Books have tremendous value. They deliver us stories across time and space and allow our imaginations to take us on journeys otherwise impossible. Stories and storytellers have always been greatly valued in all human culture and these stories are passed on in many different ways: in art, in music, in film and of course in books.
As a book lover and bookseller I am of course completely biased but I think the printed and bound book is the definitive form for delivering a story. I do read eBooks and am very excited about the digital future currently emerging but even when I read a great eBook I want the physical copy on my shelf. The physical book doesn’t just contain the story written by the author, for me it also stores my memories and experience of reading the book and simply holding a much loved book in my hand can rekindle those feelings and moments that were brought to life by that book. It sounds strange but more often than not I need the book in my hand to even be able to talk about the book.
The rise of eBooks has made some readers question what they value in a book and what they should pay for a book. An eBook doesn’t exist separately from the print book, it is just another format and the costs of production are shared. But there is a perception that an eBook should be cheaper than the print version because it is a digital file so therefore it must be cheaper to make because there is no printing, storage or delivery costs. There are also limitations with a digital file in terms of being able to share an eBook with family and friends and the number (and type) of devices it can be read on. Also you don’t every truly own the eBook like you do a print book. When you buy an eBook you are in fact purchasing a license to read a file, a license which can be taken away from you at any time (which one retailer quite famously did with, of all books, Nineteen Eighty Four by George Orwell). The perception that an eBook should be cheaper has been driven by one retailer who has been hell bent on grabbing as much market share as possible and has been selling eBooks at a loss in order to realize their monopolistic ambitions. I do think there is a case for eBooks to be cheaper but like any business prices need to be sustainable both for a publishing business and a retail business.
The publishing process adds tremendous value to books (print and digital) and is much more than printing and delivery (these costs are estimated at 12% of a book’s total cost). There is editing, design, marketing just to name a few of the costs. The editing process for one is extremely important and is more than just checking for spelling, grammatical or factual mistakes (although that is important too). An editor helps the author’s book take shape making sure things like the structure, characters and dialogue all deliver the story to the reader in the best possible way. Imagine a film that wasn’t edited. It would either be a jumbling mess or short cuts would be taken to make the story work as a whole.
One of the biggest changes to publishing is the rise and growth of self-publishing. The time when a J.K Rowling gets rejected 12 times is over because that author now has the ability to publish themselves but what gets delivered to the reader may not be the same quality. The digital process of publishing means more writers can now publish themselves but this is a double-edged sword. To paraphrase Josh from Bookrageous: the best thing about self-publishing is that more writers can now get published and the worst thing about self-publishing is that more writers can get published.
Self-publishing can remove many obstacles a writer faces in getting published but it can also remove other important elements in the publishing process. Maybe in the future we will start seeing books with an ‘edited by’ credit to distinguish them from books that have gone straight to market. Lack of editorial is one issue but distribution is also a huge factor. Self-publishing as an eBook can overcome many of the distribution challenges that a self-published print book faces but can limit you to one retailer and their terms and conditions. Marketing is far and away the biggest issue self-published books face. There are so many books published that is very easy for a book to get lost in the crowd, both digitally and physically. We often take self-published books on consignment at Pages & Pages but it is always conditional on their being local marketing. Generally we do not sell a lot of self-published books and I will freely admit that it is often more trouble than it is worth. However there are exceptions to every rule and at the moment one of our bestselling books is The Dress Shop by Prudence Reid which is even out selling Fifty Shades of Grey (both of which were self published).
Books and publishing are changing and so is the way we read and what we read. But what we value in books shouldn’t change. A good story is a good story no matter the format, genre or method of publishing and is worth something both monetary and intrinsically. I hope that with the growth of eBooks we start to see a renaissance in physical book publishing but before that can happen I think we all need to do a better job communicating the value of books.