A Peon's Thoughts on Digital Publishing & Industry Evolution

I've watched yet another large-circulation newspaper make sweeping changes to their book review section.
From the Publisher's Weekly article [emphasis added]:
Sullivan, the VP of Communications for the LA Times, confirmed that this was a cost-saving move but would not provide details on the number of freelancers who were eliminated last week. “Staff writers from outside the book department will take over for those who left. We have not changed our commitment to book coverage or the amount of space the Times will devote to it.” 
I find it fascinating that no reference is made to the quality of the content the LA Times will offer, going forward. Parceling out review assignments outside the book department doesn't bode well. They aren't the first news organization to revamp their book-related content. Back in 2009, the Washington Post did something similar, condensing and consolidating what had once been a fully separate section.

Is it just a sign of the economy, businesses trying to cut costs and taking increasingly desperate measures?
Perhaps. This writer, though, thinks of it more as a sign of the times. The industry itself, whose shifting landscape is having an influence on the value-added by such venues in traditional sources. To put it simply, readers are turning elsewhere for the book reviews reading recommendations. And for reviews of niche releases, which are gaining momentum in the digital channel. Books that a traditional mainstream media outlet wouldn't bother touching. Some of the greater perception out there seems to revolve around a shift in focus, that consumers buying books are looking at reviews and ratings on Amazon, or other sellers, as an earmark for whether a book or author is worth reading.

I'm not certain how accurate this is, overall. I think the seller ratings have some influence, but I don't think that's where the greater part of the information channel is occurring. My money is on non-retail and social media sources. Word of mouth, after all, is the best form of publicity. And the word of a trusted friend or acquaintance has greater weight than an unknown.  Freelance book review bloggers are an increasing source of influence for consumers who are avid readers and heavily favor a specific genre, especially when it's a niche. Blog tours, coordinated by publishers to highlight releases over a series of blogger sites, are becoming an increasingly utilized strategy for marketing and publicity, reader visibility and awareness. Sites like GoodReads are taking a lions' share of the role also. They don't sell anything. They're simply a repository, an online library of publications which permits publicity and awareness and marketing through socialization. The ultimate word-of-mouth channel.

These marketing channels are a godsend for the 'little guys' -- creating equal footing with the big boys. Indie authors, small press sources -- years ago, these labels would have been considered derogatory and suggested poor quality product and writing. An author that couldn't hack it. Granted there's some weight in a 'big name' when it has that household name recognition in its favor.

The winds have shifted direction, though. I submit as evidence the bankruptcy and liquidation of Borders. The bookstore that offered coffee and ambiance and cozy little reading niches. Failure on a grand scale. They couldn't even whore themselves to another company in the industry to save themselves. Crash and burn. But why?

Because the sales, and the traffic, are going elsewhere. While the change is gradual, the effect is felt. And in a tight economy, competition has the wolves eating each other. Only the strong, and the quick-witted, will survive.

Electronic sales figures aren't that large, in comparison to print sales. The slumps can be attributed to economy and other factors as well.

Really? From the Association of American Publishers-- E-book sales show +164.4 percent gain for 2010:
E-books grew a dramatic +164.8 percent in December 2010 vs the previous year ($49.5 Million vs $18.7M). In the AAP’s ninth year of tracking this category, E-books once again increased significantly on an annual basis, up +164.4 percent for 2010 vs 2009 ($441.3M vs $166.9M). E-book sales represented 8.32 percent of the trade book market in 2010 vs 3.20 percent the previous year. A chart tracking nine years of E-book sales is included below:

These are US-only sales figures, though. Also, one could arguably interpret these statistics to conclude whatever they wish. That is, after all, the wonder of visual presentation and interpretation. Including that, with those levels of reported sales, trade print is safe from the influence of e-books. It appears to be so--I would only disagree on the grounds of fluctuating print-sales figures which make an intriguing contrast to e-book figures that only show steady growth by substantive percentages, year after year. Print sales figures were lower last year than they've been in six years. A fluke, I'm sure. Will e-books ever replace print completely? Immortal sky fairies help us, I hope not. I do enjoy picking a book up and flipping pages, now and then. But perhaps that's only because I'm too poor (read: stingy) to fork out the funds for an e-reader. Then again, I will always love being able to hold my very own book in my hand. But maybe that attachment to the tangible just makes me "old-school."

Brick and mortar retailers of books were late to jump on the e-book format bandwagon. They're also late/no-shows to the idea of assisting publishers with marketing/publicity from a digital/internet presence perspective. I'd venture a guess that, with other sources offering to fill this hole free of charge, there's no use in them even trying. And I expect Amazon will remain strong simply because it's developed a role similar to that of Wal-Mart in the retail industry. Online, instead of 'brick-and-mortar.' Even though their distribution network seems to be having substantive issues as of late.

Publishers are increasing their own burden of responsibility in reaching out to the readership for publicity and marketing online. This reduces overhead costs--one of the great wonders of electronic formatting, the severe reduction in production costs--and while the reader might not realize the full weight of that savings, the increase in realized profit per sale means that the publisher can afford to invest in engaging those responsibilities.

As this trend continues and strengthens, gaining momentum alongside the expanding e-book market, the middle-man retailers will continue to be hit, and hard. With each aspect of the channel that goes digital, the damage inflicted to the conventional industry model increases. The surviving brick and mortar stores are going to need to mix it up--and reinvent themselves, or at least update their wardrobe--if they want to remain viable. Whether this means the smaller, independent stores band together in a union format to serve as distribution and publicity outreach channels remains to be seen. I imagine that, in the near future, blog tours will begin translating into public signings--coordinated and advertised via social media forums alone.

I'm just a peon, though, a small shred of Styrofoam flotsam bobbing along on the industry current. It'll go where it pleases, regardless of what I think. Or do.