The Victorian West Welcomes Richard S. Wheeler

Richard S. Wheeler is the author of more than 60 published novels.  He is best known for his historical novels, for which he has won five Spur Awards plus the Owen Wister Award for Lifetime Achievement in the literature of the American West.  He also writes mystery novels under the name Axel Brand.

I have had the good fortune to know Richard for nearly a decade. He graciously agreed to read and blurb my first Eden Murdoch novel, AN UNCOMMON ENEMY, before I ever met him. His generosity to his fellow authors is as big as his wonderful talent.

I want to share his thoughtful essay on the tumultuous state of publishing today and why he feels the current and coming changes will benefit that industry and all those involved in it.

A Rosy Future    by Richard S. Wheeler

Available now on Amazon.com
The more I consider the future of American publishing, the more delighted I am. American publishers are gradually getting rid of various problems that have been the bane of their existence, and also evolving new channels to sell their product.

Their real product is intellectual property, not physical books. Printed books are only one of several media by which intellectual property can be transmitted and sold to customers. The onslaught of the digitized world has great and positive implications for publishing. Books can now be delivered weightlessly in a variety of digital and audio formats, all tailored to each customer's preference.

Technology is swiftly eroding the return system that has afflicted American publishers, but not those in other nations, since the 1930s. Ebooks and POD books are not returnable. Consignment distribution has meant that huge parasitic chains, like BN, have been able to stock their entire stores at minimal cost; the actual burden has been on the publishers, with BN delaying payment for its merchandise more or less indefinitely, at enormous cost to publishers, simply by returning books and using the credit to order new ones.

The transportation costs of moving books are enormous. Paper is heavy. The return system operates at high cost. All those heavy books have to be shipped, examined, warehoused, and resold or remaindered. And the accounting will be greatly simplified. Books delivered electronically are not only weightless, they are not subject to return, and that will be true of audio delivery as well. The enormous cost of hauling paper around, and warehousing paper, will be greatly diminished.

Another prospect is local printing in local bookstores, which also mitigates transportation costs. Customers can have the title of their choice manufactured in a few minutes, in cozy stores that feature display copies and covers more than actual titles, and trucking companies, UPS, the postal service, or FedEx won't get a nickel out of it, apart from delivering supplies to local stores.

Authors will benefit not only from higher royalties but also because the traditional reserve against returns will no longer be necessary in some cases, and authors will be paid promptly instead of having to wait several years. Publishers will be able to produce small editions profitably, which could revive mid-list titles and specialized editions. And that means that many fine authors, currently shut out of commercial publishing, could be profitably published.

Existing accounting is so complex that it eats deeply into publishers' budgets, but the elimination of consignment distribution will radically reduce accounting costs, and simplify royalties.

I am not worried about the collapse of the chains. That will not sink publishers, and will, after some initial difficulty, result in a far more rational and economic system of selling publishers' intellectual property in all forms. The chains are parasitic, burdening publishers with the cost of stocking those huge stores, and the publishers are well rid of them.

The industry is suddenly going light: much of that heavy paper, many of those semis full of books, most of those burdensome warehouses, most of the cost of packaging, including cover and jacket design, will disappear. Press a few buttons and an audio book will be transmitted to your personal listening device, including your computer. No more CDs to make and sell and mail.

There may be some chaos as the chains collapse, but the future of American publishing is as rosy as it gets.

[Reprinted from A Curmudgeon's Diary with permission.]


Carol Crigger said...

I can't imagine why there is still resistance to digital books. Personally, I can't wait until Christmas when I expect Santa Claus to bring me a Kindle. Mr. Wheeler's essay is so clear and makes so much sense that I wish everyone who loves books and stories could read it.

Anonymous said...

This is a very cheering commentary! Thanks!

Michelle Black said...

I am so happy that everyone is enjoying this post as much as I did. :)

Marsha Ward said...

Hurray! What a wonderful essay on moving forward into a brighter future for authors and publishers! I've wondered for years why the consignment model for selling books lasted so long, and learned a new fact: nobody else does it.

Thanks for writing this important view, Richard, and thank you, Michelle, for having Richard as your guest!

Eunice Boeve said...

Wow an upbeat look at the changing world of book publishing. Thanks.