Is publishing dying?

Vanessa at The Rough Draft is offended by the disillusionment in the publishing industry lately:

The fact that publishing is dying is not new. It’s been dying practically since the printing press was invented. Critics have come out almost every year since, say the 1890s declaring the novel is dead, that no one reads anymore. For some reason, everyone loves to declare such apocalyptic extinctions even though the business is still chugging along. When were there ever more than a distinct elite few writing books, reading them and talking about it?

I think she’s got a point there: when has publishing been anything but a marginal industry? The entire industry has a market capitalization of $34 billion — barely half of Apple Computer. Bill Gates could purchase the entire publishing industry and have enough change leftover to buy out Sergey Brin’s share in Google.

Okay, we’ve established that the publishing industry is dinky. But even tiny things can have a future. Could Vanessa find a future in publishing? Let’s look at what’s involved:

There will always be a need for editors. There will definitely be a need for marketers and salespeople for published work. There will be a need for designers and other production people.

Printers? Maybe they’ll end up declining a bit, but paper remains an awfully convenient and cheap way to present information.

Bookstores? They could possibly decline more, but I could also imagine Barnes and Noble progressively expanding its coffee shop with digital tools for disseminating e-books. They could end up all right.

But what about publishers themselves — basically a financial pool for getting all the above professionals together with writers?

One advantage publishers have is inertia. Self-publishing, though it’s gained traction recently, is still considered a last resort of the incompetent and unconnected. Saying you’ve published a blook with Lulu is still orders of magnitude less impressive than mentioning your new novel will be out with Harper next month. Publishers are the ultimate arbiters of taste.

So who is poised to take that role away from publishers? Blogs? Certainly the A-list bloggers could help publicize a self-published e-book, but no one mistakes an Insta-endorsement for the cachet of a imprint of a respected publishing house. Amazon? Will the largest Internet retailer assume the role of a publishing house? It’s certainly trying, by buying print-on-demand technology. I still can’t imagine the New York Review of Books sorting through thousands of POD titles at Amazon to select what to review, though. Maybe if Amazon started hiring editors to do that job, selecting an A-list of books to promote more prominently, then reviewers would begin to take it seriously. Barnes and Noble could do the same thing. But then Vanessa could just grab a job over at Amazon.

Even so, what print on demand won’t accomplish is getting people to write books. Sure, there are thousands of wannabe authors, scrambling to get published. The public has an insatiable demand for books from people who don’t want to be authors: famous people like actors, athletes, presidents, and business leaders. Those books get published because publishers give them hefty advances and hire ghost writers to do most of the work. If Amazon got into that business, we wouldn’t really be talking about print on demand, because they’d need to sell tens of thousands of copies to make a profit. Amazon would be just another publisher. Another huge portion of the publishing industry is textbooks — and trust me, qualified professors are not exactly banging down the doors of the publishers begging to write the next Intro to Accounting. These people need cash, in advance, in order to be coaxed into writing — and publishers are competing with other (much bigger) industries, who like to hire these same people as consultants. Very few people are interested in writing print-on-demand textbooks, and those who are, aren’t writing books that anyone will be interested in buying.

One thing I could imagine happening is mass-market novelists moving to self-publishing. What if John Grisham started self-publishing? He’s already got a reputation as a writer, so he doesn’t really need the publisher’s publicity engine. Instead of making 15 percent per copy, he could be getting 50 percent or more. If his next book sold a million copies, he could take home $15 million. If we’re talking about e-books, he could take home upwards of 85 percent — give a little commission to e-tailers like Amazon, and pocket the rest.

If publishers lost this gravy train and had to settle for mid-market writers, I wonder if the industry could get squeezed away from both sides — by Joe Blogger at Lulu, and by John Grisham at Amazon. Perhaps eventually, there wouldn’t be anything left for the major publishers except celebrity bios and textbooks.

Then I really do wonder if Vanessa will still want to be working for them.

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6 Responses to Is publishing dying?

  1. Pete says:

    That puny market capitalization really grabs your attention–until you remember that most of the big publishing houses are part of big media conglomerates (Bertelsman, Time Warner) which are excluded from Yahoo’s publishing industry figures. Here’s the entire list of publicly-held publishers on Yahoo’s list:

    1-800-ATTORNEY, Inc.
    ACS Media LLC
    Americana Publishing, Inc.
    Intervisual Books, Inc.
    Pearson plc
    Scholastic Corporation
    The Goodheart-Willcox Company, Inc.
    The McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc.
    The Reader’s Digest Association, Inc.
    Thomas Nelson, Inc.

  2. dave says:

    Good point, but arguably the publishing portion of those conglomerates is a small portion of their total business. Though figures are arguably hard to come by, I doubt the whole industry is bigger than Apple, and it’s certainly not bigger than Microsoft.

  3. R A Rubin says:

    I got this book about a big whale, but I’m hitting my head against the wall.!

  4. dave says:

    R.A., do I have to have read Moby-Dick to get that joke, or are you just being random?

  5. James Aach says:

    There is also the ageless issue of what publishers choose to publish. This goes back to your comments that they are the ultimate arbiters of taste. As you also note, self-publishing is looked down upon. Perhaps in the broad sense it should be, as anyone can do it. But a key thing missing in your discussion (which had to be brief, I understand) is that publisher’s, being for-profit, publish what sells, not what might be valuable in publish discourse. There are of course academic publishers, but they tend to focus on rather obtuse works which don’t enter the broad public sphere. Self-publishing and blog publishing can help take up a tiny bit of this slack on key issues. (“Tiny bit” is the operative term here.)

    As an example, I think it’s safe to say that Michael Crichton’s novel “State of Fear” has done far more to advance a position on global warming with the public than all the academic and popular science publication on the topic. And I would propose that the likelihood of an unknown coming out of a lab and successfully publishing a book like this (a techno-thriller not dealing with the military or medicine) is unlikely, no matter the quality. I say this because I’ve experienced this myself, trying to reach the public through fiction on an important topic I know a great deal about (nuclear power) – but even with endorsements from award-winning scientists and writers, I could not make it into print via the standard route. (I’ll have an essay about this experience at in the near future.) At the recommendation of web pioneer Stewart Brand, I finally put my book “Rad Decision” on a blog so that it at least would be available. I’ve since gotten a sizeable number of reader comments (from people I don’t know), almost all of which have been very positive. That’s a minor triumph, I suppose. But public discussion on the topic remains very uninformed, with little chance of it improving in the present circumstances.

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