Wednesday, November 26, 2008

The publishing business: up and down

The NYT on the deeply weird past few months in the publishing industry:
In less than a week the book publishing industry has been set abuzz by the news that one publisher is so uncertain about the economic climate that it has temporarily shut its doors to most manuscripts while another is celebrating a banner year by handing out extra bonuses to all its employees.

The bad news came from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, a company formed from the union of two venerable publishers of authors like Philip Roth, Jonathan Safran Foer, G√ľnter Grass and J. R. R. Tolkien.

On Monday a company spokesman said that with rare exceptions, editors were temporarily not acquiring new books, an extraordinary move that rattled agents throughout the industry.
On the surface these twin pieces of news would seem to suggest that success in the book industry, as with other forms of entertainment, is increasingly dependent on the production of major hits, works that are so successful that they can support a family of less successful siblings. David Young, chairman and chief executive of Hachette Book Group, said that the company had racked up 104 New York Times best sellers this year.

Once upon a time, some publishers suggested, they could cultivate under-the-radar authors and slowly build an audience for them over several books. Now, with few exceptions, books tend to come out of the gate at the top of the best-seller list or be deemed failures.

The article goes on to give voice to others within the publishing industry who argue that the backlist is where long term viability still exists.

I think that's exactly right. The book publishing industry is in trouble because decades of acquisitions and conglomeration have turned what was basically a cottage industry into divisions of international media corporations with demands for constant and substantial quarterly revenue growth. A few mega-success stories like The Da Vinci Code and Harry Potter have convinced the industry that it can operate on a blockbuster business model where a few books sell millions of copies and pay for everything else. The two problems with this business are 1.) not very many books are going to be million-copy bestsellers, less than one every two years, and maybe less than one every five years, and 2.) the pressure of the business model is toward publishing only books that the company thinks have the potential to become million-copy bestsellers. This tends to homogenize output, and defeats the one potential benefit of the blockbuster model, which is that it (in theory) provides the opportunity to publish books that should be published but that are near-certain to lose money in the short term.

While the article expresses a a certain concern for those who are trying to enter the publishing industry, either as authors or as publishers, I think that the future of publishing demands new blood. We need new small presses who are able to take advantage of their local and regional markets. We need authors who are looking for success that isn't measured by the bestseller list. (I'd like to say that we need local booksellers to provide an outlet to supplement the national chains, but, ironically, direct online sales and may make this possible already.) New York will probably always be the center of our country's literary universe, but, interestingly, the future of publishing may involve creating a universe around and outside of New York.


Tim said...

What about the fate of the independent bookstore + independent press as a joint concern? If you think about the alternative publishing movements of the past, that's where a lot of the action has really happened. City Lights and Shakespeare and Co. would probably be the best known, but I was reading just the other day about Cleveland's Asphodel Bookshop, which published some out-of-print George Oppen stuff back in the sixties. That's pretty far removed from NYC.

Lots of small heroes. And it is a model that makes a lot of sense, insofar as each of the two operations can help build up the other. Is this even feasible today, or has the trend toward amalgamation hurt both publishing and bookselling so badly that joining the two would be like putting an anchor on a cannoball?

Gavin said...

I think it would be silly for small publishers to not take advantage of overlapping interests, and you can get into some nice chicken-and-the-egg arguments about City Lights: bookstore? publisher? My sister! My daughter!

What's strange about the current marketing and selling reality is that a.) online retail may make physical presence in a bookstore unnecessary—after all no copies on the shelf means no returns—and b.) selling through independent and local booksellers is likely not enough to sustain even a small publisher.

Again, it would be foolish to not establish relationships with like-minded independent and regional booksellers, but the absence of independent and niche booksellers point toward the necessity of a DIY ethic. McSweeney's and their San Francisco "Pirate Supply Store" offer one potential model as well as an important lesson: books don't have to be on the shelf next to books and books alone.

So a joint project would be valuable, but the market problems are bigger than a simple partnership could solve. Sadly, independent booksellers will not save small publishers, and small publishers will not save independent booksellers.