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Electric Words: Evolutions in the Publishing Industry

In the 1960’s and 1970’s the American shopping mall spread virally across the land and the book publishing industry would never be the same. The change that took place is due to a direct correlation between the physical space of the shopping mall stores and what was being bought and sold by the publishing houses. Prior to the rise of the modern mall, bookstores were generally independently owned operations with individual personalities and extensive catalogs of backlist titles. As the American consumer, however, drifted and drove towards the ubiquitous malls, where retail space carried a significantly higher price-tag, national chain bookstores began to replace independently owned bookstores. Since the physical context of the mall limited the capacity of stock in the store, publishers became less reliant on their longtime foundational backlist titles and began to depend for their profits on authors who could become instant bestsellers and, to retain these authors, publishers would pour forth great quantities of money, thus leaving less with which to take chances on new and unknown authors and authors writing beyond current market trends and fashions.

By and by, in the 1980’s and onwards, superstores, like the original Borders in Ann Arbor, Michigan, began to open their doors. While they again expanded on their inventory of backlist titles, the emphasis was still on the mega-authors whose names more or less guaranteed money made and publishers would sell titles by people like Stephen King, John Grisham, and Danielle Steele at highly discounted wholesale prices that made for larger profit margins. As these superstores continued to push independent booksellers out of business, the industry became more and more homogenized.

Meanwhile, following general economic tendencies of the age, publishing companies began to consolidate more and more; a tendency that continues on through the present day. Traditionally, individual houses and imprints represented individual tastes. This became less and less the case as the major companies dictated more and more the titles being picked up and distributed. The most powerful players in the publishing industry gradually bought up smaller houses and claimed them as imprints, often restricting the individual imprints owned by the main holding company from bidding against each other for a particular manuscript, which means lower advances for authors and less attention to the development of their books. The primary publishing companies became known as the Big Six (the Big Six are Penguin, Random House, Harper Collins, Simon & Schuster, Hachette, and Macmillian) and account for roughly two-thirds of all books published in the U.S. The Big Six, in 2013, became the Big Five when Random House and Penguin enacted an historic merger and became one company.

This merger took place in the midst of perhaps the biggest change in the publishing industry since the printing press: digitization. Indeed, as digitization came into prominence, many began to proclaim the death of the publishing industry altogether. The word “disintermediation” came into play and struck a potent chord of fear in the heads of the industry. Suddenly it seemed that there was no longer a go-between required between the reader and the author. This, of course, has turned out to not quite be the case, but the e-book has changed the game entirely. The e-book introduces the potential for the industry to become at once much more amorphous and more streamlined. Paradoxical as this may seem, the equal presence of the technology and the corporations makes it true. On the one hand, new outlets have opened and new competition. There is room for greater variety in terms of what is being published and how it is being published. Those who self-publish have an increased chance of putting their work in the hands of a wider audience, though on the flipside there is also the risk of good writing to get lost in a flood of an unfiltered outpouring of self-published work. This is one of the conundrums of the digital realm; it is much easier to put work out there but how does one get people to read it? There are extraordinary examples to give one faith in self-publishing: Hugh Howey with his sci-fi Wool series achieved enormous success self-publishing and distributing electronic editions personally through Amazon; and who could forget, try as they might, E.L. James and her Fifty Shades of Grey, which was originally self-published and distributed as an e-book. The disheartening aspect of these and other examples are that their success is rare and not that dissimilar to the rarity of the success achieved by a Stephen King or a J.K. Rowling. A person is not as likely to stumble upon a novel in the electronic sphere and read it as he is to be enticed by a cover in a bookstore, pick up the book, flip through it perhaps, and make a purchase of it.

The sunny side, though, is that books that do not easily fit a market niche have some chance of finding a way in the world outside of the large publishing companies. In that sense, this is the most exciting time for self-publishing since Walt Whitman self-published the first edition of Leaves of Grass in 1855. The immense advantage now is that it can cost essentially nothing to do electronically as opposed to publishing in print. Alongside the mention of self-publishing, it is always worth stating the wonderful and wacky world of the independent presses which are also much more likely to take chances. But, again, they lack the same distributing power of the Big Five and their plethora of imprints.

And then there is Amazon. The impact of Amazon on the publishing industry is immeasurable and the biggest bee in the bonnet of the Big Five. Amazon started a battle of sorts when it underpriced its e-books in order to entice consumers to buy the Kindle on which Amazon hoped to make back the diminished profits of the e-books. Well, eventually, to outdo Amazon, five of the then Big Six in 2012 began to make private deals with Apple that led up to a major court case in which Apple and the Publisher Defendants were accused of colluding to raise the cost of the e-books that they produced. Basically, these publishers would only sell their e-books to Apple who could then sell them to be read on the iPad without price competition from Amazon. The publishers settled out of court and Apple was held guilty of violating the Sherman Anti-trust Act.  What this signifies, apart from the cut-throat aspects of the business, is that as the way that books are sold changes, so too may the books that are being sold change. While authors are more capable than ever of approaching publication from various angles, corporate publishers and their affiliates are more than ever technologically capable of controlling what books are made readily available and how much a reader must pay for them.

In a certain sense, as publishers seek authors who represent profitability, rather than profitability that represents good authorship, and as the book becomes more ephemeral, words increasingly become commodities. This is not necessarily a new notion- Dickens and Dostoevsky and others, after all, were paid by the word or by serial installment- but with the endless stream of Twilight knockoffs and the search for the next Harry Potter (in terms of sellable series) and so on and so forth, it is evident that, to the large publishing companies, marketing is taking the place of taste whether it be good or bad. There is nothing wrong with seeking to make money off of books, as most authors themselves try to do, but the books being produced should be produced by writers and readers before businessmen, though businessmen certainly have a role to play in the publishing business and it is an important one. It is the publishing business after all and if a writer spends all his time trying to sell his books, he may soon find that he has very little time left to actually write at all. As digitization becomes more prevalent, the best thing for writers, publishers, and the reading public to do, is to explore new and various ways of making books, selling and buying books, and reading books. Meanwhile, a greater appreciation for the aesthetics, significations, and tactile experience of holding a physical book in one’s hands ought to grow as something no longer to be taken for granted. If that happens, the independent and unique bookstores may also find a resurgence and provide more outlets and more ways for different kinds of authors to sell their books. If that happens, it will be a happy day for both readers and writers alike.