Monday, November 10, 2008

Talk me down—is the book biz doomed?

Clare’s post yesterday about the demise of publishing sent me scurrying around the Web. I was
searching for signs of hope that the book publishing industry is not modeled after a Model T or a dinosaur, doomed by an era of digital entertainment to be consigned to the museum or bone yard.

What I've found so far is not encouraging. For example, I stumbled across a piece by Boris Kachka in New York Magazine, "Have We Reached the End of Book Publishing As We Know it?" Per the well-researched, well-argued article, the book publishing industry as we know it is doomed, as evidenced by the following:

  • Upheavals in the corporate executive suites
  • The mad rush to e-book publishing
  • The continuing woes of midsize publishers
  • The declining fortunes of in-store booksellers, including Borders
  • A "vertical market grab" by Amazon
Kachka’s article contains a scary message for publishers and authors. Everyone in the industry that he interviewed seems to agree that the old business model of publishing is going away, but no one has a lock on how the future will look. Kachka posits that the new “big thing” in commercial publishing might be—I kid you not—true-life stories about heroic pets who teach humans lessons about being human. The rest of the publishing landscape might consist of reduced advances for authors (not an adjustment for most midlist writers, whose advances are already paltry), some form of POD and e-book distribution, and an uncertain future for everything else, including so-called "literary" fiction.

I hope the article exaggerates, but just in case, I’m getting prepared. Did I mention I have a great story about our newly adopted cat? Her name is Bianca--she'd a lovely blue-eyed Siamese who is teaching me how to be more human. Tie-ins include a lovely "Wisdom of Bianca" cat calendar. Details to follow.

Now, about that million dollar advance…

Please someone, talk me down. Is the publishing business model really broken? Is there no hope?

If you can't reassure me, then tell me about about a heroic puppy who teaches a cat how to be more human.

Otherwise I'll have to order the e-book version from Amazon.

It'll be here in ten seconds.


  1. "the new “big thing” in commercial publishing might be—I kid you not—true-life stories about heroic pets who teach humans lessons about being human."

    I have a cat I could use as a source of info, but he's determined to sleep his life away.

  2. Joe, my new cat is trying to teach our older cat not to think like a human. Older Cat is not amused.

  3. *chuckles* I think the publishing industry is changing, it really has to evolve or it will die under it's own weight, and having read a bunch of these articles it may not be such a bad thing to change. It'll be scary for a while and for the next little bit there may not be much space in the model for the up and coming authors, but I think it may end up someplace better than where it is now.

    And there are things we can do to help. As MoonRat over at Editorial Ass put it...if you want to save the publishing industry it's simple: Buy books and get others to buy books. I think it also goes beyond that to teaching the next generation to enjoy books and value that as a place to put their money too.


  4. Excellent advice, J. Reading is reading, whether it's off the printed page or the projected page. What's most important is to encourage our children to read.

  5. JSB, I was having a discussion with a friend last night who is concerned that her son isn't an avid reader yet. I said it doesn't matter what they learn to love to read--sometimes it's Goose Bumps, sometimes Nancy Drew, sometimes Mad Magazine. Love of reading takes hold with one thing, and then grows from there.

  6. This whole issue seems to be framed by effects to the supply of books - the format, the delivery system, etc., but no one has talked about the demand for books.

    Most business models are demand-driven. So far there is still strong demand (or at least pretty steady demand) for books. Books have long been a 'niche market' and that doesn't seem to be changing.

    There may be a lot of things added to the book business like e-books and POD but so far that has nothing to do with the creation of the content by writers and editors.

  7. Good points, John. I have yet to walk into a B&N or Borders and see bare shelves.

  8. Hey Kathryn
    There was an article just today in the NYT - more gloom and doom...argh!!! If only Benjamin was still around, his 'human lessons' on how to be a couch potato could have made me millions!

  9. Oh and congrats on your new cat Bianca! We gave (as a joke) a book on cats painting to my sister-in-law. She looked at us very strangely after that - obviously she didn't get the joke!

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  11. And lol about the cat painting book, Clare! I haven't seen that one--will have to look for it!

  12. I'll head over to the NYT to read that article, Clare! John, point well taken about the demand for books still being there. Whatever the delivery platform, content still rules (we hope!).

    Found the NYT article:

  13. Seminal baseball writer Bill James was once asked about the possibility of Major League Baseball collapsing in an economic catastrophe, and how professional baseball would disappear. His answer, and I paraphrase because I'm not 100% sure these are his exact words, but he used them in response to some similar quesiton, was: two words. Bull and Shit. Capitalize them both. So long as people are willing to pay money to watch young men play baseball, there will be professional baseball. The tams and uniforms will be different, and there will be some recalculations, but there's a demand for the product.

    Same thing with publishing. People read. Fewer of them read than we'd like, but a lot of people read, and a lot of books are sold every year. (See above comment about the numbers of books on booksellers' shelves.) If the publishing industry as we know it collapsed tomorrow, some other means to get reading material into the hands of those who want to read would evolve. There's money in it, if those running the system could figure out how to get at it.

  14. Good points, Dana! Everyone fears change, but evolution of the status quo is inevitable. Our challenge is to keep up with those changes.