BookstorePeople strives to help independent bookstores, but bookstores are dependent upon the publishing industry and it’s in trouble. We talked about these issues in the past and will continue in 2009. I’ve come across two excellent, if lengthy, posts about the future of the publishing industry:
Tom Engelhardt surveys recent events
Tom Engelhardt, author (including the novel The Last Days of Publishing), editor, Fellow at The Nation Institute and founder of TomDispatch.com, wrote a post summarizing specifically how the publishing industry is slashing and cutting its staff and book lists, bookstores are sending an increasing percentage of book orders as “returns,” and the reading population is changing. He offers interesting insights into why publishers have been shielded from the Internet onslaught until recently. Primarily, books don’t promote advertising, so they were ignored and escaped the problems of competing with online alternatives to newspapers and magazines. That could be changing with the advent of e-readers. He does suggest that reading electronically will probably include an advertising angle sometime in the future. The Internet has changed book reading though by offering a cheap alternative, Mr. Engelhardt notes that a month of Internet service with all it offers is about the same price as a paperback or hardback. Reading isn’t the cheapest entertainment any longer.
Pat Holt had pointed suggestions for the publishing industry
Pat Holt is our new found hero. Book editor and critic for many years at the San Francisco Chronicle, author and board member of the Center for the Book at the Library of Congress, she has a long list of impressive accomplishments; however, here’s what we love:
Increasingly concerned about the plight of independent bookstores in their struggle to survive wave after predatory wave of chain bookstores, price clubs, discounters and Internet retailers, Pat resigned from The Chronicle in 1998 to create “Holt Uncensored,” an email book column launched by the Northern California Independent Booksellers Association. Now published from the Holt Uncensored website, the column became a full-fledged blog in 2008.
If that’s not the action of a modern day hero, what is? Ms. Holt wrote a series on her website about the publishing industry called Three Things I’d Like to See. The first recommends that publishers have online royalty accounts for authors (this didn’t resonate well with the publishers). I asked Claire recently how her book was selling, she said she didn’t have any idea, she only hears if it will be reprinted. I was stunned, my lawyer side kicked in and asked how she would know if she was getting the correct royalties, she just said that’s not how it’s done. Clearly, authors need a union.
The second post suggested that publishers leave New York, cross not only the Hudson River but the Mississippi River as well. As a native Californian, I couldn’t agree more. I don’t think my kids have to go to college on the east coast any more than they should go to college in the mid-west. In fact, I think only Californians should teach California history (yes, I know there are legal issues) because I’m so sick of non-natives teaching it with disdain. I love visiting New York, but it isn’t the center of the world and the population needs to get over itself. Okay, that’s a personal rant. Ms. Holt’s very professional post discusses why it’s crippling the industry to be so insular. She argues that its exclusive nature encourages reporting that is more about the author’s life than the author’s product. She also discusses the National Book Award presentation night fiasco and how the National Book Foundation could better spend its funds to promote authors.
The last post highlights the problems with the decreasing power of editors in the publishing industry. Ms. Holt finds the root of the problem with the marketing department having too much of a say in which books are chosen for publication. Rather than allowing an editor to independently chose books, the race is for the next big author in whatever niche is selling at the time: romance novels in the 1980s, then Tom Clancy’s technical military books, and currently, but hopefully subsiding, quest books a la Dan Brown. What she didn’t mention in this post, but which I have said so many times this year when I’ve finished a book, is “this would be a great book if it was 100 pages shorter, where was the editor?” I can think of at least five books I’ve read in the last year that didn’t have a story line or a purpose that supported its physical heft.
So we end the year with foreboding for the industry. One of the aspects I like about Tom’s piece is that it compares what is going on in this industry with the automobile debacle and that helps give the situation a little perspective.