I think it's time to change the model that publishing uses. I realize that publishing houses are now owned by conglomerates and so forth, but they're about to feel some pain, I'm afraid, from this economic slowdown. I found some GRAND ideas in the various discussions I was reading, and I think publishing would be well advised to take a look at the ideas that people are bringing up. These are not MY ideas--I'm simply synthesizing the ideas that I've read during my websurfing--so I won't be hurt if you find flaws or tear my model apart. This is a place for discussion!
So what would be a better 21st-century model?
I think we all know that the "returns" system left over from the 1800s or whenever is RIDICULOUS. And being able to tear off the cover to send back for credit while pulping the actual book? Outlandish! So that needs to change.
Why not send only ONE copy of each book that a bookstore decides to order? Stores could be set up such that customers would have access to the one copy (or two copies, for popular books) of the book that the publishing house has sent. There could be shelves, just like now, but they would hold only "sample" copies that you couldn't buy--they're for previewing. Or you could have electronic previews of books, allowing the shelves to be replaced with computer screens where a buyer could page through the book in the same way you "page through" the latest Penneys or Target mailing on their websites. That would mean that bookstores wouldn't need all that space or all those shelves; it's anyone's guess as to how they would ultimately look, but they might be more like comfy coffeehouses or soda shoppes.
The store can then become a browser's haven. Browsers can look through that copy and decide whether they want to buy a copy of the book. They'd take the list of books that they want to buy to the POD counter, where the printing machine (they're available now, according to the Web) would print and bind their copy in about three to five minutes. [Pause for mind-boggle; it used to take longer than that to photocopy our school newsletter.]
As I understand it, these machines produce the larger-sized softcovers. I think some will also do hardcovers. I don't know what they cost, but probably less than maintaining a huge stock and all those stock-persons to load and unload the boxes. Onward. . . .
Okay, the customer has paid for his or her book. The machine would download the electronic image from the publisher, pay the fee(s) electronically, and then print the book for immediate take-home. (There would be exceptions for large art books and Bibles and other similar books that might not lend themselves to being printed on-the-spot, but this could work for most novels, memoirs, and a lot of nonfiction.) I'm not sure how those machines handle color illustrations and lots of diagrams (such as textbooks might have), but this could work well for many tomes.
If a customer wanted an e-book, that would be even easier. Assuming the customer wants it NOW and doesn't want to go home and download the book through some other service, the clerk could take the customer's e-reader device and connect it via USB to their computer (or whatever) and deliver the e-text right there.
This would save SO MANY TREES. Wouldn't it be neat?
So what's the major problem? The publishing houses don't lose any money, as every book they sell is, um, a sale. There are no returns. There is no remaindering. Cool, right?
Maybe, but I predict that the publishing world would fight this to the bitter end. Why? The big houses would lose their power.
Yes, that's right. When this model takes effect, then ANYONE who can get his/her text listed with Ingrams or whatever distributor takes hold in this fantasy world can then have his/her book(s) delivered to any store, even if the book is out from a small press or is (horrors) self-published. The concept of a print run becomes meaningless. Every text stays in print forever, until the author withdraws it or it enters the public domain. You can get copies of out-of-print classics for a college course--anything that you want your class to read, from the Greeks to the Beats, could be thumped right out into their hands. The cost of the classic novel might be little more than the cost of producing the book, assuming that the e-text comes from a place such as Bartleby or Gutenberg (two large repositories of public domain texts) and gets formatted at a small cost.
If (say) XLibris hooked up with whatever system provides the e-text and image data for the books, then any XLibris title could be out there. The author might pay a fee to have bookstores print one copy of the book to put on the shelf, and then the book has a fighting chance (if the author can publicize it well enough). Browsers might pick up the book and choose to buy it. If this proved to work well, it would erode the power of the centralized publishing houses . . . royalties could go directly to the author electronically, and there wouldn't be any question of whether a book "could get published." Because it could.
I can't help it if that would allow "bad" books to get out there. Wait--they already ARE out there. So anyway, the model might well work better than what we have today.
Would books cost more? I don't think so. I realize that a mass market paperback costs around $7 or so, whereas the larger softcovers are around $16, but once this system gets going, prices might stabilize at a lower price point. The books would be fairly good quality, as good as those paperbacks that tear apart while you're reading them (the covers fall off, pages fall out, etc.) And just think--your selection would be SO much wider. There wouldn't be a space constraint. You could browse ALL of Heinlein, Westlake, Dickens, Austen, or whoever to find the book you were remembering from childhood. You could see ALL the books in a series instead of never being able to find #1 and #2 by the time #3 is out. Wow!
The cost of fuel is coming down a bit, but shipping heavy books around is still expensive. We're killing too many trees. It's time for change.
The market is fragmenting now. We're going to see some kind of change. I do not believe that people ALL want to read on an electronic screen all the time. I love the weight and heft and smell of a "real" book, and my eyes can't take the constant reading on the screen, so I print things out or choose a printed book very often over an electronic copy. I think books are still a viable concept. I just feel that we need to move toward a model like this one, rather than sticking with the present system and fighting a losing battle.
(Yes--you ARE allowed to speculate, suggest, and think about these things. You won't have an anvil dropped on your head for just SAYING this stuff, surely. This does NOT mean that we want publishing to crash down or tank. It only means that we anticipate the need for change, and we're trying to drag the system into the 21st century, if we possibly can.)