This is starting to get scary.
Last week, amid news of the near-demise of Bear Stearns; the “dismal year... forecast for car sales,” according to the New York Times on March 20; and reports that even Starbucks is on a quest to “reconnect” with a shrinking customer base, the book business took its own hits. While not exactly a shock, Bertelsmann's decision to sell off its book clubs came first, accompanied by a not-so-great annual report from the Bertelsmann-owned Random House and then by a suggestion that Borders might be for sale. (B&N's forecast was a bit on the worried side, too.) None of this should be surprising, of course: with the collapse of credit both corporate and personal, consumer confidence lags, and spending goes with it. Add to that increasing fuel costs—which makes everything, including books—more expensive to produce and to ship, and you have your answer: this is not going to be anybody's favorite year.
Once upon a time, “commodities” like books were thought to be recession-proof; books were cheap entertainment, even at $20+, because they could provide many more hours of entertainment pleasure than even the longest movie (and you didn't have to hire a babysitter to get to one). But these days, of course, we're sailing into a perfect storm: more stuff is free and time is more limited. And if you ask the NEA, fewer people are interested in reading in the first place. It stands to reason, then, that books (and those who love them) won't emerge unscathed from a recession. But emerge, I think, we will: a closer look at the reports from B&N and Borders and the book clubs, and several off-the-record conversations with experts show that while revenue growth is sluggish, book sales are up slightly; it's the decline in sales of music CDs that have dragged the numbers down. You may not realize, for example, that while the old Bookspan's revenue last year was down from 2006's, it was still about $700 million.
This is not merely schadenfreude and it also doesn't mean that the book business should act like Nero at the fire. We should be shaken up by economic realities, and we should respond by looking closely at what we do: at the ridiculous number of titles we publish every year (approaching 300,000), at the returns system, at outmoded publicity campaigns and distribution systems. There's no question that some of our old-fashioned ways—and, sorry to say, the people who perform them—need to change. As the old adage goes: Change or die.
And I believe there's some life left in this old business yet. To wit, on a rainy night last week, some 50 publishing folk attended a swanky soiree in honor of the historian David McCullough, who's celebrating not only having published eight books—all bestsellers—over the past 40 years, not only having nine million copies in print (none of his titles has ever gone out of print), but also having published for all this time with the same publisher, Simon & Schuster. A respectful evening all around, it was full of speeches, several of which referred to the famous Santayana quote, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”
It sounded like as good a mantra as any in these difficult publishing times.
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