James McGrath Morris wants you to know that e-books are going to destroy mid-list authors -- more specifically, "the economic foundation that supports a large class of writers" known as the mid-list. The problem with his theory? It insults the book buying public and proclaims that online booksellers can't do an effective job at luring readers to discover new authors.
While he's not simply joining the panic brigade touting the demise of the virtuous paper and cloth book, McGrath Morris' grim diatribe in the Huffington Post does one worse. It claims that e-books will upend the entire retail experience â€"- or rather, the judge-the-book-by-its-cover-and-buy-an-author-you've never-heard-of process.
Perhaps McGrath Morris isn't familiar with recent sales statistics. Amazon (AMZN) sold about 3 million Kindles as of December 2009, and CEO Jeff Bezos stated in his fourth quarter earnings report that customers bought six e-books for every ten print books. While it's uncertain how many of those were bestsellers or midlist books, it's still a hefty amount of book sales that were no doubt aided by Amazon's "Customers who bought X also bought Y" recommendation feature.
Publishing consultant Laura Dawson dismisses McGrath Morris' prediction as "codswallop." She told me there's a "fundamental assumption that just because conventional bookselling is going away (and it is), people won't read less-well-known authors." And that assumption is dead wrong.
Yet McGrath Morris persists in an almost wistful elegy on the death of serendipitous browsing:
As strolling and perusing the aisles of a bookstore is replaced with a mouse and computer screen, the demise of brick-and-mortar retailers will accelerate and critically important links between midlist authors and their readers will be severed.
Kate Epstein of the Epstein Literary Agency begs to differ. She told me:
Brick and mortar stores are wonderful for many reasons -- but they have no monopoly on serendipity. On the contrary, stocking issues can wreck serendipity in a real store; online stores diminish that problem and e-books do so even more.
McGrath Morris laments some of the ways readers discover lesser-known authors will go away:
Examining the history section of a store, a customer is drawn to a book by its eye-catching cover; or picking up a book by a popular author from a table, a customer is intrigued by a novel in an adjacent stack.
In fact, as Epstein points out, "Adjacent stacks are generally pay-for-placement by the publisher and midlist authors have trouble getting co-op (advertising) funds."
So how will readers find out about new titles? McGrath Morris imagines the dreaded day that they'll have to rely on Amazon customer reviews, which he views as mostly "irrelevant griping" or "diatribes written by screwballs." Perhaps derived from criticisms of his own books? But digital word of mouth has become much more than just a few errant customer reviews. Dawson says many find books via social networks and blogs. She admits she doesn't browse the "shelves" of Amazon, but does stumble across interesting reads from Google (GOOG) searches, or by Facebook and Twitter messages. "None of those are bestselling books. In many cases, they are deep backlist."
Furthermore, Dawson noted the massive merchandising efforts of Barnes & Noble (BKS) online with its BN Studio (video interviews with writers, both bestselling and undiscovered) and BN Review, as well as online niche book clubs and Amazon's Omnivoracious and Author Central (designed to help writers promote their work). All demonstrate that booksellers understand the importance of generating even more digital word-of-mouth than just customer reviews.
Dawson shared some impressive figures from Bowker's PubTrack Consumer Reports. In 2009, book buyers spent about 15 percent of their time online and 5 percent of their time reading books. Of those who buy romance and mystery books, 57 percent become aware of those books via online ads that are developed using key search words. About 44 percent of fiction readers are active social media users.
Which proves another of McGrath Morris' points wrong. He wrote, "Digital books will also reward specialization an unhealthy trend for midlist authors." When he's not moaning about the disappearance of general interest magazines, he argues that publishers will push their writers to create books for narrowly defined marketplaces and this will shrink the midlist.
On the contrary, this can actually grow the midlist. As publishers begin to better understand the tricks for selling in a digital realm ie: metadata tags, the more defined searches can be, and the more authors can be discovered by people who will actually plunk down their ducats to read about, for instance, growing succulents in city gardens.
But you can't wrap a digital file and give it as a gift, the article notes. Apparently McGrath Morris has never heard of iTunes gift cards.
What emerges from McGrath Morris' essay is this: the only thing that will be rendered extinct in the wake of e-books are whining Luddites.
Image via Flickr user Scott Kinmartin CC 2.0