Consolidation in our industry suddenly seems to have reached a tipping point. We begin the new year with just one main wholesaler for the book trade and another for libraries, as Baker & Taylor departs from the retail sector; not just new ownership but a new guiding philosophy at our nation’s largest bookstore chain; and Amazon’s near-monopoly dominance of the online bookselling arena—well, that’s probably past the tipping point. The largest publishing houses are seeking higher profits based on new efficiencies. And high-speed delivery is the new black, ushering in lower returns and quicker replenishment (along with higher printing, transportation, and fulfillment costs), in a marketplace that’s smaller than it was but holding its own.
With all this going on, we can count our blessings that there’s a powerful independent streak in our profession that serves as a counterweight to the corporate side. It spans independent book publishers, independent booksellers, librarians, and the organizations and independent media that protect and cover our industry—AAP, AAUP, Above the Treeline/Edelweiss, BINC, CLMP, IBPA, IPC, PubWest, SPD, Booklist, Choice, Foreword, Kirkus, Library Journal, Publisher’s Lunch, Shelf Awareness—keeping us informed by the week, by the day, by the hour. Most are small, independently run outfits. And the redwoods at the heart of this thriving forest—PW, the ABA, and the ALA—are all independent and, in the case of the ALA and the ABA, are membership driven.
The dynamic shifts we’re living through aren’t easy to interpret. Let’s be optimists and say they aren’t definitively bad for books or book culture. Kurt Vonnegut used to say, “We can never tell what is the good news and what is the bad news!”
But let’s remember also the words of Kurt Wolff, founder of Pantheon, who brought us Kafka and others: “The books of great writers have not been published as a rule by giant companies,” and, “Important literary movements were supported and developed by small firms.”
Right now there’s a dangerous trend in our industry toward bigger, faster, more opportunistic—the hallmarks of a smooth-running capitalist machine. That course definitely risks pulling us off course, away from craft, from ideas and the soulfulness that is at the heart of books.
But as long as we can keep alive publishing’s complex ecosystem, things can still be balanced, and our exuberance and optimism—the true mainstays of our industry and our professions—are still warranted. Along with the five corporate publisher groups, this ecosystem’s vitality stems from the hundreds of independent publishers and university presses that act analogously to the Amazon rainforest by protecting species (including the clearly endangered one of working writers at the start of their careers!), and that are incubators for teeming DNA pools—translation from far-flung cultures and countries, radical politics, environmentalism.
Tens of millions of copies of these independent publishers’ books are sold every year, generating hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue and keeping our nation’s creative cutting edge sharp. A major publisher might bring out a book by a bestselling journalist on an environmental threat or a Nobel Prize–winning novelist in translation. But a small publisher will be the one to publish a distant literary voice in translation year after year, decade after decade, until she wins that Nobel. And a university press will publish the environmental scientist that inspires the bestselling journalist’s bestseller.
If this were an industry solely dominated by our biggest players, my New Year’s forecast—anybody’s forecast—for its future good health would be dire. The leadership in the corporate sector itself is very cognizant of the fact that they are a part of a complex ecosystem, and in order for any parts to thrive, the whole organism must do so.
The Big Five account for the lion’s share of book sales, and the majority go through a small number of outlets—Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Follet, and Ingram. We’re grateful for all that they do. But in terms of influence, in terms of literary prizes, and in terms of leadership and the courage it takes to commit to new voices and new kinds of voices, you could say it’s about an even split between the handful of bigs and the army of small-to-medium, often quirky independent outfits.
What keeps our industry alive and well, and able to serve writers and readers as well today as we ever have, is the mix of large and small, commercial and literary, smart and smarter. Let’s make sure we support our librarians, independent booksellers, independent publishers, and the independent media and service providers that underpin all our efforts. Let’s not take our independents for granted.
Dan Simon is publisher of Seven Stories Press and cofounder of the Independent Publishers Caucus. A new edition of his Run Run Run: The Lives of Abbie Hoffman, co-authored with Jack Hoffman, will be released later this month.