Wednesday, March 07, 2007

California Dreamin' On Such A Winter's Day

Yesterday, a writer on one of the loops I belong to commented that he thought print publishers were in trouble, and that the
e-publishers were not taking advantage by stepping into the breech. I thought that might be a good subject for today's post.

I agree that the publishing industry is in flux. As in "a state of movement, change or renewal." It would be a mistake, however, to perceive that fluidity as the publishing industry being in trouble.

First of all, the majority of releases each year are published by seven large media conglomerates. Those seven are:

1) Bertelsmann AG (Germany): Random House, which owns Ballantine, Del Rey, Bantam Dell, Crown Publishing, Doubleday, and Knopf

2) Holtzbrinck Publishing Group (Germany): Macmillan, St. Martin's Press, Pan and Tom Doherty Associates which owns Tor and Forge.

3) News Corporation (United States): HarperMorrow Publishers, which owns Avon, HarperCollins, and William Morrow.

4) Pearson PLC (United Kingdom): Berkley, Penguin, Putnam, Viking and Prentice Hall.

5) Reed Elsevier (United Kingdom): Harcourt and Holt, Rinehart and Winston.

6) Groupe Lagardere (France): Hachette Livre, which bought the former Time Warner Book Group, including Warner Books, the Mysterious Press, and Little, Brown and Company in addition to many other titles.

7) CBS (United States): Simon and Schuster

This consolidation of the publishing industry began in the '70s and was two-pronged, including both booksellers and publishing houses. First, large chains like Barnes & Noble popped up and used their buying power to force many small, independent booksellers who couldn't compete out of business. Second, the mega-corporations began buying up small publishing houses, reducing the number of players in the business.

This consolidation movement had huge consequence for the industry. Corporations have shareholders, and they must answer to those stockholders quarterly. Keeping the profit and loss sheet clean takes precedence over other considerations. Taking risks is not encouraged. Books that fail are costly experiments. Why take a chance on a young, new writer when you are virtually guaranteed a sure thing with a best-selling author like Stephen King or James Patterson?

Large corporations are not usually known for being innovators. They are instead notorious for jumping aboard existing trends. Erotic romance writers couldn't give away their books until the genre got hot. Once it heated up, publishing houses rushed to open new erotic romance imprints and hire as many writers of the new genre as they could.

It's important to remember that self-interest (read here: greed) is what motivates business. Although they were slow to see what Google realized immediately, the publishing industry is beginning to understand that the digitization of books offers huge opportunities. A digitized industry can do away with printing, shipping, distributing, returns and warehousing costs. It also can keep a book "in print" forever on virtual bookshelves that are not inhibited by the lack of space considerations faced by bricks-and-mortar bookstores.

Earlier this month, both Random House and HarperCollins announced programs through which readers can now read excerpts of their books, much the way Amazon's "Search Inside" program works. Publishers are beginning to realize that Google's plan to digitize all the books in the world has some merit--they just don't want Google doing it for them.

Now let's take a look at e-publishing. While I have not yet e-published, it's not because I don't believe in or respect the industry. I think e-publishing and a form of self-publishing (not the vanity press industry that exists at present) will be the wave of the future. I continue to believe that, once an e-reader seizes the reading public's fascination the way the iPod did for music lovers, e-publishing will explode.

A digitized industry doesn't really rely on the publisher any more, does it? It would be very easy for a group of writers and artists to band together to produce their own works (United Artists, anyone?). In the future, there is the very real possibility that publishers will find themselves being edged out of the equation, once writers figure a way to insure a consistency of quality that readers can trust.

Of course, while the writers are trying to figure out how to overcome the stigma of self-publishing, the publishing houses will probably be scrambling to come up with ways to hang on to their hegemony. I'm enough of a cynic to picture them lobbying for some kind of governmental protection to prevent anyone from wresting control from them. The international composition of the industry makes that possibility unlikely. What is far more likely is that the industry will decentralize again, breaking up into lots of smaller publishing houses.

Of course, it's my fantasy that lower publishing costs will bring the publishers back to the table with offers of better deals in terms of royalties for writers.

California Dreamin' on such a winter's day . . .

Addendum: Since I wrote this post, Holtzbrinck has changed its corporate name to Macmillan. And Hachette Livre has changed the name of the Time Warner Book Group to Grand Central Publishing.

MR 12/1/07

No comments: