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Video: Grisham: Printed books on the way out?

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    >>> we're back now at 8:36 with a fist -- first, excuse me -- for one of the most successful writers of his generation. john grisham is the master -- i think you'll agree -- of the legal thriller . but his latest book, number 23 if you're counting, is something different. it's a selection of short stories called " foard county ." nice to see you again.

    >> always good to be here, matt.

    >> and the most fun you've had writing a book, i understand.

    >> it was a lot of fun. the stories sort of piled up over the last 15, 20 years, and they weren't really complete until early this year, and i got busy and wrapped them all up. but the editing, the rewriting was just a whole lot of fun. a lot of humor in the stories.

    >> but when you say you wrapped them all up -- i read that one story took you about two weeks to write. another has been tumbling around in your brain for 20 years. how do you keep a story in ann unfinished mode for that amount of time?

    >> well, a lot of ideas. all seven of these stories began as potential novels. the idea was there.

    >> and they just weren't big enough --

    >> weren't long enough.

    >> -- to stretch into 700 pages?

    >> they weren't long enough. i couldn't mentally see the entire book. i couldn't work out the -- you know, you have to have a great beginning, a compelling opening, a finish that's probably unpredictable. in the middle you've got to sustain the narrative tension for 300 pages, and that's the hard part.

    >> one thing i know has got to be easier. if you start writing a short story and you run into a problem -- and all writers have problems, plot problems, whatever -- it's got to be easier to fix a short story than to go back in the middle of a novel and try to fix it.

    >> far easier. the problem with -- the trick with a novel is don't have the problem. plan it, outline. think it all the way through before -- i've learned that lesson many times the hard way. i outlined an entire book -- chapter 1 , chapter 2 , all the way to chapter 40, and that may take several years.

    >> so there's no guess work. when you sit down to write the final version, you've taken a lot of the guesswork out of it.

    >> oh, yeah. i know the main plot , the subplots, the characters. it's -- the outlining is not any fun, but it's crucial.

    >> interesting in that you call it " foard county ," which by the way was featured in your first book " time to kill ." give me a sense for ford county and what is it about that place that resonates in your writing mind?

    >> it's smalltown mississippi, smalltown south, smalltown america . it's where i grew up. i practiced law in a town similar to that, lived in a town similar to that. that's my courthouse, my courtroom. seven of the stories -- four of the seven deal with smalltown lawyers doing crazy things, things i saw, things i thought about. it's a lot of the stuff i lived. some of it's pure fiction. a couple stories have no lawyers, but there's a lot of smalltown color and a lot of humor and some tragedy.

    >> let me get away from small towns then for a second and let's talk about big business , shall we? whoa, what was that?

    >> i'm afraid to look.

    >> i know. last week, the american booksellers association asked the justice department to investigate what they call predatory pricing of certain books being sold by amazon, target and walmart. your book is one of ten that is being discounted dramatically. i think the book sells for what, $24?

    >> it's a $24 book, and you can buy it at walmart, amazon and now target online for about $9.

    >> now if i'm a consumer, i would say why buy it for $24 if i can buy it online for $9. and as a author and writer, you say what?

    >> truthfully, it doesn't affect me, what i get --

    >> not individually --

    >> in the short-term, but it's a disaster in the long-term. the book is worth $24. that enables me to make a royalty, the publisher to make a profit and the book store to make a profit. it's a fair price . we've been paying that for a long time. if a new book is now worth $9, we have seriously devalued that book, and who knows where it's going to go from there? keep in mind, they're losing money. they're paying about $10 or $11 for that book they're selling for $9 --

    >> they're doing it for a competitive edge, trying to underprice their competition --

    >> that's why it's a short-term, it's short-sided, short-term, and they're smart people . i can't tell them how to run amazon, but they know what they're doing, i think, but we're going to get to a point -- if a book is worth $10, okay, whether it's a discounted hardback at amazon or an e-book sold by amazon for the kindle -- if we're at $10, okay, then suddenly, the whole industry's going to change. you're going to lose public shers, book stores. i'm probably going to be all right, but at spirg writers are going to have a very hard time getting published.

    >> do you think it's a free market and they can charge what they want, especially if they're taking a loss on it?

    >> it's a free market . there's no legal case . i'm not issuing to sue amazon or walmart. they've sold a lot of books, but the future is very uncertain with books. and the deep discount will take care of itself. the uncertainty comes with the e-market. five years from now, how many of us are going to be reading books on kindles, these sony readers, these beautiful gadgets and devices that are going to get better and better and cheaper and cheaper? if it's hatch of us, then you'll wipe out tons of publishers and book stores and we'd buy it all online.

    >> a story we'll be filing, certainly of interest on you. the new book is " ford county ." thank you for being with us. you can read an excerpt at todayshow.com.

TODAY contributor
updated 11/3/2009 12:03:56 PM ET 2009-11-03T17:03:56

He’s sold more than 250 million books around the world — but even John Grisham is worried about the future of the printed word in the wake of deep discounting of best-sellers by major retailers and the advent of e-book readers like Amazon’s Kindle.

Grisham’s latest book, “Ford County,” is among those being sold for $12 at Amazon.com, and it is also deeply discounted at Wal-Mart and Target as part of a price war that has erupted between the competitors

“Truthfully it doesn’t affect me — in the short term,” Grisham told Matt Lauer on TODAY.  “But it’s a disaster in the long term.”

Bleak future
“Ford County,” which is suggested to retail for $24, is one of 10 books that are being deeply discounted. Books by Stephen King, Sarah Palin and James Patterson that are supposed to sell for between $25 and $35 are among the titles now being sold by the companies for $8.98 and $9.

Paying full price for the books is essential to keep publishers, booksellers and writers in business, Grisham said.

John Grisham’s latest book is his first collection of short stories. All of them are set in Ford County, Mississippi.

“That enables me to make a royalty, the publisher to make a profit and the bookstore to make a profit,” he said. “If a new book is worth $9, we have seriously devalued that book.”

In response to the discounting, the American Booksellers Association wrote a letter to the Department of Justice on Oct. 22, asking that it investigate the companies’ practices, calling them “illegal predatory pricing.” But Grisham, who was a practicing attorney before becoming a writer, says that there’s not much that can be done to fight the discount pricing in court — even though he calls the practice “short-sighted.”

“It’s a free market — there’s no legal case,” he explained. “I’m not itching to sue Amazon or Wal-Mart … they sell a lot of books. But the future is very uncertain with books.”

Image: Kindle DX
Mark Lennihan  /  AP
Widespread adoption of e-book readers like Amazon’s Kindle will “wipe out tons of bookstores and publishers” and make it hard for aspiring writers to get published, John Grisham predicts.
E-books eat away
And the price war is not the only challenge the publishing industry faces nowadays. E-books sold for the Amazon Kindle and the Sony Reader have eaten into profits of publishers and booksellers — and Grisham says the future looks bleak.

Regarding reading books electronically, he told Lauer: “If half of us are going to be doing it, then you’re going to wipe out tons of bookstores and publishers and we’re going to buy it all online.

“I’m probably going to be all right — but the aspiring writers are going to have a very hard time getting published,” he added.

Grisham’s book “Ford County,” released today, is a departure from his usual fictional legal thrillers. The book is comprised of seven short stories set in a small town in Ford County, Miss.

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