Publishing Is in Disarray

I have a notion about publishing. Let me just work through it for a minute.

Publishing used to be a cozy, profitable industry, probably of medium size, somewhere between art supplies and big steel. It was highly respected; ambitious young people dreamed of sitting behind a door that said Editor in Chief or Publisher. They were very willing to get started by sitting in front of that door or even a much less exalted one.

However, publishing has been in disarray for some time now. It is beset on many sides: environmentalism (paper, ink, transportation costs), decay of the notion of a book as a luxury item, and of course, the electronic availability of free “information.”

Kids, you get what you pay for, and that goes for information, too. The publishing industry used to serve an extremely valuable purpose: it sorted out and discarded the worst of the trash and tidied up the good stuff for us so it would be well worth reading.

Now, I believe that societies and ideas run in cycles, like a spiral, like the seasons and years. Lax seasons, giddy seasons, in which we are now mired, hypnotized by our new electronic toys, eventually give way to a more serious age, usually as a response to nearly fatal excess. Publishing may yet make a comeback. But it will have to change its business model considerably to do so.

Books are just too expensive and not salable enough. I recently read somewhere—and this is probably worth about what I recall of the source—that most physical books sell in the low hundreds of copies. That is just not enough take at the till to justify the cost of manufacture and printing, let alone serious editing and a little something for the agent and the house. Clearly, the market is due for a correction.

Amazon has taken some interesting steps. It will rent you a textbook. I’m not sure whether it’s a physical or an electronic copy, but I’d bet on electronic. They are a piece of cake to repossess, and no shipping costs. And no college student doesn’t have access to a computer.

Anyway, it seems to me that to justify the costs of producing them, physical books should return to being luxury goods. If I were a publisher, I’d redirect most of my manufacturing budget to editing and marketing. I’d publish electronically only, and cheap at that. The portion of manufacturing that doesn’t go to editing and marketing goes to support public electronic libraries.

Retail space is a huge glut on the market practically everywhere. Also, the mall is where teens like to hang out. So take that empty anchor space and fill it with free wireless and half-decent terminals for those with no laptop. Have all of the library’s books available online to anyone on site, either on the person’s laptop or on a library terminal. (If you want to let the clients borrow them, you can restrict copies, as Bucks County Free Library does. Or delay availability for borrowing.)

So the publisher provides the electronic copy to the free libraries without charge. It then sits back and waits to see the borrowing history. For that’s the publisher’s fee: the usage statistics. No need to worry about whether anyone finishes it or not; all the library has to do is report the aggregate amount of time the book was open. The publisher can soon figure out how many hours of reading it takes to indicate a profitable market for that particular book in a physical edition. Some publishers will go for large numbers of cheap editions; but I think the real money will be in luxury editions. Because here’s the thing: For Nora Roberts to make it into print, she must have something real to sell. Otherwise no one would bother with her when pretty much all new fiction is free at the library or cheap on a device.

This would in effect kill off the physical book market. So be it. I know, I know, a lot of people have religious or quasi-religious feelings about the physical item. However, many of those same people feel strongly that we should protect the environment, and a swing away from manufacturing can only help there. I bet if you audited a batch of books from the forest to the landfill, you would find that the highest cost was in pollution. And let’s not lose sight of our goal, which is to restore publishing to its traditional role of respected gatekeeper of good writing. This will never be possible until publishers can beat the purveyors of free “information” at their own game. That means publishers need fairly painless pricing, no detritus when one is done with it, and a carefully built and maintained reputation for reliability.

Discarding the mass market manufactured book would also free the electronic book of tethered pricing. I cannot say how much it annoys me to buy an electronic book for the same price as the much-more-expensive physical book, only to find that the physical book has been scanned and not read to produce the electronic book. Things like ri appearing as n are dead giveaways. And no aftermarket! I can’t pass it on to the cabin crew or my sister-in-law when I’m done with an electronic book. Clearly they are overpriced and underproduced.

Post scriptum: You may have noticed that we aren’t offering much bloggage lately. That’s because Bill went and got an actual job and I’m lazy.

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