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Too many books and too hard to market them?

April 27, 2009 |  8:00 am

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In contrast to another Festival of Books panel, "Publishing 3.0," "Publishing: The Big Picture" on Saturday focused less on how new developments (in social media, in algorithmic software) can be adapted to publishing and more on how publishing can adapt to current economic and industry uncertainty. The panel, moderated by Kit Rachlis of Los Angeles Magazine, featured George Gibson (independent publisher), David Kipen (NEA director of literature) and Bonnie Nadell (“great American literary agent”) (above, with Rachlis, right).

The panelists initially discussed whether the publishing crisis is like the newspaper crisis, which stems from a fundamental change in reading habits, or like the magazine crisis, which is due to sensitivity to cyclical recession. Some combination of the two seemed to be the consensus.

Some core problems were identified: too many books being published each year, increasingly complicated distribution models, industry domination by international conglomerates and fewer traditional media opportunities to market new books.

Nadell compared the volume of new books to going to a restaurant with a giant menu and being too overwhelmed to choose anything but the blandest item. This idea can be connected to a later discussion of distribution in big-box stores.

To earn shelf space at WalMart, a book already needs to be a bestseller. Rachlis described how other chains, such as Borders and Barnes & Noble, require a pay-to-play model, in which publishers must pay for the best placement in stores, leaving small publishers at a disadvantage. Other traditional venues for publicity – National Public Radio, newspaper book reviews – have been switching to an increasingly non-fiction menu, leaving fiction at a disadvantage.

However, all the news is not bad. Gibson praised the printed book as the “perfect form of technology,” prompting a round of applause. Kipen described the increasing success of the NEA Big Read program. Gibson explained that the chain stores offer deals for small publishers and argued that a loss of book space in the media does not indicate a lack of interest in reading among the general public. He also emphasized that newspapers are still reviewing and are increasingly vibrant and active online. Nadell stressed that what makes publishing interesting is that there is always a book that takes off against all odds.

The panelists touched on implications of some new technologies when discussing Google’s book registry and the rise of Kindle. The first audience question also addressed Kindle when an advocate for the blind called out the panel for publishing industry resistance to the Kindle speech functionality. Gibson responded with a sincere desire to look into the issue, a task that seems to be the main concern of the publishing industry today: how to give readers what they need and stay afloat. 

-- Chris Daley

Photo credit: Chris Daley

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