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The end of publishing, or is the sky falling?

September 15, 2008 |  9:01 am

Sky0915

New York Magazine's Boris Kachka looks at the publishing industry and sees that it's in trouble. The question is, how much?

The demise of publishing has been predicted since the days of Gutenberg. But for most of the past century -- through wars and depressions -- the business of books has jogged along at a steady pace. It’s one of the main (some would say only) advantages of working in a “mature” industry: no unsustainable highs, no devastating lows. A stoic calm, peppered with a bit of gallows humor, prevailed in the industry.

Survey New York’s oldest culture industry this season, however, and you won’t find many stoics. What you will find are prophets of doom, Cassandras in blazers and black dresses arguing at elegant lunches over What Is to Be Done. Even best-selling publishers and agents fresh from seven-figure deals worry about what’s coming next.                        

Kachka outlines a perfect storm of challenges, including the loss of bookstores -- independent booksellers have fallen from a peak of 4,700 to 1,700 nationwide -- concomitant with the rise of online giant Amazon, which is making moves to expand its books business (with print-on-demand and the Kindle). He looks at outsized advances for books that underperform, and the shifting allegiance of authors from publishing houses to agents. And he asks the big underlying question: Who's reading these days?

Fifteen years ago, Philip Roth guessed there were at most 120,000 serious American readers -- those who read every night -- and that the number was dropping by half every decade. Others vehemently disagree. But who really knows? Focused consumer research is almost nonexistent in publishing. What readers want -- and whether it’s better to cater to their desires or try harder to shape them -- remains a hotly contested issue.

Kachka does a great job of outlining the troubles facing the publishing industry; this article can serve as a primer, if you're curious. The big publishers have been slow to respond -- one "frustrated publisher" tells him, "We’re an industry more willing to watch the boat sink than rock it a wee bit." Independents, who aren't the focus of this piece, have been creative in terms of both business models and marketing, in ways that bigger publishing houses are just now beginning to explore.

But is publishing's condition really that dire? In some ways, it's done business like record labels, giving big artists big advances and hoping for blockbuster profits to carry the smaller, emerging acts. But the music industry has had to navigate the fact that now their product can be copied and shared for free -- not so easy with books. And (as far as I know), the publishing industry isn't involved in high-risk debt-swapping, and isn't facing massive bankruptcies. Maybe publishing's perfect storm is like a Category 2 hurricane -- a lot of rain and some windows get broken -- instead of a massive tsunami.

-- Carolyn Kellogg

Photo by bbjee via Flickr.

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