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David Peck, co-founder of the Mischief & Mayhem Books publishing collective, had an interesting piece in yesterday’s The Daily suggesting that the end of big chain bookstores may be nigh and deservedly so.

His argument is based in the economics of bookstores and distributors, in which the retail and middleman companies take most of the slices out of the retail price pie, leaving the publisher with a small sliver to pay its own expenses (including compensating the author). Even the wholesale price of the books isn’t necessarily fixed, as publishers have the clout to pass their own discounts on book prices on to the publisher. He also touches on the consignment system, which means bookstores can pass unsold content back to publishers for a refund at the publisher’s expense.

But a book isn’t like clothes: You don’t need to try it on to decide if you want to buy. The Internet has made it simple for readers to buy directly from publishers, without a retailer inserting itself – with its massive cuts and homogenizing aesthetic – into the mix. What’s more, improvements in print-on-demand technology mean that it’s no longer necessary to manufacture 10,000 books in the hope of selling half of them: A book need only be printed when someone buys it.

If publishers started selling print-on-demand (and, presumably, e-) books direct to customers, Peck suggests, it could drive mega-retailers like Amazon and Wal-Mart out of the book business, and more book-centric stores like Barnes & Noble out of business altogether. And it might not be such a bad thing—after all, nobody noticed when the record chain stores closed, because all the music they could ever want was available online. Just as small record stores that catered to a select crowd of customers survived, so would small bookstores.

I can certainly see some merit in Peck’s arguments. Certainly Baen has proved that a publisher can make a go of selling e-books direct to consumers. What if it were to add print-on-demand operations as well? They could replace mass-market paperbacks, since the quality still isn’t quite up to par with hardcovers. The question is whether Baen, or other publishers like them, could implement POD economically. For readers who chose to purchase that route—and Baen has a lot of loyal readers by now—it could mean lower prices, plus Baen saving money by avoiding the waste of large print runs.

But I suspect that any such innovation is at least a few years in the future. The publishing industry is a big, unwieldy beast, bad at changing directions in a hurry. Most publishers, Baen included, probably will not want to risk damaging their relationships with the big chain stores that they still believe they need to sell paper books. Indeed, many see publishers’ pricing practices toward e-books over the last ten years as a desperate attempt to hold them back in order to keep the chain stores alive!

It’s a sort of reverse chicken-or-the-egg situation—it’s not likely publishers will make moves to bypass big chain bookstores until and unless the big chain bookstores go under on their own, and indeed they’re going to try everything they can to keep that from happening. Certainly the music biz’s support for iTunes became a lot more whole-hearted after the big music chains collapsed.

But with Borders on the ropes already, and Barnes & Noble on its way there, perhaps this outcome is not as far away as we might think. If the Espresso book machine can get distributed in the hundreds or thousands rather than the dozens, perhaps big publishers will have more incentive to make their books available that way.

(As an aside, the way The Daily presents its articles for web viewing is really rather annoying: the same preformatted image as is used for the iPad version. Yes, very easy to read and all that, but it doesn’t make fair use any easier—I had to type the block quote in myself.)

 
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