An Amazon Problem: The Book Is Dead, Long Live the Book

There are always exceptions, of course, like Rolf Dobelli, the bestselling author of the most successful work of nonfiction published in German in 2012. Some 500,000 copies of his book, "Die Kunst des klaren Denkens" ("The Art of Thinking Clearly"), have already been sold.

For Dobelli, the dream of writing a bestseller, one that anyone can have, has come true. It's a promise that putting together words in just the right away can lead to wealth, fame and recognition.

But the truth is that people like Dobelli are rare. Only a small top echelon of writers can support themselves with writing, and that elite group is shrinking. Meanwhile, the number of books sold in the middle of the pack declines from year to year.

Below that is a thicket of works printed in very small numbers, which are profitable for neither publishing houses nor authors. A well-known publisher estimates that only 100 writers in Germany can live well on their books, while 5,000 others cannot. Even long-established authors no longer sell as many books as they did 10 years ago.

'Why Should an Author Do All the Work?'

Dobelli doesn't believe publishing houses will ever become extinct. "Why," he asks, "should an author do all the work related to a book himself?" The marketing, the public relations, the social media campaigns?

Perhaps it's because the new freedom brought on by the Internet creates a new type of author, someone who no longer sees publishing as an e-book as a second choice, someone like Hugh Howey.

Howey, born in 1975, worked as a boat builder, a bookseller, a skipper and a roofer before writing a short story and publishing it on the Internet. It takes place at a time when people have been living beneath the earth for generations, until one man decides to climb to the surface. Howey's Internet fan community encouraged him to continue telling the story. He turned it into an e-book, which is now selling extremely well. Hollywood director Ridley Scott has since bought the movie rights. Howey's book, "Silo," will be sold in German bookstores starting this week.

The interesting thing about Howey is how consistently he sidelines publishing houses in marketing his book, apparently out of pure calculation. "I prefer the speed and the freedom I have when I do this work myself."

When Howey finally did sign a contract with US publisher Simon & Schuster at the end of last year, after hesitating for a long time, it only applied to the print version of his book. He kept what was truly important to him, namely his digital rights.

So do books have a grim future? Are the last of us closing our books?

Not necessarily. Just take a look at a new breed of publishers emerging, like Jo Lendle, who will soon succeed Michael Krüger at Hanser. He's pinning his hopes entirely on the aura of the book, which remains unbroken, and sees it as the most important capital of publishing houses.

Boutique Publishing

"Even in a culture in which e-books are read, publishers still have an aura," he says. "They embody different tastes." Publishing houses, he says almost defiantly, "will always be more than the sum of their books."

What Lendle is describing is the luxury boutique option. In a market that is becoming increasingly global, packaged and uniform, the unconventional stands a chance of succeeding once again. Despite the mathematics and the predictability of the consumer behavior, the success of literary books cannot be planned or predicted. In this sense, it resembles a game of chance.

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