Book Publishers Should Embrace the Digital Age

April 16, 2010 12:00 am Published by Leave your thoughts

What’s the story of mainstream publishing today? In the States, at least, megacorporations, canny beasts that they are, follow one of two strategies: they throw everything at the wall, and hope something sticks (St. Martin’s, a division of Macmillan); or they plunk down a million dollars for the hot new novel by the smart young author (HarperCollins), hoping s/he won’t prove to be another Vikram Chandra, whose perfectly estimable Sacred Games broke no sales records (but should have broken some publishing reputations). Independent publishers squeak by paying infinitesimal-to-moderate advances-but ultimately, unless they’re niche specialists or funded by philanthropy, they are doomed.

The current system, involving massive discounts, huge returns, and inefficiencies on all sides, devastates publishers, but also hurts booksellers, authors, and ultimately readers. Some people have described publishers as heading towards a cliff at top speed with their eyes screwed shut. No: publishers have been heading towards a cliff at top speed with their eyes wide open for the last few years; right now they are hurtling down, down towards the ground.

Publishing is like the weather: we all talk about it, but who’s doing anything to fix it? HarperCollins’ late HarperStudio was a tentative attempt at the idea of considering the possibility of exploring alternatives-it was the same program with a different name, and now has closed down. Not too long ago, Simon & Schuster’s Carolyn Reidy noted that all major accounts reported that in-store traffic was down, and what traffic was in there seemed “to be buying the tried and true…. They’re not buying the second book.” The company’s response? It was “looking at backlist promotions and accelerating some paperback releases.” For 2009, S & S’ sales dropped by 10%.

How did this mess come about? More people than ever are reading, writing, and talking and writing about reading and writing, yet headlines are crammed with evidence of flailing publishers. Revenue declines even while unit sales increase overall. Editors are fired after a year; publicists can’t spell an author’s name; there’s no marketing budget whatsoever-and a miasma of misinformation surrounds the entire process, from accounting to print runs. One thing seems clear: the readers are there, overwhelmed by variety. The system is dominated by a few giant corporations, a handful of mega-agents, and a few dozen name-brand authors.

What if a publisher were to take the Internet up on its promise? If it shipped straight to consumers, printed only to fulfill orders, had no warehouse, no returns’and sold through no third parties, Amazon and Barnes & Noble included. Such a publisher would of necessity be committed to intense marketing, since it would have no sales force. It might also institute real profit-sharing with authors, but most importantly it would change the means of delivery: each book would go direct to the consumer.

In this new world, promotion would start months before a book’s release, requiring a commitment of not only energy and ideas but money. In the words of one author, mainstream publishers are under the misapprehension that “viral” equals “free.” It doesn’t. And it’s not the author’s job to figure out how to sell a book.

The final element in a profoundly new approach? The anti-ebook bias, now not only prevalent but gathering strength among traditional publishers, must be overcome. We all know e-book sales have increased exponentially even as traditional hardcovers continue their decades-long decline. Yet a few months ago, the aforementioned Carolyn Reidy deplored the “cheap digital marketplace.” I’d have thought that innovations that make books easier to buy, less expensive, and more flexible in every sense are to be embraced with every limb a publisher possesses.

Instead, big publishers grouse about the “devaluation of books”; to me, a devalued book is one that sits in a warehouse. Just two weeks before Christmas Day 2009, when Amazon recorded for the first time ever that it sold more ebooks than print books, two of the largest publishers in the U.S.–Simon & Schuster and Hachette–announced that their release of (less expensive) ebooks would follow the initial release of (expensive) hardcovers by four months. They do this, they say, to protect margins they make on hardcover books. Not only that, when the large houses do release ebooks, they insist on retaining DRM. The result must be to alienate publishers’ most eager, most openminded customers.

Need it be repeated? E-reading is here to stay. According to the Association of American Publishers, ebook sales increased more than 300% in the last year. An estimated three million e-readers were sold in 2009 and it is expected that six million will be bought this year: they’ve already left the province of the wealthy and/or gadget-obsessed. And most people read ebooks (as I do) on their home computers, which of course are not even counted in the statistics just cited. We want to own a book when we buy it, and if I want to move it from one computer to another, I should have that right, just as I can move a print book from one shelf or one friend to another. To resist this trend is to complain about the fact we live on a planet spinning through space.

Too many publishers persist in hanging on to outmoded models. Yes, a hardcover book can be a beautiful object, but it is of necessity an expensive and therefore exclusionary one, and a postponed sale is more often than not a lost one. The anti-ebook impulse comes out of the snobbism endemic in the industry, and works against the interests of the vast majority of authors who don’t already have a built-in audience. Why not offer an alternative? Why shouldn’t a first-rate book, well-written and beautifully designed, be available to large numbers of people? Is a book less a book because it’s not bound between covers, and you can’t smell the pages? Forcing people to choose between buying an expensive book, waiting four months to pay much less, or not buying it at all seems to me a grim proposition.

Publishing doesn’t have to resemble a blood-soaked battlefield, where all participants – authors, publishers, readers – become victims. Not to sound too Obama-like, but there is a better way.

John Oakes is co-publisher of OR Books (

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