The Flux and Flex of Publishing (Part 1)

We live in a volatile time. The world is changing. People are changing their minds about what’s important. Culture is changing. Social media is changing the way people interact. Even the local medium is changing from print & paper to digital & electronic. This massive flux has broad implications across the spectrum for publishers, marketers, authors, editors, and just regular individuals. But it also carries a set of specific challenges separate and isolated from each other. It’s anyone’s guess where the industry will end up, but for now, book sellers and publishers are focused on adapting in this volatile time. It will be really exciting to watch this modern day tech-mystery unfold.

In the past, book publishers, were the primary gatekeepers. They decided what got published. And to some extent, perhaps they still do. It’s all boiled down to six major publishers in the world: HarperCollins, Random House, Hachette, Simon & Schuster, Penguin and Macmillan. These six publishers, who publish most books distributed throughout the world, have recently been forced to take a back seat to Amazon in our new digital age of e-books and web-based promotions and sales. In a likely effort to conspire against online book retailers, five of the “Big Six” along with Apple attempted to raise prices on e-books and were subsequently sued by the U.S. Justice Department on anti-trust disputes. The big changes in our world mean these Big Six Publishers need to change too, but Journalist Jesse Aizenstat claims this last incident indicates that these publishing giants are not ready for change: “It reflects their pathetic victim mentality of ‘cannot do.’ These big publishers would rather close the doors and slash their staff than innovate in a changing market” (Aizenstat).

If Mr. Aizenstat is correct, perhaps this is a window of opportunity for small local publishers, like White Cloud Press, to get back in the game, producing books with an innovative “new publishing model – partnering with authors to share production costs and help sell their books” (Darling). For people already in the book industry, it may sound strange for a book publisher to talk about helping to sell books – that’s a book store’s job – but this is the land of change. As stated in class, some publishing houses have halted acquisitions altogether; mainstream publishing is frozen. Despite “too-big-to-fail” perceptions, there is an intrinsic danger in six corporations being the primary gatekeepers for information distribution in the world. Especially when it is taken under consideration that the gatekeepers don’t have the inside dope on what makes a good novel, film, comic book, etc; it makes sense that the “money men in love with book-like objects” don’t want to take risks in times of economic crisis. Now it’s every author and bookstore for himself in a dog-eat-dog, e-book economy.

Bookstores are changing too, and this time it’s different. NPR has a story on The End of Days for Bookstores, which adequately describes some peoples’ impression of the foremost book stores Barnes & Noble and Borders: “predators eager to destroy local booksellers” (Neary). And I remember back to the small local bookseller that used to be a mainstay in the neighborhood where I grew up. I did some research and even found a Publishers Weekly article about it online.

Although these two big bookstores out-competed the small local guys a decade or two ago, all of that is about to change. NPR’s Lynn Neary says “Now, the tables have turned. In the era of online buying and the e-book, both currently dominated by Amazon, the big chains are in trouble — and new technologies may provide independent bookstores with a lifeline.” For up-and-comers in the book industry, this is really great news because it means that the book industry may not have crystallized into some kind of impenetrable fascist establishment by the time we get there.

In fact, if we are careful with purchases now, and take time to cultivate understanding of complex new technologies over time, we may find ourselves in position to not just succeed, but not even be effected by the so-called dinosaurs of book sales Barnes & Noble and Borders. Illustrating this point, Neary writes, “Borders reported a third-quarter loss of more than $74 million, and confirmed that it is closing 16 stores. Despite its precarious state, one of Borders’ biggest stockholders has offered to finance the purchase of Barnes & Noble, which put itself up for sale last summer” (Neary). Now that the tables have turned on the two major book chains, the smaller independent guys have an opportunity to come back with something new in store. Introducing the new economic structures of the internet and new e-reader devices into the book industry has created a lot of challenges for everyone, but it’s also an opportunity to get creative and forge ahead. “All bookstore owners know that the digital future is now. It’s up to them to work it in a way that keeps their doors open and their shelves filled with actual books.” If they can perfect the combination of digital and print, they just might have staying power.

Works Cited

Aizestat, Jesse. The Big Six Publishers Need to Innovate Like the Good Americans That They Are.” huffingtonpost.com. Huffington Post, May 11, 2012. Web. 11 May 2012.

Browning, Sinclair. “The Haunted Bookshop Closes In Tucson.”
Publishers Weekly 244.11 (1997): 28. Academic Search Complete. Web. 7 May 2012.

Darling, John. “Environment Publishing People.” dailytidings.com. Daily Tidings Newspaper, January 07, 2011. Web. 11 May 2012.

Neary, Lynn. “End of Days for Bookstores? Not If They Can Help It..” npr.org. National Public Radio, December 14, 2010. Web. 11 May 2012.

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