Through all the panic and hysteria that's gripped the publishing world over the past few years, and in spite of academic musings on the fate of the book, we're witnessing an unprecedented flourishing of creativity and innovation in the book business. In fact, you could say that the stars have aligned for publishing.
Social media has made "the niche" the all-important marketing concept today. Readers now gather around shared passions and interests—not happenstance geography. And they are hungrier than ever for content related to these passions and interests. Meanwhile, book production and distribution has finally become advanced enough to deliver titles directly to individual niches in a cost-effective way.
In short, a new publishing industry is emerging. For decades the book business has been dominated by what's become the "big six" corporate publishers and the major bookstore chains. Publishers have absorbed the costs of printing, marketing, and shipping; pushed books into the stores; and hoped the titles would sell. If they didn't, the books were shipped back to the publisher to be discounted or destroyed. The net result for readers by the growth of corporate publishing: expensive hardcover books.
But it wasn't just the high cost of books that hurt readers under that model. Given the high fixed costs of producing and selling a book, it became critical for big publishers to invest in titles that could not only bring a return on the investment but subsidize the other titles that didn't sell. Thus, the focus of much of the book industry began to shift away from the kind of magical books that enrich our culture, to those books that could sell big. And how do publishers predict what will sell? By looking at what's already sold, of course.
In this way the book industry began to churn out expensive, generic titles that merely mimicked previous bestsellers. And smaller, niche-oriented titles—books that offered fresh histories, new stories, and different ideas, but lacked that "mass market" gloss—went unpublished or, at best, were left for dead on the backlist.
Then, in the late 1980s, things started to change. Small publishers began using new digital publishing technologies—the era of "desktop publishing." In the mid-1990s, Internet sales, through services like Amazon, emerged. And now, in just the past few years, social networking and social media have changed the game; Google has scanned and made millions of books discoverable; digital print-on-demand has become practical and cost-effective; and most important, the Kindle, Nook, and iPad have paved the way for an e-book future.
Of course, the transition to e-books won't be without its problems. Without established models (or even case studies) to guide publishers, there are many unknowns. Literary fiction and narrative nonfiction have lagged, for example, as the preparation of a serious book of fiction or narrative nonfiction takes considerable expertise, time, and money to ensure quality and proper presentation. But the market is rapidly evolving.We're learning new things every day. And we're seeing readers exhibit an unexpected savvy, and not only a willingness but an eagerness to embrace the digital future.
The current environment has all the makings of a renaissance for books. Even as the major publishing conglomerates contract, and retail chains like Borders flail, small and truly independent publishers are flourishing. OR Books, for example, hit the New York Times bestseller list with its very first title. Electric Literature, with its 150,000 Twitter followers, is resuscitating the short story in America. British indie publisher Quercus launched Stieg Larsson onto the world stage. And authors like Seth Godin are now choosing to self-publish some of their books.
For the moment, the book business remains largely the province of expensive hardcovers and awkward marketing efforts. But change is coming fast. It turns out people don't want mediocre books sold at a premium price and marketed on the assumption that we are all just members of a mass market. They want diversity, authenticity, and value. With a new publishing business taking root, that is finally what they're beginning to get.
Ashley Rindsberg has contributed to the Daily Beast and the Huffington Post, among other publications. In 2003, he worked with Egypt's Library of Alexandria to help create the Middle East's first mobile digital book press.