Notebook: Alpha and Omega (Part One)
by Ann Kjellberg, editor
Hello readers! I apologize that we have had a little quiet spell. Over here at Book Post we had a bit of a disruption that I turned out, in spite of best intentions, not to be able to write/edit my way through. My moment of distraction corresponded with waves of anxiety passing through the book world from the two ends of the book-making enterprise: how books physically get made and how they get delivered into people’s hands.
The unexpected durability of people’s attachment to reading physical books, even before the pandemic but also during, took the industries that make books a bit by surprise. The supply-chain disruptions throughout the economy of Pandemic Year Two struck a corner of the manufacturing sector that had not been preparing for a robust future. This month it’s the national paper shortage that has claimed center stage. Even the former president’s virtually self-published book struggled, apparently, to get made in sufficient volume for its holiday release. Sixty containers of cookbooks were lost at sea in January, in transit from the Chinese printers that now handle most color printing for US publishers. The surge in online ordering (for everything) has created booming demand for cheaper-to-produce shipping cardboard from an industry without the capital resources to upgrade to produce more book-quality paper. I learned from Jane Friedman’s author-focused newsletter Hot Sheet that, additionally, many paper manufacturers have been bought up by private equity firms who, in the words of Bill Rojack of Midland Paper, speaking in January to the Book Industry Study Group, “don’t buy these assets to keep them the same. Paper profitability today often lies in converting mills over to packaging, such as Amazon boxes, or simply making more profitable grades of paper that aren’t used by book publishers. Publishers will have to increase book prices.” Such bad news to those of us who want to make books more available, to a broader public. Private equity, one notes, has had a similarly baleful effect on the local news business. Isn’t there a way to create policies that disincentivize cannibalistic purchase of businesses needed for the health of our information economy? (Plus isn’t it supposed to be good for the atmosphere to plant trees, paper’s raw material?)
The balance between print and digital reading as we move through the pandemic is something I struggle myself to understand. Print reading remains unexpectedly strong, nourished in part by the pandemic boom in online retailing that has proved both a strain and a lifeline to independent bookselling. Both school and public libraries’ ability to serve readers digitally expanded dramatically during the pandemic (to the book industry’s detriment, according to one nay-sayer, but not many library advocates). Meanwhile a robust and largely uncharted parallel industry of self-publishing that is mostly digital continues to show gains. Jane Friedman, for example, recently offered an overview of Vella, Amazon’s new serial self-publishing platform. Serial self-publishing in some respects resembles newsletter platforms like this one, in that it allows authors to sell their work directly to readers as they write it, but the platforms are oriented toward communities of serialized fiction readers and writers, many of them authors themselves. As Jane Friedman says, “Almost every successful author we’ve talked to is part of a community of Vella authors.” She linked to an article in Elle about Colleen Hoover, an originally self-published author who is now the third most followed writer of all time on the read-sharing site Goodreads, after Stephen King and Bill Gates, and with by now dozens of books written and contracts for more with multiple mainstream publishers. As Elle says, “despite [her] unbelievable trajectory, there’s a fair chance that if you’re not a young and Very Online female fiction reader, you’ve never heard of her.” Washington Post book reviewer Ron Charles covered in his newsletter a book by Megan Walsh on “What China Is Reading and Why It Matters” which noted that “the mainland’s internet literature boom makes it the largest self-generating industry of unregulated, free-market fiction in the world,” with the scale and ingenuity of its online writers and readers creating a forum that eludes the censorship prevalent in traditional publishing. Last week two of the US’s most visible non-Amazon self-publishing platforms, Smashwords and Draft2Digital, merged, creating a company serving 250,000 writers publishing 800,000 e-books and 11,000 physical print-on-demand books.
I wonder how large the overlap is between the avid readers who participate in self-publishing platforms, many of them nourished by active and synergistic presence on social media, especially the unexpected bookselling juggernaut, TikTok (Barnes and Noble CEO James Daunt said a few weeks ago that BookTok is giving bookselling a boost not seen since Harry Potter), and the traditional book world …
Read Part Two of this post here!
Ann Kjellberg is the founder and editor of Book Post.
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