Does the Publishing Industry Need to be Saved?

It’s one of those questions that those of us who work in the publishing industry could easily lob back and forth between us forever: Does the publishing industry need to be saved? 

Maybe. Probably. Certainly, to some degree, something needs to happen.

But when it comes to deciding what needs to be done, or how to do it, or why or when, that’s when conversations begin to get complicated, and even heated. In mid-October, Colin Robinson wrote an op-ed-style ten-point manifesto of sorts about the issue for the Guardian. I doubt that anyone will agree or disagree with all ten points (number two, for instance, is so ass-backwards it actually offends me),  but it’s an interesting read nonetheless.

Here’s an excerpt:

This year, on the face of things, it’s been business as usual at the Frankfurt Book Fair … but scratch beneath the surface and a tangible unease about the future of the industry is evident: book sales are stagnating, profit margins are being squeezed by higher discounts and falling prices, and the distribution of book buyers is ever more polarised between record-shattering bestsellers and an ocean of titles with tiny readerships. The mid-list, where the unknown writer or new idea can spring to prominence, is progressively being hollowed out. This is bad news not just for publishing but for the culture at large.

Click here to read the read full article, and please feel free to add your thoughts—or even your own ideas about how the industry might be reformed, even in small ways—to the comments section below.

4 Comments on Does the Publishing Industry Need to be Saved?

  1. This comment was a gem:

    “6. Keep prices high.”

    That didn’t work out so well for publishers. In fact there was DOJ settlement about this very issue. For everything from cereal to the procurement of UAVs, the market should, and will, set the price.

    Frankly, I don’t see the need for “gatekeepers” anymore. There’s authors and readers–that is what is important. I’m not sure why the publishing industry is worth saving. If people want to work as intermediary between authors and readers, they should look at adding value through technical and marketing services or just get out of the way.

  2. Yes, that #6 accounts for books that readers don’t want at all and won’t buy at any price and for books that readers absolutely must have and that they will pay higher prices for.

    However, the articles talks as if those are the only two alternatives – books we don’t want and books we really really want. It doesn’t account for the vast majority of the books that I buy (likely the majority of books sold period) – books that seem like they might appeal to us but that are not a sure thing (or “essential read”). We can take or leave these books, but we can be enticed to take a chance on them if the price is right.

    This high-level pricing scheme assumes everything a publisher sells is an “essential read” to enough readers to produce a profit. It will be harder for new authors to be discovered this way. Fewer midlist titles will survive. Books with a niche audience will struggle. Books with a literary following but not a commercial one are doomed. And fewer and fewer new “essential reads” will be discovered.

  3. I would like to see professional publishing survive–but with less focus on “blockbuster” bestsellers or series authors. Maybe that’s an impossible wish; I fear publishers may consider bestsellers and series the “essential” reads.

    I’ve always said $12.99 to $14.99 for new release quality fiction or non-fiction is not necessarily unreasonable; some low-grade genre fiction and series should probably be a few bucks less; and all prices should drop after the hardcover phase is finished. It’s OK for the indies to be cheap: they’re amateur authors.

    It would be very sad if there were no venue for professional authors.

  4. As a writer who keeps up with what’s happening in publishing as well as talking to or reading other authors’ reactions to what is happening in big publishing now, I’d say that one of the biggest poor choices the major publishers have is that they are treating their authors as stupid slaves or animals to be used then tossed aside.

    Contracts have become so convoluted and destructive of the author’s bottom line that literary agents and contract lawyers are having others read the contracts to see what vicious loophole or sneaky language has slipped past them. (They will give something in one paragraph and take it away in a section that has nothing to do with the subject in another, for example.)

    Publishers demand more and more from authors including vast amounts of promotion on their dime and time while offering less and less services including decent editing.

    Smart, savvy authors are figuring out they can do better than this and are starting to self-publish or go to a smaller publisher who treats them well and pays them fairly.

    Only those authors with real clout because of major bestselling status can force better terms so only they, the less than savvy, or those desperate for the status of being published by the major publishers will remain.

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