Most of all, publishers are going to have to think about how they maintain their appeal to authors if putting printed books in stores becomes a less important component of the overall equation. Putting books in stores is necessary to get anywhere close to total penetration of a book’s potential audience.

It’s not anywhere close, anymore. Shatzkin estimates that only 30 percent of physical books are now sold in stores. When you apply that to the number of total books sold, take that 30 percent and cut it by at least 35 percent; Ebooks represent at least that much of the book market.

Yes, bookstores are probably only selling about one book in five these says. Shatzkin shows why that number is important below.

Once those numbers become 75-25 and [niched at] 90-10, the bookstore market really won’t matter that much to most authors anymore. Whether through self-publishing — or through some fledgling publisher that doesn’t have today’s big publisher capabilities, but also doesn’t have their cost structure — authors will feel that the big organizations are less necessary than they are now to help them realize their potential.

The store is still a dream

The in-store cache is still there. The fantasy in the movies and shows is to see your book displayed in a window of a bookstore, not listed on the landing page of Amazon’s books department. And it’s oh-so-easy to find agents who remain cheerleaders for the “curated” book. It’s one that’s selected from among the many which are submitted; then re-crafted by revisions from the author [demanded by the big organizations or agents to ensure sales, or the hopes of them]; then finally edited by a pro and turned out into a sales force. That’s the big time. With three million books a year being published today, the big time represents a very small share of author success.

Things have changed in an order of magnitude. Old books don’t die anymore. Shatzkin says a new book issued in 1990 would have competed with 500,000 other possible titles for sale. Now print on demand means that nothing has to go out of print. The publishers’ backlist is gold. Today a new book competes with twenty million titles — although the chess books don’t compete on content with the true crime, and so forth.

Once bookstores became shops for coffee and blank books and writing instruments and toys, the big book corporations and publishers got a smaller share of retail space. Barnes & Noble, where I worked for a holiday season one year, got off the mat in 2022 by promising it would pivot back to selling books in retail spaces. Book retailing is going to become less important than bookselling — and the latter is much more available to the indie publisher.