While the English-language edition of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows sold 44 million copies over three years, the video game Bad Company 2 sold more than five million units in one month. Facebook, with its 116 million U.S. users, draws people in for an average of more than seven hours each month. And while watching videos on TV and the Internet accounted for only nine hours of Americans' time per month, they more than made up for it by watching TV 84 hours monthly.
For years, I've thought that those publishers most affected by the e-book evolution would be the big six that dominate bestseller lists. Judging from the latest reports, it seems that while their hardback sales have declined, their revenue from e-books has taken a dramatic upward jump. As an independent publisher, I have not been greatly affected by the digital changes taking place. I do sell e-books, but most of my niche titles still sell as paper books.
One day recently, when I was doing my typical airing of views about what's going on in the industry to my sales director, Ken Kaiman, he took a good, long look at me and said, "Format is really not the problem." What he then pointed out made me reconsider the future of publishing.
The question isn't which format the reader will choose, Ken said, but if there will be readers in the first place. In the 1950s, America was a country of readers. If you couldn't afford a TV or a night out, you could always afford a mass-market paperback. For returning vets, reading was a form of entertainment. For baby boomers, it was common to have grown up seeing your parents, siblings, or friends sitting on the sofa reading a book. People were reading for the simple joy of it. Throughout' the '60s, '70s, and '80s, reading continued to be a great source of pleasure for millions.
During that time, the revenues of book sales grew each and every year. Our population was growing, and so was our reading audience—or at least, that was the assumption. But what was not so obvious was that a good part of the financial increase was due not so much to an increase in the number of books sold, but to the increased price of both hardbacks and paperbacks.
By 1990, the age of computers had dawned. What started out as small dot-com ventures turned into megacorporations like Google, AOL, and Yahoo. And while a bust occurred in the early 2000s, the effects of this true revolution changed the way Americans entertained themselves.
Today, that change is all too evident: walk down any U.S. city street and watch half the people you pass intently texting, tweeting, or Facebooking. As soon as a new edition of a popular video game becomes available, it's hard to ignore the astronomical sales it garners. The arguments about whether e-books will be the wave of the immediate future pale when you consider that the new and growing millennium generation no longer considers reading books as entertainment. In fact, they do not consider reading at all. Instead of focusing on how our books are going to be delivered to the reading public, we ought to be concerned with who will be left to read books.
While other countries focus on educating their children, we seem more focused on amusing them. Yes, these electronic time-wasters do serve a purpose: they act as baby-sitters. However, the responsibility of raising children who value education, and hence read, in any form, is no longer a priority. Without a vibrant and growing reading public to buy e-books or tree-books, who are we going to sell our titles to in the future? Do we know how many homes do not have books? How many children have never been exposed to the pleasure of reading or being read to? Manufacturers of cereal, soda, bottled water, and computers know how many households they are in, and are constantly reinforcing the need for or pleasure derived from their products. The economics of our industry makes such research challenging, but we need to do more than make the occasional foray into trying to create readers. We do know that there is a large market that wants books, as evidenced by the success of Harry Potter and all things vampire. But can such occasional readers support our industry in the future?
Ken's point keeps reverberating in my head. For all those who may think that selling our titles as e-books is the light at the end of the tunnel, I have a tip to pass on. Don't be too surprised if the light is attached to a speeding train heading toward you—toward all of us.
Rudy Shur is publisher of Square One Publishers.