Tuesday, January 20, 2009

An Autopsy of the Book Business

A little over eighteen months ago, I did the second of two posts on the Espresso Book Machine (EBM) here.

I explained that the EBM was a product of On Demand Books, the brainchild of former Random House editorial director Jason Epstein, former Dean & DeLuca president Dane Neller, and technology expert Thor Sigvaldason.

According to The Daily Beast, in 1952, Jason Epstein "introduced the trade paperback format and later co-founded the New York Review of Books."

Earlier this month, Epstein wrote an article for The Daily Beast titled "An Autopsy of the Book Business."

Over the past three years, I have repeatedly written about the centralization of the book publishing industry, which began in the 70s. I linked that centralization to the deregulation of various industries, including the radio/television, which permitted the growth of the giant media corporation. Over twenty years, sixty publishing houses shrank to less than a dozen as the mammoth corporations bought up radio and television stations, newspapers and publishing houses.

I also pointed out that, during that same period, the bookselling industry underwent the same centralization as large bookchains sprang up. The small, independent bookstores could not compete with the buying power (and ability to discount) of chains like B&N and Borders.

Interestingly enough, Epstein's article points to a different view of history:

By the mid 1970s the great downtown bookstores had begun to disappear as their customers migrated from city to suburb where population density was too thin to support major backlist retailers. Soon people shopped in deconstructed department stores, their former departments now individual specialty shops, where bookstores paid the same rent for the same limited space as the shoe store next door and needed the same quick turnover of inventories that sold themselves: books by celebrities and branded bestselling authors. By the eighties, publishers’ backlists were in steep decline as thousands of titles disappeared . . .

The steep decline in publishers’ backlists turned the industry upside down. Now publishers were obliged to pursue seasonal ephemera . . . Publishers having lost control of their industry to commercially attractive authors and their agents . . . an absurd and untenable situation.

It was this growing absurdity that forced the fifty or so independent publishers of the 1960s to merge, and for the merged firms eventually to be swept together into today’s overmanaged conglomerates.
Epstein--as would be expected of the Chairman of the company that produces the Espresso Book Machine--points to a "shining future" for the publishing industry. He says: "The effect of this post-Gutenberg Revolution will be to radically decentralize the marketplace for books and greatly reduce the cost of entry for would-be publishers."

Epstein pointed to the decentralization of the book market eighteen months ago, too. I quoted both him and Sara Nelson in that post of mine and went on to give my own opinion:
I think Nelson is short-sighted and that Epstein's comment to the effect that "the market will be radically decentralized" is on target. I just think that this decentralization will start from the ground up, not from the top down.
Now, a year and a half later, we see the large publishers scrambling to get on the digital bandwagon, B&N and Borders struggling to stay alive and Amazon positioning itself to be vertically integrated in the publishing and selling of books.

If you don't understand "vertical integration," read my post from fourteen months ago here.

May you live in interesting times.

You can read Epstein's article here.

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