Publishing Models, Translations, and the Financial Collapse (Part 10)

This is the tenth 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. This is the penultimate part of the series . . .

Currently the marketplace is dominated by the idea that books should be enjoyable and useful, an entertainment alternative equivalent to watching TV or surfing the Internet. But, to be honest, books aren’t as immediately gratifying as a TV show. People who really read, who buy lots of books, are often attracted to the unique things the medium has to offer that goes beyond simple amusement. This discrepancy between books as simple entertainment and books as unique medium could be one of the reasons behind the dismal numbers reported in the NEA Reading at Risk and To Read or Not To Read reports, which found that in 2006, 15-34 year olds spent less than 10 minutes a day reading for pleasure. And that between 1985 and 2005, household spending on books fell by 14% when adjusted for inflation.

Independents driven by an editorial vision—houses like New Directions, Archipelago, Europa Editions—are in a better position because they aren’t trying to appeal to an enormous range of pleasure seekers, but are engaging with an active audience that is dedicated to the idea of serious literature. These houses are “deep” publishers doing a lot of books within a certain aesthetic range. Commercial presses ten to be very horizontal—publishing a few titles from a huge range of categories. Most importantly though, is the genuine desire to connect with their audience.

Despite having all the necessary resources and reach, commercial houses have historically been pretty bad at truly engaging with their audience. The websites for HarperCollins and Random House are aesthetically disastrous, and have little that draws a reader back or starts an electronic “relationship” with its fans. You may find excerpts and basic book data on the site, but you’ll also find an Obama book next to a cooking book next to a Michael Crichton thriller. There’s not much of a voice present on these sites, and there’s definitely not a sense of community. It’s as if the commercial publishers can only view readers as clients rather than supporters.

This idea that a press partners with its readers rather than simply treating them as customers is a concept that I believe will shape the future of publishing. For ages publishers have cut themselves off from their readers. For instance, the general public isn’t allowed to attend Book Expo, since publishers only want to deal with people in the industry. And the chain linking an editor with a reader is enormous, stretching from the author to agent to editor to sales department to wholesaler to bookstore buyer to bookseller to reader.

There are two main reasons that I think the iPod has been such a cultural force (aside from the “cool” factor): it isolates the user and makes him feel like a unique individual, while providing the listener with a greater freedom of choice than ever before. Parallel to the rise of the iPod and its message of individuality, social networking sites allowing people to connect and share information and recommendations have become more and more popular as well. Each of these innovations allows creators and producers to directly interact with “customers.” This combination of individual enjoyment, the empowerment of nearly unlimited choice, and instant access to a community of like-minded people is incredibly powerful and, in my opinion, is the setting the publishing industry should cultivate to engage and energize a large group of readers willing to explore and enjoy all types of literature.

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