26 August 09 | Chad W. Post

PW‘s Soapbox pieces can be a bit hit-or-miss, but the one this week from Douglas Rushkoff (author of several books, including Life, Inc., which, along with Gaddis’s JR, should be mandatory reading for all business school students) is pretty fantastic.

There’s nothing particularly new in Rushkoff’s depiction of what’s happened to the book industry, but it’s always good to be reminded of how the corporate structure has screwed with culture in such an insidious way (Andre Schiffrin’s The Business of Books also offers a great look at how the corporate consolidation went down):

Publishing is a sustainable industry—and a great one at that. The book business, however, was never a good fit for today’s corporate behemoths. The corporations that went on spending sprees in the 1980s and ’90s were not truly interested in the art of publishing. These conglomerates, from Time Warner to Vivendi, are really just holding companies. They service their shareholders by servicing debt more rapidly than they accrue it. Their businesses are really just the stories they use to garner more investment capital. In order to continue leveraging debt, they need to demonstrate growth. The problem is that media, especially books, can’t offer enough organic growth—people can only read so many books from so many authors.

So begins consolidation. In order to achieve the growth shareholders demand but the businesses can’t supply, corporations embark upon mergers and acquisitions, even though, in the long run, nearly 80% of all mergers and acquisitions fail to create value for either party. [. . .]

The same thinking led the conglomerates to hone in on publishing. Top-heavy, centralized bureaucracies know how to work with a B&N better than with a Cody’s or a Spring Street Books. And they applied their generic corporate management to a ragtag crew of book nerds, most of whom wouldn’t—and shouldn’t—know a balance sheet if their lives depended on it. Finally, unable to grow as fast as their debt structures demanded, these corporations have resorted to slashing expenses.

This we already know. (Some of my friends know this more personally and directly than others.) But what I like about Rushkoff’s piece is his optimism about the future:

The good news is that much of this talent—book editors, publicists and sellers—is ready to rebuild what Wall Street has seen fit to destroy. Book enthusiasts are not giving up. I get e-mails constantly from editors asking if I’m interested in writing books for their new, independent publishing houses. Many offer smaller advances but higher royalties and more attention to details—like the quality of my writing. I also get correspondence from people opening independent bookstores in the shadows of vacant outlets, stores that would be happy with a hundredth of the sales volume that made their larger counterparts unsustainable.

Behind the bad news, there is much to look forward to. Our industry has for too long favored those skilled at negotiating the corporate ladder and punished those who simply publish great books. Now that publishing has revealed itself to be a bad growth industry, it is free to rebuild itself as the vibrant, scaled and sustainable business the reading public can support.

Right on! Book lovers of the world, unite!

But seriously, I think there really is something to this. Look at all the great new presses and bookstores—mostly started by relatively young people with a lot of passion and energy. For any number of reasons—struggles of corporate publishing, e-books, implosion of chain retail stores, etc.—the next few years should be very interesting. (Although I can already see the comment below about how none of this matters since everyone spends all their time online instead of reading and kids hate books and etc., etc.)


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