I wish I could say the book business feels brimming with hope, but even the Polly-anna of publishing here has to admit that times are tough. There was the other week's surprise departure of HarperCollins's Jane Friedman, for whom many of the Harper staff, and even some outside of it, have declared themselves in mourning. There's the constant threat, now gathering steam with the appointment of Markus Dohle, that some serious things—imprints, back offices, auction behavior—are going to change at Random House. And then there's the painful restructuring of Borders, which, in the event it is ever bought by someone, will have been left to twist in the wind for so long that it may be too whipped and withered to be worth buying. Add to all that the now typical lament of agents and (always) authors that nobody wants to publish serious-to-midlist books anymore because nobody buys serious-to-midlist books anymore—and it's enough to make you believe what one prominent editor said to me sotto voce a few months ago: “Publishing is all going to come crashing down on itself,” he said. “I give us 18 months.”
A rather dire prediction, that—and one that even most Eeyores of publishing see as hyperbolic. Still, it does seem that we're at a crossroads, reaching critical mass, name your cliché here. Something, in other words, is going on in the book business, and while the overall mood of its practitioners must be described as nervous, there also may be some—dare I say it?—hopefulness underneath. Is it just me, or is the hunger for change we see growing in the political world actually trickling down to l'il ol' publishing?
“In every crisis lies an opportunity,” goes the old saying—and nowhere could that be more true than in publishing today. It's that kind of thinking that has led Bob Miller, say, out of traditional publishing and into creating his new venture, Harper Studio, which has reportedly already closed several deals. It's that kind of thinking that has led S&S—clearly just as worried as the next house about all the “challenges” to reading in the age of the Internet—into the digital age; just look at some of the house's new, nontraditional, take-charge new-media hires. It's that kind of thinking, like it or not, that has contributed to the torch passing at Harper and Random House. “It's become apparent that in today's publishing world, a love of books is simply no longer enough,” says one honcho at the latter.
What I think this means: some of the quaint, arcane practices we cherish—returns, say—are going to have to go. Likewise, astronomical advances, the kind that don't make money even if the books land on the lists. And what about backlist? Is somebody ever going to figure out how to mine this most potentially profitable publishing vein?
Obviously, I don't have all the answers—but PW is going to try to figure some of this stuff out. This fall, look for the series we're calling The New Reality, which will address all of the above, and more. And if you have thoughts on these topics—and on digital marketing and publishing, and print on demand, two other elephants-in-the-room of our business—please let us know. We're committed not just to defining the paradigm shift but also to making it work.
After all, you can't expect publishing to behave like a business if you aren't prepared to treat it as one.
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