—Back in 2009, the headlines about book sales and the future of the publishing industry looked about as grim as those about newspapers and magazines. But as indicators about the book business, the headlines were misleading. Books were poised for a significant breakthrough, the beginning of an era of enormous, positive change.

Unlike other printed media, books do not have advertising, so there is none to lose. They do not have subscribers, so holding onto them is not an issue either. The main challenge is to manage inventory, making books available where, when, and how readers want them. And on that score, the advances in gadgetry and the changes in popular habits over the past decade, especially since 2009, have produced a major advance.

When we talk of a “book reader” now, we don’t just mean a person, but a device. Stored in the device is a small collection of books and other reading material downloaded from bookseller offerings and libraries. We can, of course, still read books in the classical format, virtually unchanged since Gutenberg. When we’re done with it, a book still becomes an artifact placed on a shelf, a reassuring way to honor the object and its author. With enough books, you can still turn almost any room into a place of warmth and style.

But in 2014, that option for reading is only one of many from which to choose. Even five years ago you could already read a book on your smart phone’s screen, not to mention on early versions of handheld electronic machines like the Kindle. Or you could download the audio version of a book, for your commute or your exercise routine. If you wanted a printed book, but couldn’t find it; but you could order a bound copy churned out from a machine that provided a cover and glued the spine—Voila! These print-on-demand machines soon became smaller and more efficient. And all of these technologies fed the biggest innovation of all—the rising belief by everyone in the publishing chain, from author to consumer, that readers should choose from several options of how to access a book, and they should be reasonably assured of finding it.

Books contain stories, research, journalism, poetry, images; their function dates at least back to the cave paintings. What has evolved over time is the means of delivery. In the twentieth century, the advent of digital composition eliminated some of the machinery of bookmaking, but not the essential relationship between writer and text. In the twenty-first, the impact of technology on the content has mainly to do with the new ways readers can use books as research tools.

Now, links embedded in the text take you to definitions, explanations, and reference points, such as original documents. So the substance of the books—especially nonfiction narratives, investigative reports, and scholarship—is enhanced by the expanse of material beyond the page. Whatever form of book you are holding in your hand, you are, in effect, in the expanded universe of the author. A printed book comes with the reference materials available on the Web; a screen device can include all kinds of links; and the newest entry, what looks like paper but is powered by a chip and has downloading Wi-Fi capacity—all these enlarge that author’s universe. Content is deeper, broader, and more easily updated than ever, yet it is still the domain of the writers who shape their own vision.

Content is the sine qua non of information. But it is distribution that provides the audience, and it is distribution that has undergone the most important transformation in the digital age.

At the middle of the last century, the cozy neighborhood bookstore began to be challenged by mall stores, owned by chains like Walden and Dalton, which introduced discounting and other marketing bells and whistles. The better independent booksellers responded by upgrading and expanding their inventory, producing “superstores,” such as Denver’s famous Tattered Cover, which has well over a hundred thousand titles, expert service, and in-store events. The chains—Barnes & Noble and Borders—soon adapted the superstore model, adding, for good measure, coffee bars. Book sales also moved into the “big box” stores such as Wal-Mart and Costco, but these sold a limited number of discounted titles and “deleted” any book that did not meet immediate sales expectations.

In the mid-1990s came the online retailers, especially Amazon, with millions of titles available in their virtual space, usually priced at a discount. This model emphasized efficiency, shipping books to consumers at amazing speed, even when the book required days to locate and send. (The traditional brick-and-mortar booksellers held to the convention that books could not be purchased until the items actually arrived in the stores, which meant that for many hard-to-find or unexpectedly fast-selling titles, customers had to make multiple forays before they were actually able to complete a purchase.) In those days, too, books were sold to retailers on consignment, and could be returned for full credit. By the early 2000s, well over 30 percent of all books on average were excess inventory, and for new titles, the figure was often as high as 50 percent. The waste of paper and manufacturing time, the costs related to packing and shipping, and the resulting glut of remaindered books—all this depressed profits.

That began to change after the 2008-2009 recession. As digital technology improved and devices for reading, listening, or printing on demand became easier to use, readers caught on. So did publishers, who were eliminating the costs of paper, printing, binding, warehousing, and shipping, as well as the need to take a substantial reserve for unsold inventory. As a result, publishers could lower the price of books in certain formats, maintain them in others.

And after the predictable haggle with authors and agents, publishers devised a royalty structure that was reasonably fair to all. The settlement with Google back in 2008 had affirmed the principle that books under copyright could not be used without some compensation to their creators. That agreement made possible the scanning of millions of titles—a vast library of literature, scholarship, and journalism for libraries and buyers.

Bookstores, of course, found themselves adjusting to changing customer habits spurred by the convenience of online retailing. Key to this success was innovation that preserved the concept of the bookstore as a showroom and guide, not only to the printed books available for sale onsite, but to the vast and searchable catalogs of other titles housed in the storage facilities of wholesalers, which could be converted into e-books or print-on-demand books (as well as large-print versions or downloadable audio files). Booksellers again re-imagined their stores as destinations, places to engage in the time-honored pleasures of browsing and conversation, with reading and discussion groups, author visits, and a renewed commitment to customer service. More importantly, they can now sell you any book in any format, nearly instantly.

In fact, the principle that books of all kinds can be made so much more available in so many ways is what led to the renewal of publishing in the years following the deep recession of 2008 and 2009. It took a substantial measure of collaboration and entrepreneurial energy from all the participants in the book-writing, publishing, and selling process. The disorienting pace and the scale of change—combined with the debilitating skepticism toward technology so deeply embedded in book culture—were considerable deterrents to this renaissance.

But by 2014, perhaps out of necessity, these challenges were met. Book publishing proved again that if you provide the content that people want, in all the formats they want it, and at reasonable prices, the insatiable need for information and the power of stories will overcome obstacles to progress every time.

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Peter Osnos is CJR's vice-chairman.