Print ain't dead, says Hachette Book Group CEO Michael Pietsch in an op-ed in this morning's Wall Street Journal. Citing the flattening of e-book sales and the calming hysteria over the notion that self-publishing would overtake traditional publishing, the Big Five executive said publishing has not only survived, it hasn't really changed all that much. He asked, rhetorically: "What other American industry has companies still in existence after two centuries, evolving and modernizing but still doing much the same work?"
Pietsch also pointed out that books, unlike other forms of popular media, remain popular in their original form. Noting that e-book sales have seemingly plateaued--now accounting for roughly a quarter of revenue at most major houses--Pietsch said print books remain "hard to improve on" while music, movies and television were made significantly more portable by digitization. And, although an e-reader allows a customer to carry many more titles in a small package, Pietsch feels books "were portable the day they were invented" while other media forms "have only just caught up."
Talking about self-publishing, Pietsch said this one-time cottage industry, while having "grown hugely," doesn't alter the fact that "writers like to be paid, in advance, for their work." Additionally, while Pietsch acknowledges that self-publishing has allowed swaths of authors to reach their readers directly, he believes firmly in the power, and perks, of a traditional publisher. As he puts it: "A publishing company with longstanding media and marketing relationships is far more capable of getting attention for a new book than a writer working alone."
Pietsch does offer some crystal ball predictions about what the business will look like years from now. He feels consolidation will continue and deepen as "ever-larger retailers and wholesalers bring significant margin pressure." The importance of big bestsellers will grow in importance and publishers will pay ever higher sums for them. As he writes: "As runaway books sell ever-larger numbers, publishers will earn more on their biggest sellers—which will keep driving up the advances they pay for potential hits."
If anything, change is circular to Pietsch, who notes that the incessant desire to ring the death knell for this business--on the part of the media and the people who work in publishing--won't stop either. Just as he entered publishing, in 1978, hearing about the demise of the business, so too will the next generation. He explains: "And 50 years from now, a young woman starting work at a publishing company, inspired by “Anna Karenina” (both the comic version she read on her watch and the paperback she read in college), will read an article predicting that the business is not long for the world…"