Literature is important to a culture. Before something becomes literature, however, it has to be published. That means it’s subject to all the constraints of the publishing industry, which is… (wait for it) an industry. It has to make money. Fine arts rarely make money, at least in the short term, meaning that the industry always has something else to focus on. That’s been accentuated lately by a general decline in publishing profitability. This is not a good time for literature.
Book publishing has never been a great business to be in. There have been periods of decent profitability, but the last 20 years or so has been a continuous slide in profits. This has come to a head recently, especially as a recession takes hold across the USofA. October was an especially bad month with layoff announcements and the realization that a general decline is becoming permanent.
The general reason given is that the internet has started to replace book reading, an argument that makes no sense on the face of it. Short blog posts may replace newspaper articles, but they bear little resemblance to a novel. The reality is that books are a form of entertainment, and as such compete with movies and sports and any other way people might spend their entertainment dollar. Literature isn’t really a consideration in the way it breaks down.
Recently, the blog of agent Nathan Bransford included this call to regular readers (who tend to be book people) as to what can be done with the industry at least in the short term. I took the liberty of summarizing them into an outline that looks more like a strategic plan, since that’s what I do for a living:
1. Generate Excitement
a. Use Internet better
i. Online sales
ii. Social Marketing
iii. Book chat / review
i. Traditional Media
ii. Guerilla campaigns
c. Get known authors to take risks for art
2. More work available
a. Use more midlist authors
b. Tap into larger author base
3. Improve business model
a. Lower cost of books
i. Return of “Dime novels”
iii. Use POD technology effectively
iv. End hardbacks
b. Fix rest of business model
i. End returns policy
ii. Mass-market to chain stores
Why is this important to literature? A healthy industry supports the production of literature. In fact, I am arguing that as pure entertainment books are a dud in today’s world. What will get people coming back for more is the occasional new work that really speaks to them in a unique way. That means taking a chance. The industry, long in decline, is more likely to go from one blockbuster to the next to support the tremendous overhead involved in developing, printing, distributing, and promoting books. That overhead is simply too big to take chances.
That’s how the industry has ossified into what it is today. By not being able to support real chances on books, it mortgaged the future; one day, there wasn’t much of a future left. Traditional methods of squeezing money out of readers such as introducing a new work in hardback have only gotten more expensive as the leave new works out of the reach of many people. In addition, there is the strange industry practice reaching back to the Great Depression of selling books on a kind of consignment, taking back those that don’t sell.
The suggestions above hit on all of these problems, and a few more. There are many designed around making books exciting again and getting word of new works out there. Currently, if you’re not plugged into Book World it’s hard to find out about new novels because the media has stopped reporting on them. That’s what has to change first.
Is the Publishing Industry dead? No, but it will have to change. Certain old business practices will have to change. New author talent will have to be developed in a kind of Minor League. All of this can be combined with a coordinated effort to generate excitement as new voices are made affordable to new readers.
Will this work? It has to, at some point. What I find most important is that culturally relevant literature may not make money right away, but if it’s part of a culture of excitement around books it will pay off for everyone in the long run. That’s what this is all about – the long term playing against the short term. The long term isn’t just the future of publishing, it’s the future of our culture.