Publishing Models, Translations, and the Financial Collapse (Part 7)

This is the seventh part of a presentation I gave to the German Book Office directors a couple weeks ago. Earlier sections of the speech can be found here. There are still a number of parts left to post, but these should all be up before the end of the month.

Stage Three: Financial Collapse, the Borders Situation, Distribution, and Other Bad News

Over the past few years—and the past few weeks—a number of events have occurred that have shaken up the industry as a whole. Some are more severe and immediate than others, but each event is shaping what the future publishing world will look like.

Even if you’re not a consummate reader, it’s been hard to miss the steady decline in book review coverage. Across the country newspapers (facing their own set of challenges) have been laying off book review staff in favor of running much cheaper syndicated reviews, such as those from the Associated Press. In the past year, a number of standalone books sections — including the L.A. Times Book Review — have been folded back into the paper. Book review editors such as Teresa Weaver at the Atlanta Journal Constitution and Oscar Villalon at the San Francisco Chronicle have lost their positions. The New York Sun, which, for all its crazy off-the-wall editorial opinions had one of the most cosmopolitan arts sections in the world, ceased publication at the end of September. And the magazine scene isn’t much better. The situation is so dire that the National Book Critics Circle started a campaign to “save book reviewing.” From a publisher’s perspective, this decline is really bad news—the fewer outlets available for review, the more difficult it will be to get any attention for your titles. Especially when everyone’s reviewing the same twelve books . . .

Distribution is one of the key problems for all independent presses. It costs a fortune (rates such as 26% of net sales plus 4% of returns, plus standard storage, catalog, and set-up fees, are not at all uncommon) and despite everyone’s best intentions, giant distribution companies aren’t ideal for getting books into stores. When sales reps are responsible for selling books from more than a hundred presses, it’s physically and mentally impossible to know all the titles they represent and to be able to specifically pitch each of these books to bookstores.
Back in the fall of 2006, AMS—then the parent company of Publishers Group West—went bankrupt, and, as a result, stopped paying the dozens of publishers PGW distributed. And if that weren’t bad enough, this happened around the holidays, and PGW wasn’t able to ship titles to stores during the most profitable time of the year for the book industry . . . Eventually, Perseus bought PGW (they bought Consortium earlier in the year), bringing together an enormous percentage of independent presses in America under one roof, but not before some serious economic damage had been done. Soft Skull almost went under and was eventually sold to Counterpoint, and presses are still laying off employees because of the lingering effects of this collapse.

There’s no need to rehash the epic financial collapse that has rocked the world economy and is sending us into a global recession, but it is worth pointing out some of the more direct effects of this situation on the publishing world. First of all, uncertainty and recessions always kill advertising budgets. Companies take out fewer ads, magazines that rely on ad revenue suffer, and the whole publishing industry slows down. This is especially true in conglomerates that consist of a publishing house, a newspaper, TV network, etc. The media is fueled by advertising dollars, and the lack of advertising could send shockwaves through the publishing industry, on the balance sheets at particular companies, and in terms of further reducing outlets for reaching readers.

I’ve heard off-the-record stories about magazines being in serious financial trouble, and I’ve heard of publishers drastically cutting their list in preparation for tough financial times. [See the Houghton Mifflin Harcourt story from yesterday.] None of this bodes well for literature, much less literature in translation.

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