The main cause of this? A great talk at Digital Shoreditch from Chris Bishop, who asked a simple, but heady, question. What if digital came first?
The talk - available online here - is largely from a consumer, retail, digital mindset. Bishop points out that a lot of ecommerce attention has been wasted trying to create physical experiences online, rather than embracing digital's strengths. And, similarly, the reverse is true: stores are now trying to imitate websites. His conclusion is that, eventually, the two channels will find their complementary ways, and physical stores will become an asset again. (Harsh, but not entirely fair.)
Anyway, this got me thinking. In publishing, we have two physical-first avenues: the books and the stores. And they're both taking a beating. So what if... digital came first?
Bookstores: no longer for the storing of books
Bookshops would, perhaps, be the most dramatically changed.
The not-so-distant past of the book trade involved the Big Chains thumping the Small Indies. The Big Chains won on convenience, range, pricing. We shopped at B&N because they were more likely to be close by (because there were more of them), they were more likely to have the book we wanted, and it was more likely to be discounted.
Now, Amazon wins on all of those because there's no 'more likely' - absolute truth. Amazon is right there, it has everything and it is the cheapest. Like terrible superhero movie, the villains from the first movie are now fighting on the side of good, and the indies are unlikely allies with Waterstones and Barnes & Noble in the face of Dread Amazon.
Which also means, ironically, the indies (the ones that are left) are better adapted to the new, digital-first world. They've been crushed on convenience, range and price for years, and evolved to survive.
So, in a world where any book I want is easily and cheaply available to me online, what does the physical experience have by way of competition?
- Discovery. Finding books I didn't know I wanted. Amazon's got all the data in the world - and is busily buying more - but I can't browse it. The best they can do is feature something for a little while. That's why they bought things like Goodreads, places I go to discover new books (and then buy them on Amazon). A bookshop, as a tactile, curated experience, is a big box of recommendations, a place I can go when I'm in the mood for something, but not sure what.
- Tangibility. With the growth of streaming, CDs got hammered, vinyl grew. The most inconvenient and least flexible format, but also the most visually attractive. And certainly the most tactile experience - the ritual of the record is like an Ethiopian coffee ceremony. Streaming is something out of a QuikTrip.
- Interaction. Books are physical objects, authors are real people, these are nouns! Let's verb them! The scope of online verbing is much more limited. Whereas in real spaces, I can sign books, stack books, read them out loud, read them to yourself, shelve them by colour and do magical, physical things. (I love book dominoes.) They're something that can't be done online - a sense of playfulness that's limited to offline places.
- Service. We fetishize booksellers, but I'm reluctant to go whole-hog on this. Amazon's customer service is brilliant and nobody likes standing in queues. So transactional service still belongs to the digital space. But for hospitality - hi, a cup of tea?, that's a lovely book, I really like that author too - physical spaces have a distinct advantage.
- Serendipity. All of the above adds up to the fact that bookstores can be a place of surprise. Amazon can shock me with a funny review or a 99p sale, but bookstores can find me a new book, introduce me to a new person, and put an object in my hands for me to explore.
This means, of course, not competing on range, convenience and price - but admitting that the offline experience is something wholly different. But, again, look at the way the numbers are tipping. The physical book trade is being propped up by "children's books, impulse buys and the gift market" - three areas where people often walk into shops not knowing what they want.
How do we push that further? How do we give bookshops a competitive difference?
And what could a digital-first publishing industry look like?
I'm hesitant to say that we'll ever 'stream' books like we do music or movies, as the method of consumption is intrinsically slower. But 'streaming' presupposes that packaging is meaningless and ownership is ephemeral. We don't care about the case the CD came in (and, in fact, we're delighted to never open that goddamn security tape again), and we're ok if the music doesn't linger around on our devices when we're not using it.
This is a model that Amazon seem to be not-so-secretly pushing. Remember the outrage when we all learned that the fine print means we're just 'leasing' books for our Kindles? But, back to the initial question - if we weren't weaned on physical books, would we care? According to the statistics, those growing up in a multi-platform reading environment certainly don't.
But Kindle (and Nook and Kobo and such) are still using the, excuse the wank, semiotics of traditional books. You buy ebooks, you don't rent them - even if the latter is closer to the truth. You have 'collections' and 'libraries' and 'shelves' - places that make it sound like less like an ephemeral patch of bits and more like a Victorian home.
One way in is through libraries. At least, the ones that have somehow navigated the situation and found ways to share ebooks while not shafting the rights owners. It is no coincidence that Amazon's own 'streaming' service - the Kindle Owners' Lending Library - has 'lending library' in its name. We understand the behaviour of 'borrowing' books in that context, even as we now grasp 'streaming' music through Spotify. Of course, this is just addressing the consumer understanding. How we would stream books without changing the traditional rights landscape is a much bigger kettle of fish.
A new role for the midlist
Stealing this from the film industry, and, specifically, Netflix:
Movies mostly come in two sizes now: micro-budget Sundance hopefuls destined for a day-and-date release or bloated IMAX 3-D extravaganzas that make vertiginous stacks of cash by transmuting our nostalgia for a beloved property into global gold. But that leaves out a whole middle range of movies trying to tell original stories with no hope of a sequel on more than a shoestring budget.
This is a very glamorous depiction of, say, Adam Sandler movies, but Netflix are totally fascinating. They don't want - or need - big hits. They make their money from subscriptions, not individual pieces of content. They achieve this by making sure there's always new content, churning out new material in a way that there's always something of interest. (And supplementing it by buying cheap, cheap backlists. Brilliance.)
Given Hollywood’s herd mentality, Netflix should find no shortage of passion projects knocking on its door.... quality films that studios wouldn’t touch with a 10-foot pole because they barely make films anymore. And honestly, Netflix will make movies that might otherwise languish in a New York or L.A. art house available to people across the country. But it comes at a price: the theatrical experience.
Something like the Gollancz SF Gateway sort-of-almost-but-not-quite did, by aggregating and showcasing the backlist, but then sent people off to buy the books individually. Imagine, I suppose, a Gollancz Gateway where all the titles are available to read for £9.99/month. And where the older books are supplemented by authors adding new work into the mix as well - not necessarily the Sandersons (although, like Brad Pitt, that'd be a coup), but a staff of steadily-performing midlisters, covering the complete range of genre nuances. So whatever a reader is into, there's always something new. In practice, the closest existing thing is probably someplace like Tor.com - where fiction content is provided as part of an entertainment experience geared towards winning repeat visitors.
Still, this would involve publishers changing from selling books qua books to books qua alternative revenue stream. Netflix (and, similarly, Spotify, Apple Music, etc), with their subscription volume, have made the model work. But, historically, others haven't - see, for example, print magazines. Which historically needed a combination of subscriptions and advertising to make ends meet, and, for the most part, still don't. (It is hard to argue that digital magazines are any better. Lower overhead, yes. But there still seem very few that aren't relying on crowd-funding to keep the doors open. But that could be a perception bias...)
Here's a gutsy model from the folks at Grantland:
Imagine for a moment that you’re Kanye West. For months, you’ve been working on your new album. Because you’re Kanye, you know that millions of people will want to hear your record as soon as it’s released. However, instead of just releasing your album via the traditional venues, you decide to take your master tapes out on the road and charge people $50 to hear your album in a large theater or arena.
The writer goes on with his (deliberately bonkers) 'what if' scenario - citing, amongst others, the Wu-Tang Clan and their $5m one-off record. But:
Anyone can hear your record, so long as they buy a ticket. Bootleg recordings will be forbidden — no small feat — but attendees can tweet about the record and the live experience as much as they want. People will pay in part because they want to talk about it in social media. Forget about holding on to the physical or even digital manifestation — Snapchat has proven that the fleeting image or experience can be as satisfying for some users as holding the tangible alternative. Social media will fuel the demand for this new experience. And exclusivity provides its own kind of economy.
There's also a bit of behavioural science behind this as well. A recent study by out of Cornell states that experiences make you happier than physical purchases. This has always been a rule of thumb with Millennials (and other demographics, depending on life-stage), but it is nice to see a bit of research behind it as well. The study cites a few different reasons - including the declining value of stuff (both use and monetary) (and in contrast to experiences, which are generally remembered more favourably with time), the human need to compare one's stuff to other people's stuff (generally causing resentment and jealousy) and the fact that stuff-owning is a solo, not community activity. So... voila. Stop publishing stuff and starting producing experiences. Easy!
However simple that sounds, we're got some problems here - first, books aren't a performance art. What would that experience be? A... panel? Good lord. Maybe a Q&A? Possibly reading-done-as-storytelling? Interactive fiction?! The closest thing we've had to this in practice might be the Palmer/Gaiman 'we'll hang out in front of you' Kickstarter tour, although, again, Palmer is a musician/stage performer. And, on the simplest level, because an author is talented at writing novels doesn't mean they've got a knack for reading them out loud, or turning them into games, shows or other performances.
And, of course, this is a model that works for... Kanye. And even then with some loss of income. It certainly won't work for artists without massive fan bases (or even the '1,000 true fans'). The Gaiman collaboration above pulled in $133k through crowd-funding. It is hard to think of someone that could do better.
Well, that's everything solved then
You can thank me later.
This isn't really an attempt to come up with the answer. But I think the question is pretty fascinating. If digital came first, we would have a different concept of what bookstores offered, how publishers worked, and how we connected with both authors and the books themselves.
Publishing is a particularly interesting sector because it is exactly at the intersection of old, established, physical products and new, unexplored, digital means of consuming them. Digital didn't come first (by a few centuries), but it is swiftly becoming the priority. The challenge is how everything else will adapt.