Wednesday, April 6, 2016

Has The Book Industry Grown In A Good Way?

Books are being sold by a few massive retailers, squeezing out the independent stores.  A handful of big publishers are responsible for most of the marketplace sales.  Corporations control the communications industry.

These were the concerns expressed in a book about the book industry written not today but 16 years ago.  Apparently the names and books change, but the book world has been confronting many of the same issues for decades.  Of course, the growth of the Internet and self-publishing have been game-changers, but many things that concerned authors, consumers, and the media have been constant over the years.

Back in 2000, big-box stores and massive retail chains like Barnes & Noble and Borders ruled the marketplace. Now it’s Barnes & Noble and Amazon that control a huge chunk of the market.

Back then there were a lot of big publishers consolidating with others – Harper Collins purchased the remnants of Hearst publishing, Time Warner was bought by AOL and Bertelsmann merged its book clubs.  We recently saw other publishers fold into the Big 5.  Back then, five major conglomerates controlled 80% of American book sales.  The numbers haven’t changed much since then.

In The Business of Books, Andre Schiffring formerly the head of Pantheon, which was co-founded by his dad, he shared these observations 16 years ago. Do they sound familiar?

“Now that virtually all of American life is affected by the seemingly never-ending growth of large corporations, it is fair to ask how much all of this matters.  Is what we are witnessing truly something new or merely a variation on an old theme?  Will it change fundamentally the way we read and what books are available to us?...Large publishers have always been with us.  And looking back to the nineteenth century, we see substantial book sales then, too -- numbers that in proportion to population are often greater than today’s.  But the story of publishing is much more than a list of sales figures. The important questions are what was being published, what choices were available, and what new ideas, whether in fiction or non-fiction, were being offered to the public.”

Interestingly, he notes trends that continued to this day.  He points out that in the 1940s, the New York Times Book Review was 64 pages long, twice what it became in 2000.

He also noted successful books used to sell better, perhaps because of smaller competition.

It was interesting to look back, through the eyes of a book that took a time-capsule approach to the industry, to see what has or hasn’t changed.  Reading old books with new eyes helps close the gap between our distorted memories of the past and the realities of today.

The book contained a list of 20 leading book cities in 1945 – over seven decades ago – for a population that was less than half of today’s 321 million – and you can see that more bookstores per capita existed back then.  But one could argue that books are easier to get now than ever before – they are not only found in bookstores, but newsstands, drugstores, supermarkets, airports, giftshops, and online 24/7.

Back in 2000, 70,000 new books were released annually by the traditional publishing industry.  Last year, about 375,000 titles were published by them – and perhaps double that sum were released by self-published authors.  There is certainly a lot of choices out there.  But Schiffrin lamented back then what’s echoed today:

“In Europe and in America, publishing has a long tradition as an intellectually and politically engaged profession.  Publishers have always prided themselves on their ability to balance the imperative of making money with that of issuing worthwhile books.  In recent years, as the ownership of publishing has changed, that equation has been altered.  It is now increasingly the case that the owner’s only interest is in making money and as much of it as possible.”

The author noted that by 1947 there was a growing domination of the best-seller lists by the same authors.  Some may say that this allowed for the country to be on the same page, so to speak, about what to read and discuss –or it showed a lack of diversity in the marketplace that left alternative voices on the outside.  But a study in 1947 showed the 20 top fiction best-sellers of that year contained only one author who had not previously made the list.

Schiffrin wrote of the late 1940s as being a time when most publishing houses belonged to the people who started them with only few becoming publicly held companies.  He writes:

“To be sure, the majority of publishers in the United States and Europe were interested in profit as well as literature.  But it was understood that entire categories of books, particularly new fiction and poetry we’re bound to lose money.  It was assumed that believing in authors was an investment for the future and that they would remain faithful to the publishers who had discovered and nourished them.  Poaching authors from other firms was not considered fair play.  Overall, trade publishers reckoned they would lose money or at best break even on their trade books.   Profit would come from subsidiary rights – sales to book clubs or paperback publishers.”

The world of book publishing today is greatly changed from the 1940’s and significantly changed from the turn of this century.  But some things, at their core, haven’t changed.

Books still get published by a variety of forces, even if there is a concentration in a handful of big publishers.  The existence of independent presses, university presses, and self-published authors with mass distribution allows for alternate voices and economic models to prevail.  

I think the biggest challenge to authors is not that a handful of huge publishers are run by corporations, but that there is so much competition amongst authors to be heard, discovered, and read.  Whereas there was a time where consumers couldn’t find enough content that was diverse and fresh, it is now overwhelmed by choices, domestic and abroad.  Whereas books used to go out of print, nothing disappears anymore, so a 2016 reader is now faced literally with millions of choices of what to read.  To be clear, I don’t advocate for fewer books to be published, but for a system to be created that could better catalog, review, and summarize each book.

The old system of relying on book critics is broken, as the critics are no longer a handful of professionals but any blogger with an opinion. None of them can defend how they choose to review what they review, for they don’t have time or access to even name all of the book titles being released in a given year let alone, to actually browse them properly to determine what should be reviewed. Critics make choices about what to review based in part on access.  If publishers, who can afford publicists, can find reviewers and “sell” them on a book, this will influence the reviewer. But for the other books that don’t even get on a critic’s radar – due not to quality but access – what happens to those books?

I will conclude with an important message Schiffrin conveys at the end of his book:

“Books can afford to go against the current, to raise new ideas, to challenge the status quo in the hope that with time an audience will be found.  The threat to such books and the ideas they contain -- what used to be known as the marketplace of ideas – is a dangerous development not only for professional publishing, but for society as a whole.  We need to find new ways of maintaining the discourse that used to be considered an essential part of a democratic society…We must hope that in coming years more people, here and abroad, will realize how dangerous it is to live in a culture with a limited choice of ideas and alternatives, and how essential it is to maintain a wide-ranging debate.  In short, to remember how important books have always been in our lives.”  

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Brian Feinblum’s views, opinions, and ideas expressed in this blog are his alone and not that of his employer. You can follow him on Twitter @theprexpert and email him at He feels more important when discussed in the third-person. This is copyrighted by BookMarketingBuzzBlog © 2016

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