Publishing and the twilight of the printed word

by John MacBeath Watkins

The publishing industry is ripe for reinvention.  I saw Tom Dougherty, founder of the Tor imprint, talk a few years back and he said he was printing three books to sell one.  Books that didn't sell had their front covers stripped and sent back to the publisher so that the publisher give the bookseller credit for the purchase of more books.

There are a couple reasons for this.  The publisher can't write off the cost of producing the book if it hasn't sold or been destroyed; until one of those happens, the book is an investment rather than an expense.  By taking back books the stores don't sell, the publisher plays an important role in financing the bookstores' stock.  If the books are remaindered, they must be shipped back to the publisher, then shipped to a store that sells remainders.  The cost can be more than the price the book will command in the bargain bins.

This is part of the reason that books can't hang around and find an audience.  Another is the transformation of the publishing industry over the past few decades, in which the gentlemanly publishers of a more tweedy age have been bought out by entertainment conglomerates and eccentric independent bookstores succumbed to chain megastores.

The result has been something like monopsony, with publishers so dependent of Barnes & Noble that their entire business strategy has been to find a book the chain can promote and sell all across the country.  In a month they might know if the book is a success or a failure.  If it's a success, sales will be higher for that book than it would have been under the old system, as the homogenized culture of the big-box store promotes the same books across the country.  If it's a failure, there are not enough independent bookstores to give it a chance to find an audience.

In addition, the entertainment conglomerates are more comfortable pursuing the same strategy they do in the movie business, paying top dollar for top talent and devoting their promotion to the chosen few.  The result is both market forces and habits of mind that feed the culture of the blockbuster.

But the problem with the publishing industry is that almost no one can pick winners.  An author might produce a blockbuster, then decline to the point where people start comparing them to Howard Fast.  Another might toil in relative obscurity, never having a best seller, but producing books that sell year after year as long as they are kept in print.

One way to approach this is the way Tor has, by publishing a lot of different authors and seeing what succeeds.  This works best in genre fiction, such as sci fi and fantasy, where good cover art and word of mouth can give a book life.

The next question is, how will the new world of publishing look?  Will Amazon manage to make itself dominant in e-books the way Barnes & Noble made itself dominant in physical books?

Or will there be enough distribution channels for publishers to promote the niche author, the book that will sell a few thousand copies to a dedicated group of followers?  Amazon can do a little of this, but sites dedicated to a smaller area of publishing might have a chance to find audiences for authors who would be lost in the sea of offerings from Amazon.  Could the New Yorker become a publisher people go to for poetry and short stories?  Electronic distribution means that the marginal cost of more pages is less than it would be for the physical magazine; the editing costs would increase with the number of pages, but the printing costs would be non-existent.  You can already buy cartoons from the magazine.  It clearly has the possibility to blur the line between magazines and publishers.

In addition, there are many orphan titles, the rights to which belong to publishers who do not consider it a viable business proposition to keep them in print.  With the lack of production costs and no carrying costs for inventory, such books can be in print again.

We may also see a transformation in the nature of what is published.  The nature of the book is partially dictated by the physical nature of the object.  Clarissa, by Samuel Richardson, ran to nine volumes; the modern novel tends to be one volume, about the same length as one of the nine Clarissa volumes.  Authors with as severe a case of logorrhea as Richardson can spread their wings on line, while those who are more concise need not pad to make the book look right on the shelf.  One of my favorite short stories is The Scarecrow, by Kalil Gibran.  It runs only seven lines.  A magazine that pays by the word would get it almost for free, but it could command as much as people feel it's worth as an electronic offering.

Could poetry find an opening?  It's a curious thing, but the most-read post on this blog is a poem, The Pirate With a Hook for a Heart.  It's nothing like modern poetry, and I doubt there is a poetry magazine that would publish it, but it seems to have a broad appeal.  A more open market for such offerings could transform this moribund form and free it from the academic bonds that have made the public loose interest in it.

Now consider The Scarecrow, and ask yourself, why must this be in a book (The Madman) to find an audience?

The scarecrow

by Kalil Gibran

Once I said to a scarecrow, "You must be tired of standing in this lonely field."
And he said, "The joy of scaring is a deep and lasting one, and I never tire of it."
Said I, after a minute of thought, "It is true; for I too have known that joy."
Said he, "Only those who are stuffed with straw can know it."
Then I left him, not knowing whether he had complimented or belittled me.
A year passed, during which the scarecrow turned philosopher.
And when I passed by him again I saw two crows building a nest under his hat.

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