Tuesday, February 21, 2012

The Death of Publishing -- The Sequel

Ellen F. Brown posted a great article over at Bloomberg -- Why Book Publishing Can Survive Digital Age: Echoes, where she talks about some of the other times innovation was about to kill publishing.

Then came the "paperback revolution." According to Publishers Weekly, word spread at the 1939 American Booksellers Convention that "some reckless publisher" was going to bring out a series of paperback reprints of popular novels to be sold for only a quarter a piece. The industry was equal measures aghast at the nerve of such a plan -- American readers had proved notoriously resistant to paperbacks -- and terrified that it might succeed. Major publishers fretted that, if the books proved popular, the reprints would kill hardcover sales of the featured titles. Most booksellers refused to stock the series, unwilling to compete with their existing inventories of full-priced books.

And later:

The real test of the industry's mettle came in 1949 when Fawcett Publications announced a new series of 25-cent paperback originals. A vigorous debate arose over the propriety of original work being released in such an inexpensive format. Mainstream publishers predicted that paperback originals would undermine the entire structure of publishing and threatened to blackball agents who negotiated contracts with Fawcett. Critics said quality authors would never be interested in selling their new work at such a low price and that the series would only be able to offer books unworthy of publication.

Wow. Change "paperback" to "e-book" and this could be a commentary on contemporary publishing. Industry pushback? Check. Fear that the new format would kill hardcover sales? Check. Insistence that quality authors would never stoop to publishing their work in the new format and it would only offer garbage otherwise unpublishable? Check.

Publishing survived paperback reprints, and later paperback originals. It'll survive e-books, too. Maybe not in exactly the same form, but then the modern publishing business -- even the New York end of it -- isn't exactly like it was in 1939 or 1949, either. Even before e-books arrived in the mainstream a few years ago, it was already very different.

I disagree with her suggestion toward the end that we need editors, agents and booksellers to "cull" the books for us -- my bet is that reviewers, both pro and amateur, will take on that job without pushing up the price of the books themselves -- but I think she has a calm and rational view of the big picture. I wish more people would look at the history and stop predicting the death of publishing. Folks have already been there, flailed at that, looked silly afterward.

Thanks to Passive Guy for linking.



Charles Gramlich said...

Very good points. Not remembering the fears of the paperback revolution means people can easily think the same thing about the ebook changes we've been seeing.

Angie said...

Charles -- yep, it's a classic case of not learning history and having to repeat it.


Suzan Harden said...

Um, if publishing is dead, what has Angry Sheep been doing for the last year?

BTW, Angie, I owe you dinner someday for that name. *grin*

Angie said...

Suzan -- clearly Angry Sheep doesn't count, like, at all. :P It must not be real publishing. [eyeroll]

And if we're ever in the same town, I'll collect on that. :D


Travis Erwin said...

Great points. But there is one huge difference in then and now. Social media and the ability of others to promote their work widely without the help of the establishment.

Angie said...

Travis -- sure, that's an important point. [nod] I think, though, that most writers would prefer to go traditional if they could, which means that if the New York publishers had been pro-active with electronic publishing, rather than pretending it didn't exist for twenty years and then bad-mouthing it for a few more, then suddenly deciding e-rights are valuable and must be scammed or bullied out of their writers however possible, if they'd embraced the digital format rather than trying to kill it with ridiculously high prices that no one wants to pay...

In other words, if they'd thrown their weight behind making e-books work before anyone else did, they'd be at the center of the ditigal revolution, printing money and giving each other bonuses.

The whole point Ms. Brown was making, I think, is that the big publishers let fear and panic (and maybe ignorance) push them into responding in all the wrong ways to the new format. Where your point is important IMO is that once paperbacks were a strong component of every big publisher's product line, the big publishers were still on top of the heap, with just small presses scampering around their table like mice, picking at the crumbs that fell to the floor.

The internet and social media means that there are millions of mice instead of hundreds, and some of those mice are walking off with the occasional prime rib or whole turkey, usually because the big publishers' panicky, flailing elbows are knocking dishes onto the floor. [/extended metaphor]

I'll grant you that 20/20 hindsight makes everyone look smart, but if the big publishers had learned from the introduction of paperbacks and their response to them, they could've been several large steps ahead of the e-book game. Instead they repeated their mistakes and now they're scrambling to catch up.

The NY publishers might well end up with a strong share of the e-book market in a few years, but they won't be the only game in town anymore. They lost ground, and I doubt they'll get it back, largely because they couldn't learn from their own history.