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DIRECTOR’S DESK
Big Changes

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I travel a lot. I probably
spend as much time getting to places as I spend in meetings once I get there.
Over the past year, I began to notice something that is happening at each
airport I visit. The W.H. Smith stores were first, but now it seems that every
bookstore with an airport location has a new offer with definite appeal for
many. It’s called something like, Read Me Now; Return Me Later.

 

The basic concept is that you
purchase a book at one location, read it on your trip or even at home, and then
return the book to any airport bookstore—not necessarily the one where
you bought it—and get a 50 percent credit to apply toward the purchase of
another book.

 

At first, this sounds like a great
deal. For the customer, definitely. But for the publisher and author, I wonder.

 

Say I purchase a copy of John
Irving’s latest book for $29.95 at the XYZ Airport; return that book to the ABC
Airport and receive a credit of $14.97 toward my purchase of another title.
What happens to the John Irving book I bought first? Does it go back into
circulation as a used book? Or, if I have been very neat while reading and
carrying it, does it return to the shelf as new? When it sells again, what
price will it sell at? The original $29.95, or less than that? And, if less,
how much less?

 

As the publisher and/or author, I
would get revenue from the first sale. But each time the book is resold, I’d
get nothing. Doesn’t seem quite fair, does it?

 

It is interesting to note that
used-book sales grew by 11 percent in 2004 compared to 2003, according to a new
study previewed by the Book Industry Study Group and sponsored by PMA along
with other groups (see “News on Four Fronts” by Kent Sturgis). That’s quite an
increase. The million-dollar question that’s unanswered at this point is, what
increases will we see in the future?

 

Now, used-book sales have been
around forever. The academic market actually figures the number of resales each
of its titles will have and prices books accordingly. But can you imagine
seeing the latest John Grisham or Tom Clancy hit the shelves with a cover price
of $150 because the publisher expects that this copy will have five or six
resales and must capture royalties and profits from the first book sale? It
seems silly at first, but think about it for a while.

 

Recommendations that publishers
might consider in light of increased used-book sales include ordering smaller
print runs and changing the contents for each printing so that, in effect, each
reprint would be a new edition. However, you’d have costs for updating
(research, redesign, new ISBN, etc.) and it obviously would be difficult if not
impossible with most fiction.

 

Our industry will definitely
change more rapidly over the next 5 to 10 years than in the past 30 or 40.
Technology is providing us both with joys and with things to think hard about.
It seems that our approach to dealing with change in book publishing is
typically much, much slower than the pace of the changes, and we continue to be
reactive rather than proactive.

 

As with everything, time will
definitely tell. Let’s get together the same time next year on this same
subject and see where we all are.

 

Chipping In at the Library

 

On the technological plus side, a
new process is being tested in the Queens, New York, pubic library system,
which I recently learned is the largest library system in the United States.
Using RFID (radio frequency identification, the same process that makes
EZ-Passes work), the Queens libraries are implanting a chip in each and every
book they own. A patron who wants to check out books picks them from the
shelves, walks to the counter, and places them on the RFID reader. Checkout is
completed immediately without any human interaction. And any patron who owes
fines will be alerted to that and can swipe an ATM or credit card to pay them
on the spot. The same kind of process occurs when books are returned: the RFID
chips identify the books and sort them into the proper areas for shelving,
again without human interaction.

 

I found this all so interesting
that I will be touring a library in Queens this month and will report back
about what I see and about the privacy issues that are slowing down the
implementation of this chip implant into each title when it is printed.

 

Every time I see what technology
has been able to do in our industry over the past 20 years, I am amazed, and I
feel like Arthur Clarke as I try to imagine the future. Now, if we could only
find a way for technology to increase the number of readers and book buyers in
the United States, we’d all be smiling.

 

 

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