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Bullet Train

E-books were a slow train coming until Stephen King put some propulsion behind them. Will clubby, head-in-the-sand publishers catch this ride or tumble from the caboose?

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I began my discussions about the coming transformation of the book industry with Jack Romanos, who runs Simon & Schuster, the presumptive publisher of the Stephen King e-novella Riding the Bullet (presumptive because S&S didn't actually print or distribute the book). Simon & Schuster is also my publisher.

As such, I was sitting on Romanos's couch with the normal author emotions of helplessness and fury toward publishers starting to surface, and it was not long before I began to feel like a rebellious high-school-newspaper editor interviewing the remote and patronizing principal (Romanos is in fact an affable, down-to-earth guy -- although famous in the book business for never making eye contact).

"Well, what do you think is going to happen?" Romanos asked, after I indicated that I thought his version of the future -- i.e., everything pretty much goes on as before, except some books are published electronically -- was a pipe dream.

"You're done for," I said, feeling the power. "You don't have technology skills; you bring no particular distribution advantages to the electronic marketplace; and from a capital standpoint you won't be able to compete with pure-play Internet companies with big market caps. It's possible you can still truck books to bookstores, but that's going to be just a small part of the new book market."

Now this could have been for him just another dreaded interaction with a difficult author. But it was also likely that he was reading the same writing on the wall that I was. "I hope you're wrong," he said -- but weakly.

"Here's what I think will happen: Twenty-four months from now, the stock market willing, there will be a new kind of publisher. With no production costs, no sales staff or sales commission, no warehouse."

Indeed, this whole Stephen King thing was having a strange effect on everyone. "Who knew?" is the way bookish people are reacting to the more than half a million people willing and able to download a book. Even Romanos, who has some reason to be pleased -- he can credibly argue he's leading the charge into this new world, not to mention making money from something that costs nothing to make -- has more reason to be rattled. If people are truly ready to read books that are not books, the future function of Simon & Schuster and the other book publishers (all six, at last count) becomes extraordinarily uncertain. What's more, because the King book has now proved the market, Wall Street will surely be eager to finance upstart companies that can aggressively exploit it.

"I do think we bring added value in the form of traditional publishing skills." He sighed. "We edit books . . ."

It is possible, I suppose, that Romanos, coming from the business side, might actually believe that the people he pays who are called editors actually edit.

". . . and we market them. What did we do for Michael's book?" He turned to one of the marketing people sitting with us. "Didn't we put up a Website?"

They did. Although they did not seem to know that part of putting up a Website is getting people to come to the Website, which they did not do (S&S, even more adamantly than other publishers, no longer believes in advertising). But I was not going to renew the please-please-promote-my-book anguish. The book-industry business model is very clear: A publisher acquits its promotional responsibility as cheaply as possible (thereby protecting its downside) and hopes an author has an appetite for self-promotion, his or her own network to leverage, and media favors to call in.

As it happens, this is a less-than-perfect model for selling printed books (where, no matter how little you promote, or because of how little you promote, you're stuck with the cost of printing the books you don't sell). But it's a perfect model for electronic books. With no cost of goods, if a book doesn't sell it costs you nothing, and if it does sell it's almost pure profit.

The book business in New York is a very small business. In many ways, its insularity defines it. Everybody knows everybody; everybody has worked with everybody.

Its other defining trait is that it is almost economically impossible to succeed in the book business. Book companies offer a smaller return on investment than other media enterprises; book professionals are paid much less than their counterparts in other media businesses; book talent, in all but a special few cases, has to work a day job. And most ruinously, there is almost no real growth in the industry itself.

Still, we do it. In part we do it -- and, no doubt, in part the industry suffers for it -- because we have self-selected ourselves on the basis of our lack of business acumen, even our distaste for business skills, which explains not only the industry's penury and inefficiencies but its snobbishness.


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