It’s been quite a year. The past 12 months have been dominated by two connected and equally disturbing things: first, the Donald Trump presidency, and second, the crisis of Silicon Valley companies in the face of growing economic inequality, fear of automation, the rise of “fake news,” and the prevalence of cultural divisiveness on—and the inanity of—social media. So how has this all affected the book business, and what does it mean for the coming years?
What encourages me about the publishing industry is its ability to print uncompromisingly high-quality commentaries on both Trump and Silicon Valley. The book industry has produced substantial critiques of Silicon Valley by writers such as Noam Cohen, Franklin Foer, and Jonathan Taplin—not to mention what appears to be the fastest-selling nonfiction book of recent times, Michael Wolff’s Fire and Fury, a 75,000-word text about our current political regime.
What has become clear over the past year is that books matter more than ever, in an age when our values are under threat from uncurated popular media such as Facebook and Twitter.
But significant threats to the book business remain. Amazon, of course, comes to mind. But I believe when it comes to publishing, we’ve seen the worst of Amazon in its well-documented (particularly by Brad Stone in The Everything Store) bullying of small publishers and quasi-monopolistic practices. Indeed, I suspect that over the next few years, Bezos’s company will increasingly be in the crosshairs of antitrust regulators. So I think Amazon’s behavior, though never cuddly, will not worsen with respect to independent publishers.
Amazon, then, is the 800-pound gorilla in the room that the book trade must learn to live with. The good news is that the gorilla isn’t going to get much larger.
A bigger threat to the book business, I fear, is the growing crisis of political freedom in much of the world. We are seeing the rise of strongly antidemocratic forces in much of Eastern Europe, dictatorships in Turkey and the Philippines, and digital totalitarianism in China. This is an enormous problem for the book trade. Wannabe dictators like Turkey’s Recep Erdog˘an severely curtail the free press.
Just look at the way in which Trump tried to use the American judicial system to ban Fire and Fury. Had he been successful in censoring Wolff’s tell-all, the book industry would have lost millions of dollars in revenue. Fortunately, the independent American legal system was strong enough to withstand Trump’s attempt to ban this book and protect the rights of a free press.
Ironically, Bezos’s acquisition and reinvention of the Washington Post has become an effective bulwark against the corrosion of democracy in the United States through its in-depth reporting on the Trump administration (particularly into allegations of collusion with Russia to influence the 2016 campaign). So Amazon has become—at least indirectly—an antidote to the book industry’s worst enemy.
The biggest opportunity for the book industry in the coming years is remembering that its business is in the mass production of carefully chosen, high-quality physical texts. This is a medium that has existed for centuries. As the relative strength of book sales over the past couple of years shows, interest in good books isn’t going away anytime soon.
New technology remains mostly a distraction. E-books boomed at first but have now plateaued. Crowdsourced texts are, by definition, so garbled and inchoate as to be mostly unreadable. The hysteria surrounding self-publishing seems to have subsided a bit because it’s becoming increasingly evident that even successfully self-published authors would prefer to be distributed by traditional publishers. So the biggest opportunity remains the discovery and development of talented authors.
Publishers, rather than worrying about Facebook promotions, e-readers, or Amazon, must continue to aggressively find and promote the next J.K. Rowling or Malcolm Gladwell. The world is desperate for stories, and the book remains the most effective vehicle for telling both nonfictional and fictional ones.
Andrew Keen is a Silicon Valley entrepreneur and speaker, and the author of How to Fix the Future, which was published this month by Atlantic Monthly.