“I’m no author, but it looks to me as if the consolidation of book dealing in fewer and fewer hands is a failure of capitalism. If fewer and fewer outlets are selling books, and those outlets are under constant cost pressure, good authors will get shoved aside, and crappy animal books will top bestseller lists.Firstly, the consolidation of retail outlets as a failure of capitalism (an ideas man, is our Peter). In this I think he’s 100% correct, because markets thrive on competition. Once competition gets stifled, the customer gets offered a seriously limited variety, and unless you’re selling crack cocaine, the customer is going to get bored very quickly.
“I do think that bloggers can step into the void, notwithstanding criticism from jealous and understandably fearful members of the mainstream media [...] I’ve discovered far more authors through blogs than through the “mainstream” media. This may be why I roll my eyes every few months when some newspaper runs a column about the boom in international crime fiction and announces with breathless excitement authors whom I and other conscientious bloggers have known about for months if not years.
“Still, as timorous, doddering and slow off the mark as they can be, there is still a place for mainstream media, the old darlings …”
You can argue that all the retail outlets are in competition with one another, of course, but the salient fact is that all the major retail outlets are selling the same books and authors, with the only difference often being the size of the discount on offer.
For example, the two major outlets in Dublin are Waterstone’s and Hodges and Figgis. Not only do they face one another across Dawson Street, and sell pretty much the same stock, they’re owned by the same parent company. In terms of crime fiction, both offer a decent selection, albeit very similar, and heavily skewed towards new and recent releases, and the kind of novels where the author’s name is bigger than the title.
Further up Dawson Street, towards Stephen’s Green, is a tiny independent outlet called Murder Ink. It’s a specialist outlet, of course, and offers an intoxicating range of titles, from the most recent releases to hard-to-get imports to old classics. Its dedication to the cause of crime fiction, Irish and international, can be gauged by the fact that the owner, Michael Gallagher (right, holding some wastrel’s novel), is on first-name terms with the likes of John Connolly, Ken Bruen, Declan Hughes, Brian McGilloway, et al, not to mention many international authors. While I was in there during the week, Peter Robinson dropped in, just to say hello.
Given its overheads (Dawson Street is prime Dublin real estate) and its size (no muscle to speak of, by comparison with its competitors, in terms of discounts for bulk buying, etc.), Murder Ink should have gone out of business a long time ago. Happily, it hasn’t. As a specialist outlet, it’s niche enough to secure a loyal customer base.
But in the long run, even specialising isn’t going to save the retail outlets, regardless of their size. As Peter points out, bloggers tend to be way ahead of the curve of the mainstream media when it comes to discovering new talent and broadcasting about it. The mainstream media might be sniffy about the quality of the reviews, etc., but there’s no denying that the web is the conduit for the all-important word-of-mouth that pushes writers to the forefront of the public’s consciousness.
For example, I operate a Google alerts system for Irish crime writers. The general trend is for a writer to publish a book and for their profile to ‘spike’ for a month or two, and then return to a more regular level of activity. The exception to that rule has been Tana French. Ever since IN THE WOODS was published, I’ve been receiving two, three and four Google alerts per day about Tana French, most of them referring to reviews from blogs, websites and on-line versions of mainstream media. That level of activity, of course, has only increased since the publication of THE LIKENESS. Yesterday, for example, I received alerts for Tana French-related material for YouTube, Albany Public Library, the Irish Independent, and the San Jose Mercury News. Today her alerts were for the Minneapolis Star Tribune, the Boston Globe, Jen’s Book Thoughts blog, The Squid List blog, and The Landlocked Pirate blog.
Now, you – and the sniffier mainstream journalists – might want to quibble with the quality of the reviews on some of those outlets. That’s your entitlement, and you’re also fully entitled to quibble with the quality of review available in the traditional media. But you can’t deny that Tana French’s word-of-mouth penetration is phenomenal. And here’s where the web beats traditional media hands-down: today’s newsprint reviews will be tomorrow’s kitty-box liner, but those on-line reviews will be functioning for years to come. The ‘long tail’, as they call it, is certainly wagging for Tana French.
What has that to do with the future demise of retail outlets? Well, Amazon is the classic example, but there are others catching up. How many times have you gone into a bookstore and asked for a particular title, only to hear that they don’t have it in stock, but will order it for you? You could’ve just stayed home and ordered it yourself, from any of the web-based retailers. And, with Amazon developing its print-on-demand technology, and the Kindle technology to allow you to download straight to your books version of the iPod, you’ll never have to set foot in a retail outlet again.
But that’s hardly going to be the end of it. If you can have web-based retail outlets, why not web-based publishers? Why not simply write a book, have it published by an on-line outlet, and have them download it straight to your readers’ hand-held device?
Of course, the real danger there is that a behemoth like Amazon corners the books market entirely, becoming a vast one-stop-shop of (electronic) printer-cum-publisher-cum-retailer, which brings us back to Peter Rozovsky’s original point about the consolidation of retailers and lack of choice.
A disaster for readers and writers? That all depends on the readers and writers, and whether they have the ingenuity to use the web pro-actively. What’s to stop writers banding together to form their own on-line co-operative publishing houses, for example? Or to think outside the box and publish directly to the web, forsaking the traditional advance-and-royalties model for – say – banner ads, tips and click-through revenue generators? Or – and this one is so damn crazy it might just work – write for the love of writing, and deliver it directly to an audience that reads for the love of reading?
No, I’m not insane, and no, I’m not on drugs. Yes, I’m incorrigibly naïve. But I started out writing for the fun of it, for the sheer joy of putting one word after another and watching them weave meaning out of chaos. And if it’s fun you crave in your life, particularly through books, then the web, with all its potential for anarchy, revolution and rewriting the script, is the place to be.
The modern publishing industry, courtesy of Johannes Gutenberg (right), has been around for roughly 500 years. The internet, especially in its interactive incarnation, is barely a decade old.
Strap yourselves in, folks. It’s going to be a bumpy ride.