Last month, Publishers Weekly published an “end of the publishing industry as we know it” article that was very different than most of the other “end of the publishing industry as we know it” articles, mainly because it was really good.
As it happens it was written by former Random House CEO Peter Olson, and he addresses a somewhat familiar litany of problems: the weak standing of bookstore chains, discount stores treating books as loss leaders and slashing prices (which further erodes bookstores), the rise of Amazon, and the sinkhole of confusion that is e-book pricing.
His solution? Demand-based pricing on e-books, partnership with Amazon, and enough with the layoffs.
The article is must-read of all must-reads if you want to know the challenges facing the book industry. Olson should know. He was there, and you won’t find a better summary of what the industry is facing, and particularly new authors. Olson writes:
“Despite the drive to cut costs, the market for advances for celebrity books shows few signs of abating in 2009. Publishers will likely continue to overbid for potential bestsellers, justifying their offers on marginal contribution from outdated sales projection models. This means bad news for other writers, as the willingness of publishers to invest time and money in developing new projects and of retailers to risk stockpiling unknown authors may drop precipitously.”
Can publishing change? One Harvard Business Prof isn’t so sure.
Writing for the Wall Street Journal, Anita Elberse defends the blockbuster model, citing the blockbuster effect of publishers doing everything in their power to make a book a bestseller when they’ve paid so much, paying a lot means agents will send their best projects, bookstores take notice when a publisher is investing in a title they believe in, and the vast array of books available creates an even stronger craving in the reading public for a shared experience. People want to read what other people are reading.
So what, dare I ask, should we make of all this?
Well, in my opinion there are two meta forces at work in book publishing at the moment. With the closing of bookstores, fewer titles being ordered by the bookstores that are left, and more people buying their books in stores where there are fewer titles available (i.e. box stores like WalMart), there is tremendous pressure on publishers to invest in the few books that can reliably sell.
At the same time, the Internet and e-books are opening up new sales avenues for authors who either catch on through word of mouth or are able to build their own buzz. As a result, you’re seeing progressively more self-published and small-press books rise up through the cacophony of titles and find their readers.
In essence, it’s the best of times and the worst of times. If you’re an enterprising author there is a world of opportunity out there. Never before have we had a book publishing world where truly anyone could publish and potentially find their readers. Before there was a fundamental obstacle: distribution. That’s going away. Anyone can publish. It’s a massive, groundbreaking shift! I suspect soon there will be even more opportunities for collectives and online communities to boost sales, build brands, and become real players in publishing. Out of chaos comes order.
At the same time, when faced with such a multitude of choices, people tend to go with the familiar, and publishers are following that trend and filling that niche. The blockbuster model carries a great deal of risk, and there are drawbacks to putting so many eggs in a few baskets, but it may not be an irrational choice. And of course, this means that precious few new authors will get the backing of the publishers, making it that much harder for them to break out. But once an author is able to break out and convince a publisher to invest in them, no one can match a major publisher’s combined efforts in publicity, production, and distribution.
It certainly is a brave new world. After changing so little for 75 years, the book industry is in for a wild ride.