Saving the Publishing Industry?

Certainly, times are tough in publishing. Editors and staff are being laid off. Some publishing houses have instituted acquisition freezes or slowed down acquiring new titles. Apparently, the majority of publishing firms have indicated that raises will be either minimal or non-existent. Overall, in recent months, book sales are down, and Borders Books is teetering on the edge on whether it will even survive.

Does the publishing industry need saving? Does it deserve it?

Obviously, as an author, my views tend to be influenced, if not outright biased, by my experiences and observations over the years, but I think that we do need a publishing industry, even if many of those in the industry have not looked to the future as wisely as they should have… as is clearly the case with many other industries as well.

The industry as a whole does have flaws, and these flaws have certainly contributed to the difficulties in which it finds itself, but not all the blame, or possibly even the majority of it, lies within the industry. First, however, the flaws I’ve observed within the industry.

Most editors I’ve observed over the years have great difficulty in balancing the demands of the marketplace with their own tastes, and often have even more difficulty in understanding that an excellent work that is not to their taste can exist and can in fact be published and be successful. And most editors who read that sentence will insist that it’s not true. It is. From what I’ve observed, the number of either critically acclaimed or best-selling books from first-time or unknown authors rejected by editors is far greater than those accepted by the first editor to whom they were submitted. In partial support of my observation, I would also note that the largest publisher of F&SF in the world started out as the smallest when it was founded more than twenty years ago, but has editors with by far the widest and most differing tastes of any F&SF publisher and is also one of the few houses to accept un-agented manuscripts. While agents do provide a valuable service, one aspect of that service is knowing what is acceptable to what editor, and this effectively simply extends the “taste restrictions” or various editors to the agents who are trying to sell new titles.

As I’ve noted previously, the major bookstore chains, facing pressure to increase/maintain profitability, have cut back drastically on smaller stores and outlets, particularly mall stores, and especially on mall stores in less affluent areas. This has increased short-term profits, but it has reduced book “impulse” buying and also reduced the exposure to potential new readers. Likewise, the growth of smaller “generic” genre sections in large wholesale-supplied outlets, such as WalMart and Costco, has restricted choices… and thus sales. The consolidation of the book wholesaling industry has reinforced this lack of selection — just think about all the airport “bookstores” that have the same display of books you’ve already read or don’t want to read.

There are a number of other factors, however, well beyond the control of the industry. One factor, once noted, but apparently forgotten, is the tax treatment of books in inventory in publishers’ warehouses, which effectively punishes publishers who hold larger inventories. This means that slow but steady selling books don’t remain in stock long and that even books that sell well over the years get reprinted more often and at a higher cost.

Another factor is that a lower percentage of Americans read fiction for pleasure, and many of those who do read fewer books, at least in part because Americans actually work longer hours than do people in any other advanced industrialized society. A related factor is that younger Americans read less and their reading comprehension, all the tests notwithstanding, is lower.

Yet another factor has been the inexorable and steady rise in the price of paper, leading to increased costs of production, and since paper is in fact the largest single cost factor in costs, it can’t be factored away by reductions in other costs.

And, of course, there is the obvious and large problem that, at the moment, people are worried about money and are spending less on many things, including books.

In the end, publishing will survive, but it will change. I have my doubts that ebooks or Kindles or the like will dominate the field, or not for a long time, and I don’t think self-publishing will ever be more than a small percentage of actual titles sold, simply because publishing does provide a decent service [but not outstanding, as noted above] of determining what is readable and popular enough to appeal to millions of Americans.

At the same time, it wouldn’t be such a bad idea if more leaders in the publishing field didn’t ask themselves more questions about how they could improve the quality of their offerings and not just their bottom line.