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I have worked in the book industry on and off for thirty years — my first bookstore job was at NYU when most of you were still gleams in your fathers’ eyes — and I have watched this industry endure one seismic shift after another. It has changed so much people don’t even want to call it the “book industry” anymore. Now we’re the “publishing ecosystem,” or the “published content community,” or, I don’t know, “Fred.”
But here’s the thing about Fred. He’s a resilient sucker.
First there was the massive retail expansion of the early and mid 1990s, when Barnes and Noble and Borders were dropping superstores on the landscape like Johnny Appleseed. The square footage devoted to book retail in America tripled in a few short years, while the overall size of Fred remained relatively flat. Do the math, it’s not pretty.
Then it was the rise of e-commerce. Not only was the retail pie getting cut into ever smaller pieces by the brick and mortar crowd, now it was being cut into wafer thin slices by a seemingly infinite expanse of virtual square footage.
But those were only the warm-up acts. They were Marshall Crenshaw and Aztec Camera getting the crowd ready for Elvis Costello and U2. Retail expansion was impactful, but it wasn’t transformational. No, for that, we needed something beyond comprehension. We needed digitization.
The digital transformation of Fred has been written about ad nauseam and covered from every conceivable angle. I’ve read how print books will be dead in two years, and I’ve read how e-books are just a fad. (“No,” and “gimme a break,” by the way.) I’ve heard speakers posit a world in which digital content will save Fred, destroy Fred, and introduce Fred to a nice girl from Hartsdale so they can settle down, all in the same speech.
And yet, when I ride the commuter train home from New York City, I see people reading books. Lots of books. True, many of them are Kindles or Nooks, but an increasing number — you read that right — an increasing number, are reading print. It’s as if there has been a collective sigh of exhaustion from looking at screens all day, and people are craving the tactile and visual sensation that is ink on paper.
Now don’t get me wrong. It’s not as if digital books are going to slowly fade into the sunset. They’re not. And it’s not as if Fred — and in case you’ve already lost the thread of this meandering post, “Fred” is the book industry — doesn’t have its problems. It does. People who used to buy books to learn how to cook spaghetti, or build a deck, or be a better lawyer, now often get their content from the Internet, and usually for free.
But even with that, there’s something about books that continues to hold our interest. Books, as artifacts, are special. Think about how quickly music changed. The iTunes store launched in April, 2003. and within five years, by 2008, people were buying twice as many downloaded singles as they were CD albums, and CD albums were in steep decline.
In the book industry, uh, er Fred, while digital book sales have soared, the growth still pales when compared to the music industry. (For a clarity’s sake, we’ll continue to call “the music industry” the music industry.) Why? For one thing, listening to a downloaded MP3 is experientially identical to listening to a compact disc. For another, music can be sold in small discrete packages (songs). With books, neither of those things is true. Maybe that explains why for the most part, print has held its own even while digital has grown. (I say “for the most part” because mass market books have in fact taken it on the chin.) If anything, we should be thanking digital for growing the pie again.
Before any luddites out there rejoice, we might simply be in the calm before the storm. We could be one technological innovation away from another seismic shift. The truth is, no one knows and I’ve given up trying to predict the future.
But let’s not worry about the future. Let’s worry about the here and now. And for now, for right now and right here, Fred is alive and kicking, and people are reading books, print or digital, they’re reading books. And that, my friends, is good.
My publisher, Egmont USA, commissioned a graphic artist to design a cover for The Scar Boys, and I L-O-V-E the result!
Actually, Egmont offered two alternate covers (see below) and enlisted the help of America’s indie booksellers to choose a final treatment. Nearly 100 booksellers voted, and while I would have been incredibly happy with either cover, I’m thrilled with the final choice.
Thank you booksellers… You. Are. Awesome!
(I can’t wait to see it actually in print…)
Here’s the winner:
And here’s the runner-up:
What do you think?
When my father was a chemistry teacher in the Yonkers public school system, he used to tell his students that books are better than movies because, “with a book you are the director, editor, casting director, costume designer, special effects artist, grip, gaffer, and catering person.” (Okay, I threw those last three in just to be cheeky, but you get my drift.)
This quote of my dad’s is notable for three reasons:
1. What was a chemistry teacher doing pimping books? I’m sure the English teachers appreciated it, but seriously, what was the deal?
2. This was exactly the kind of thing high school teachers were always saying to high school students that would cause those students to roll their eyes.
3. He was right. Books rule.
As much as Dad loved books, any discussion of books that influenced my life starts with the woman pictured here. She was our maid. Just kidding, that’s my mom. (Though I guess she was the maid, too.) She read to me from the earliest age and infused in me a love of words. She was always trying to sell short stories to different magazines. (Kids, magazines are blogs that were printed on paper. Weird, right?) I was inspired by it. Thanks mom!
Ferdinand is my first distinct memory of a book. If you’ve never read Ferdinand (SPOILER ALERT), it’s the story of big strong bull who wants only to sit beneath his favorite tree and smell the flowers. My mom read this book to me almost every night, and I blame the experience for turning me into the sorry excuse for a man I am today. Thanks Mom.