Future of Publishing, Again

It’s probably not the best strategy to wait until things start to implode to talk about flaws in a particular business model (*cough* investment banking cough auto industry cough), but now that the publishing industry is falling apart it seems like there has been an enormous number of articles about what’s wrong with the system, what’s going to happen in the future, etc., etc. The latest is Lev Grossman’s “Books Unbound” summary in Time.

Pretty good overview, and when he puts it like this, it really does seem like our industry is totally back-asswards:

Publishing has deeper, more systemic problems, like the fact that its business model evolved during an earlier fiscal era. It’s an antique, a financial coelacanth that dates back to the Depression.

Consider the advance system, whereby a publisher pays an author a nonreturnable up-front fee for a book. If the book doesn’t “earn out,” in the industry parlance, the publisher simply eats the cost. Another example: publishers sell books to bookstores on a consignment system, which means the stores can return unsold books to publishers for a full refund. Publishers suck up the shipping costs both ways, plus the expense of printing and then pulping the merchandise. “They print way more than they know they can sell, to kind of create a buzz, and then they end up taking half those books back,” says Sara Nelson, editor in chief of PW. These systems were created to shift risk away from authors and bookstores and onto publishers. But risk is something the publishing industry is less and less able to bear.

If you think about it, shipping physical books back and forth across the country is starting to seem pretty 20th century.

I swear, the only ones who really wins in this game are UPS and FedEx. It’s not like stores make money by paying someone to order too many books and then pull them from the shelves and ship them back, and it certainly doesn’t help publishers or authors . . .

There’s a lot more that can be said about what’s wrong with the current model, but Lev goes one step further and paints a picture of what the “new publishing” will look like:

In theory, publishers are gatekeepers: they filter literature so that only the best writing gets into print. But Genova and Barry and Suarez got filtered out, initially, which suggests that there are cultural sectors that conventional publishing isn’t serving. We can read in the rise of self-publishing not only a technological revolution but also a quiet cultural one—an audience rising up to claim its right to act as a tastemaker too.

So if the economic and technological changes of the 18th century gave rise to the modern novel, what’s the 21st century giving us? Well, we’ve gone from industrialized printing to electronic replication so cheap, fast and easy, it greases the skids of literary production to the point of frictionlessness. From a modern capitalist marketplace, we’ve moved to a postmodern, postcapitalist bazaar where money is increasingly optional. And in place of a newly minted literate middle class, we now have a global audience of billions, with a literacy rate of 82% and rising.

Put these pieces together, and the picture begins to resolve itself: more books, written and read by more people, often for little or no money, circulating in a wild diversity of forms, both physical and electronic, far outside the charmed circle of New York City’s entrenched publishing culture. Old Publishing is stately, quality-controlled and relatively expensive. New Publishing is cheap, promiscuous and unconstrained by paper, money or institutional taste. If Old Publishing is, say, a tidy, well-maintained orchard, New Publishing is a riotous jungle: vast and trackless and chaotic, full of exquisite orchids and undiscovered treasures and a hell of a lot of noxious weeds.

There’s more to this issue that I could possibly unpack in a paragraph, but it seems to me that the publishers most well suited to this sort of “riotous jungle” are the ones that have a particular vision, that inspire public trust, and that are most interactive with their readers. More crassly put—the publishers that have a strong brand. Which is funny since for years publishers have been claiming that books don’t work this way, that there isn’t a brand awareness or allegiance among readers. (And there probably isn’t when you’re talking about wide-and-low general publishers.)

This also represents the sort of paradigm shift that Richard Nash likes to talk about—that publisher need to evolve from the current business-to-business model to a business-to-consumer model. I think that concept is at the heart of what’s going on in publishing these days, and although I don’t think publishing or reading or books will ever end, it’s easy to envision a time in which book culture has evolved in a way that’s not exactly like Lev’s vision, but is much more in that direction than how things function now.

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