Prompted by the question "what does a healthy publishing industry look like?," four executives (in conversation with Astra House senior editor Daniel Vazquez) concluded that publishing is suffering some severe aches and pains. Nevertheless, they suggested, creative remedies could bolster the book business, so long as industry leaders reimagine old formulas--among them inadequate compensation structures, a too-narrow focus on bestsellers, and unreasonable expectations that result in staffer burnout.
"We're rosy-cheeked from last year," said IPG CEO Joe Matthews, whose outlook remains "a little bit gloomy." Supply-chain woes and inflation pack a "double whammy for the book industry, because we have lost the artificial lift of 2020 and 2021." Matthews argued that the pandemic and the great resignation meant readers "bought books to think about what to do next," and people now may choose to spend their entertainment dollars on things other than books.
Matthews predicted "we could be down as much as 10% as an industry" in 2022. Among his suggestions for increased profitability: "build resilient supply chains rather than just-in-time supply chains" and allow for higher, more adjustable book prices despite the risk of pricing folks out ("so that's the squeeze"). "Why do we put the price on the back of our books?" Matthews asked. "Could we stop doing that? Would that open more flexibility to independent bookstores, to price as they see fit?"
Grove Atlantic CEO and publisher Morgan Entrekin seconded the struggle against limited resources, labor shortages, and inflation. "I'm booking press time for August 2023," he said. "I used to book press time 60 days in advance, and I'm now doing it 15-16 months in advance." Entrekin reported putting lots of resources toward supporting independent booksellers with ARCs, a newsletter, and author appearances. Meanwhile, he worries about heavy demands facing employees. "We're trying to give people time off, we try not to intrude on their weekends or after hours," he said, because turnover puts pressure on the industry.
These strains come alongside consolidation and a temptation to publish the sure thing over the risky startup. ("What obligation do publishers have to anything but their bottom line?" Vasquez asked.) Certainly, it is "harder to get serious books talked about and written about seriously," said Entrekin. "Thirty years ago we had 25 independent literary book editors at newspapers around the country, and now we have probably five." He acknowledged the allure of high profit margins too: "In 46 years, we've never seen these levels of profitability... Historically, 5%, 7%, or 8% was seen as a healthy return. There needs to be some examination of how the revenue is being distributed to employees, authors, booksellers, across the board."
For Mary Rasenberger, CEO of the Authors Guild, writers' well-being is essential to the industry, and unfortunately, "writers overall did really badly during the pandemic." Book debuts often "sank without a trace," Rasenberger said. An Authors Guild survey found that writers' freelance opportunities dried up, contracts and speaking engagements got canceled, and payments were delayed. Book tours were scuttled, including for established authors.
Rasenberger's first order of business is "getting authors' incomes back up" to pre-Covid levels, including through a WPA-style grant program: the Authors Guild is lobbying for the establishment of a Federal Writers Project. Entrekin, too, favored some means of underwriting authors and bookstores as "tools to help keep a healthy ecosystem."
"On the positive side," Rasenberger added, "we have seen new avenues developing for income streams for writers." Streaming TV, TikTok, and podcasts have become viable moneymakers, and TikTok has done a great job attracting young readers to join book clubs and get involved with books in other ways.” Serialization platforms hold promise, she said, although "mostly they've been launched by big tech companies and don't pass on enough to authors." (In the Zoom chat, industry watcher Jane Friedman listed e-content on "Kindle, Vella, Wattpad, Webtoon, Tapas, Radish--to name a few.")
Donya Craddock, co-owner of The Dock Bookshop in Dallas-Fort Worth, brought a bookseller's perspective to the panel. The Dock "had a significant amount of growth last year," Craddock said, but she too sees labor shortages, a demand for higher wages, and the challenge of hosting virtual or hybrid events "on a budget. That is not necessarily a bookseller skill set." She supports staff morale by "having a store that's an experience" to visit, and she expands The Dock's reach by selling at conferences and trade shows including the Texas Library Association: "We're getting the books out there in ways a e-retailer cannot do."
Speaking of e-tailers, the assembly did address the elephant in the room. "We all have to be careful of our number one customer," IPG's Matthews said, adding that "I would point out that Amazon is still not a good platform for discovery."
Rasenberger--who favors federal regulation of Amazon--nonetheless concurred that Amazon plays a mixed role. "No one can deliver books as fast and as cheaply," she said, and yet "Amazon does not do a good job of showcasing books." Entrekin reminded everyone that booksellers "are the greatest curators you could possibly ask for," and that with the launch of Bookshop.org, "there were booksellers across the country who were able to leverage their curatorial talent and translate that into sales."
"We all want a healthy ecosystem in publishing, with lots of independent retailers and lots of startup first time authors, lots of indie publishers just getting going," said Matthews. Although achieving sustainability is an ongoing process, the sentiment was unanimous.
Correction: This story has been updated to correct quote made by Mary Rasenberger.