16 September 08 | Chad W. Post

Going into it, I expected to disagree vehemently with Boris Kachka’s article about the publishing industry that’s simply titled, The End. But after reading the entire thing, and discovering that he’s primarily concerned with “the end” of commercial publishing, I found this rather well-thought out and quite interesting.

It would be impossible to encapsulate a article of this sort here, but basically, Kachka looks at a number of facets of publishing (author advances, new difficulties in marketing, shrinking bookstore market, the Kindle, etc.) and how publishers are struggling in every instance. Well, at least commercial publishers overspending on advances and banking on the blockbuster model (one huge best-seller will offset other mediocre selling titles).

For instance, $1.25 million for Dewey: A Small-Town Library Cat Who Touched the World? Which is described by the publisher as “Marley & Me meets The Bridges of Madison County in this heartwarming true story.” I know I sound like an elitist, but good heavens, I think Grand Central deserves to lose its shirt over this one.

(BTW, the LibraryThing Early Reviewers program this month includes both The Pets and Dewey. This means nothing in terms of final sales or audience reach—if only the playing field were as level as LibraryThing—but at this moment, 1216 people have requested The Pets and 1299 have requested Dewey. And in case you’re wondering, we paid an advance that’s a tad below $1.25 million.)

One of the points that grabbed my attention was this bit about marketing:

One key advantage of corporate publishing was supposed to be its marketing muscle: You may not publish exactly the books you’d like to, but the ones you publish will get the attention they deserve. Yet in recent years, more accurate internal sales numbers have confirmed what publishers long suspected: Traditional marketing is useless.

“Media doesn’t matter, reviews don’t matter, blurbs don’t matter,” says one powerful agent. Nobody knows where the readers are, or how to connect with them. Fifteen years ago, Philip Roth guessed there were at most 120,000 serious American readers—those who read every night—and that the number was dropping by half every decade. Others vehemently disagree. But who really knows? Focused consumer research is almost nonexistent in publishing. What readers want—and whether it’s better to cater to their desires or try harder to shape them—remains a hotly contested issue. You don’t have to look further than the pages of The New York Times Book Review or the shelves of Borders to see that the market for fiction is shrinking. Even formerly reliable schlock like TV-celebrity memoirs doesn’t do so well anymore. And “the next thing,” as Publishers Weekly editor Sara Nelson notes drily, “is not bloggers writing books.”

All of this is absolutely true, especially the bit about the lack of customer research and the belief that publishers have that despite rarely interacting with a real reader, they understand what readers want. This is something I’ve been thinking about for some time—it’s relatively rare for an editor to just talk with a reader. Not someone else in publishing, or a reviewer, or a bookseller—just your average customer/reader. In our industry, there’s an unbelievable disconnect between the publisher and the reader. One that—I believe—inevitably leads to marketing difficulties. (All publishers should read Rob Walker’s Buying In—it’s an amazing book about “murketing.”)

In addition to the parts about marketing, the other thing that caught my attention is the predictions about what will happen.

One indie publisher has been pitching an imprint around town that would go beyond what Miller’s doing—expanding into print-on-demand, online subscriptions, maybe even a “salon” for loyal readers. He envisions a transitional period of print-on-demand, then an era in which most books will be produced electronically for next to nothing, while high-priced, creatively designed hardcovers become “the limited-edition vinyl of the future.” “I think they know it’s right,” the publisher says of the executives he’s wooing, “but they don’t want to disrupt the internal equilibrium. I’m like the guy all the girls want to be friends with but won’t hop into bed with.”

(I think we’ve mentioned how slow publishers are to adapt to technological changes—or even build functioning websites!—once or twice in the past.)

But going back in time isn’t an option. A hundred Bennett Cerfs wouldn’t save the current publishing model—not without a hundred Bob Millers puzzling out the way forward, unhampered by fear or complacency. The kind of targeted, curated lists editors would love to publish will work even better in an electronic, niche-driven world, if only the innovators can get them there. Those owners who are genuinely interested in the industry’s long-term survival would do well to hire scrappy entrepreneurs at every level, people who think like underdogs.

It’ll be rough going in the meantime; some publishers will transform, some will muddle through, some will die. And there will, no doubt, be a lot of editors for whom even this diminished era will look like the last great golden age, when some writers were paid in the millions, some of their books produced in the millions, and more than half of those books actually sold. Book publishing is still a big-league business, and that’s a hard thing to let go of. “There’s something terrible,” says an editor at a prestigious imprint, “about admitting that you’re not a mass medium.”

It’s great to see someone state in print that “the kind of targeted, curated lists editors would love to publish will work even better in an electronic, niche-driven world, if only the innovators can get them there.” This still seems to be in the context of commercial publishing, but to me, it sounds like a plug for any number of smaller, independent publishers who have a particular editorial vision.


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