jost amman card of booksI’ve been surveying the state of independent book publishing. We looked at the changeover from the old system that was characterized by a diverse group of robust independent houses to a system that tends to aggregate imprints under global corporate management. We saw that the international corporations have a wide range of holdings that go beyond just book publishing.

What are the implications of all that? For the today’s smaller independents it has several ramifications.

  • Conventional printing is more expensive for independents because the corporate publishers can gang jobs and order paper in bulk. In fact, at times a small publisher may have trouble even getting on a press at a company like R. R. Donnelley. (They also get less favorable terms.) With an increasing percentage of advertising moving online, printers have their own, equally serious problems, and their viability depends on having their presses running with as little downtime as possible. That means that the large clients are first at the table. Nothing surprising there, but it’s a reality that smaller presses have to live with.
  • Similarly, bookstores are dependent on the corporate publishers who produce most of the bestsellers. We can all name independent bookstores where we used to shop that have gone out of business. When it becomes difficult to meet your obligations, who do you pay first? The independent publisher who represents a small fraction of your business or the corporations that fill the greater part of your store? The result of this situation is that independent publishers are forced to write off more bad debt than large companies do.
  • Distribution is a problem for all publishers, big or small. In publishing’s beginnings, the distribution of printed materials did not present a huge problem, since books were a specialized product intended for a select, known audience. With the increasing democratization of publishing after the Renaissance, it became increasingly harder to match books with their readers. Today, with the multiplication of product and the fragmentation of markets, the task is incredibly difficult. This is especially a problem for independents because of the limited book distribution channels available to them. Getting too many books in the wrong places is as bad as not getting books in the places where their readers might find them. Book distribution is a large subject about which I will have more to say later.
  • It is in the area of promotion where the corporations really have a stranglehold on the market. We have seen that the same organizations that own most of book publishing also have extensive holdings in the very areas where, traditionally, publishers have announced and promoted their products: newspapers, magazines, radio, television. Even film now offers opportunities for cross-promotion, and there are many more nontraditional possibilities that we needn’t get into.
  • There has been a tendency to what I call the hollywoodization of publishing, which involves putting an ever greater percentage of total resources into a smaller number books at the top of the pyramid, to the disadvantage of others, including the so-called midlist books. This, from the corporate point of view, is a sensible conservation of resources. But the result is that the media discourse is saturated with discussion about a few top books. With fewer book reviews available, many feeling obliged to review the books with big promotion budgets — as Gail Pool, for one, has shown — it becomes exceedingly difficult for independents to create awareness of their titles. The problem is compounded by the shorter shelf life of books in bookstores, which makes it difficult for word of mouth to make up for inadequate promotion.

It’s time to draw this discussion to a close, at least for the moment. As some commenters have noted, my presentation has (necessarily, in my view) been a bit sketchy, but to do the subject justice would require writing at book length. I’ve learned a lot just from the comments on these posts, and I hope that I’ve at least provided some foundation for understanding the current situation in independent publishing. At some point later on I’ll come back to look at smaller pieces of the problem one at a time, which should enable a little more depth and detail.

Before closing, however, I should say a few words about how independents might adjust going forward. A few points:

  • The tendency of large publishers to concentrate on broad-market titles may present an opportunity for niche books with narrower markets. Some publishers have created viable operations by working in niches where it is easier to get books together with the appropriate readers. (I confess I still dream of old-fashioned generalist literary publishing.)
  • Technologies of book production have made it easier and cheaper to produce books than ever before. New and improving POD and short-run printing offers the possibility of keeping older titles in print, even with numbers that would not break even with conventional printing for many years. This is good news for public domain, academic, and classic titles, and a clever publisher might find ways of locating readers outside traditional bookstore channels — creativity in marketing and sales is ultimately where the solution lies for independents.
  • Self-publication becomes more feasible than in the past (but, even leaving aside the editorial aspect, self-publishers need to learn more about book design on the one hand and book marketing on the other than is evident today).
  • The internet is best viewed as a revolution in publishing. It inverts printing’s solution to the replication of documents. While printing creates many copies, each providing one view at a time, the internet enables one document to have multiple simultaneous (or successive) views. It brings the reader to the document rather than the other way around. Online publishing could subvert the old print systems in many respects.
  • But not every text is suitable for electronic publication. The printed book is a proven and perfected technology that will endure. It is tactile, sensual, portable, and more. But the economics of print publishing are volatile. Some books might become inexpensive, disposable products, while others might revert to their origins as exclusive items for a privileged class.

Or maybe they already have.

There is so much more to say, but I hear the curtain coming down. I look forward to returning to aspects of this discussion later on, and especially I would very much like to hear more from the perspectives of others.


Related: Glossary of Book Publishing


More posts in this series: part one | part two