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Should We Care that Corporate Publishers Are Closing Down Markets?
Despite years of bad business habits, many readers are still shocked or upset by this latest sign of the economic downturn. But the closure of corporate publishing markets was long overdue, and it may be better in the long run for literary fiction.
But, I believe my favorite writers will be just fine long after this dip in the market breaks up the conglomerated continent that is mass market publishing. So, all we're really mourning today is the potential slow death of trend humping, and, well frankly, mourn isn't the word I was thinking of using. Champagne, anyone?
First of all, the most important thing to keep in mind is, print publishing isn't going away any time soon, but the big owners, obsessed with cutting businesses that can't constantly earn megaprofits, will walk away from their businesses and declare them failures. Before I get to the doom and gloom, I'll say that the writers displaced by these market conditions will likely move down the block with a new publisher, and they will continue to sell well, even if their last, much larger publisher flopped due to mismanagement of assets.
Lots of experts have discussed how this failure came about only recently, either as a result of publisher saturation, the global recession, or because the online market has dumped too many writers into the open market without corporate regulations to keep them in check. I think it's a combination of long term factors that the industry chose to ignore, not the least of which was the growing trend toward online sales and content delivery.
Booksellers saw this economic downturn coming a while back, which is why so many branched out into selling music CDs, hell-a expensive cookies, and overpriced, bitter coffee. Nobody else seemed to listen then. It was just a sign of the times: Starbucks merging with Borders. Only it wasn't just a sign of the times. It was a warning that the industry failed to heed. People were buying less print books and magazine, and they weren't shopping in traditional bookstores as often. The bookstores saw a need to adapt, but the publishers themselves did nothing but maintain a "business as usual" attitude.
The coffee and music helped to firm up sales to pay the rent, but the booksellers had to pay for the extra space to handle the new services, and then they really had to move those books out fast. When they couldn't, even on their bargain shelves, the booksellers were allowed to ship the books back to the publisher, who has to pay to ship them to a discount outlet, or pay to warehouse them, or pay to destroy them. In all of these cases, they lose money on a lot of their books, and they aren't gaining it back with their bestsellers anymore.
This business model encouraged booksellers to over order books without knowing what they were buying, and without taking into consideration what the tastes of the regional markets were. This is like a steakhouse opening in a neighborhood of vegetarians, and it's a wrong-headed process repeated with almost every book order.
Because of this, the publishers were breaking even, and once a big enough dip in the market came, they couldn't survive it, because they've got nothing left in their savings accounts. This is an industry that's been running on reserves for a decade, and yet, industry experts are surprised by the turn of events. They can't believe that bad business practices might eventually lead to the failure of the business model. Who knew that simple math could be so very, very damning?
This, coupled with an industry already showing signs of slowing down a decade ago, is what is helping to break up the over-merged literary market. The result of this will mean that many big name houses will go away, to be replaced by smaller, more efficient companies. Those publishers will know to adapt to the current market, and they will focus less of their efforts on volume and warehousing. That's right, to really survive, the big boys will have to suck it up and go POD.
And all at once, a million POD haters groaned in unison, and then were silenced. (By the by: that's only a Star Wars joke. I'm not egotistical enough to think I'll get a million people to read this aritcle. I might, if AC would allow nude photos, but that's not happening, either. I digress.)
I don't see why people get so up in arms about a book being printed custom for them. If the POD printer is in the store, and you can have your new print copy in your hand in three minutes with the same glossy cover and cream interior pages, what's the problem? If a publisher of any size has an editor, a marketing staff, and can be found in bookstore catalogs, why would POD still be an evil concept? Can it be a problem that the publisher incurs little risk to promote an unknown or new writer?
Well, why should they? Why shouldn't the publishers spend more of their money on looking for talent and promoting them, instead of paying to print and store books? Is there something noble in incurring unreasonable financial risks? For that matter, why should the publishers give the booksellers so much of their profits when the vendor isn't giving them enough business to survive on those older terms? Shouldn't they want to renegotiate if the current deal was killing their business? (And it is.)
The industry needs to turn its message around on POD, and on electronic markets. I don't just mean e-books. For far too long, major publishers have walled themselves away from modern writers by turning their nose up at e-mail. The rest of the world has abandoned traditional letter writing and embraced instant communication, but the major print publishers acted like being able to contact them directly was akin to dealing with the unwashed heathen masses. People who live in caves in Afghanistan accept e-mail submissions using PDA cell phones, but Harper Collins won't. There's something very, very wrong with that. (Yes, that last joke was tacky, but it's still true.)
Publishers need to open themselves up to more markets online, not tighten down the "content filters." A fiction story isn't content anyway. It's art. Yes, it's pop art, but it's still a craft that should be experimental at all times. By opening more themed venues that offer free, branded content (a few ads for the publisher's books could be posted on the sidebar, of course), publishers will be able open up virtual bookshelves which are far cheaper to rent than maintaining a physical presence in as many brick and mortar shops as possible. Which means they can get back to promoting talent, instead of content. They can branch out and make niche markets that might only sell to an audience of five thousand. But with the reduced cost of maintaining the storefront, it would once again be okay to only have five thousand sales.
Whether people want to admit it or not, the old model was stifling creativity. When one book sells well, the publishers begin harassing their writers to change manuscripts to mimic and ape the successful books. This is a mistake, because it causes reader fatigue to see the same thing done repeatedly. Hollywood doesn't put out twenty earthquake movies in the same season. You might get two asteroid films in the same year, but not twenty, and publishers were putting out twenty to thirty clones for every successful bestseller. The message in that is clear; "If you liked that original work, you might like its clones!" But usually, people never even bothered to look at the carbon copied chronicles. So, those books cost the publisher in the long run, because they were too focused on making profit in the short term.
Publishers need to get away from that model, and get back to selling books that they like, as opposed to what they think will move a million units. Editors need to be given a more active role in choosing work that speaks out to them, and companies need to hire multiple editors and assistant editors to tunnel through the slush. They can help each editor develop their own teams and stables of writers, and they can return to encouraging reader loyalty to their writers, and not to recurring themes, trend humping, or corporate branding.
More importantly, the publishers need to stop pushing for these "Attack of the McClones" books. If a book is successful, great. But don't try to photocopy it and burn readers out on the concept. Just celebrate the victory, and move on to the search for the next good book.
Once the breakup has settled the market into smaller companies, readers will find themselves with more choices, and writers will find markets that are more willing to experiment and look for a unique story instead of humping trends. None of this is really bad news. It just looks bad while the break up is still occurring in slow motion.