Ask The Editor

December 28, 2008

Nonsense from The New York Times on book publishing

The New York Times is a great paper but, every couple of weeks or so, it can be counted upon to print some unsupported and unsupportable drivel. Today’s exhibit is its report on the reasons why book publishing is in trouble. Here’s a taste:

Bookstores, both new and secondhand, are faltering as well. Olsson’s, the leading independent chain in Washington, went bankrupt and shut down in September. Robin’s, which says it is the oldest bookstore in Philadelphia, will close next month. The once-mighty Borders chain is on the rocks. Powell’s, the huge store in Portland, Ore., said sales were so weak it was encouraging its staff to take unpaid sabbaticals.

Don’t blame this carnage on the recession or any of the usual suspects, including increased competition for the reader’s time or diminished attention spans. What’s undermining the book industry is not the absence of casual readers but the changing habits of devoted readers.

In other words, it’s all the fault of people like myself, who increasingly use the Internet both to buy books and later, after their value to us is gone, sell them. This is not about Amazon peddling new books at discounted prices, which has been a factor in the book business for a decade, but about the rise of a worldwide network of amateurs who sell books from their homes or, if they’re lazy like me, in partnership with an Internet dealer who does all the work for a chunk of the proceeds.

They get their books from friends, yard sales, recycling centers, their own shelves, castoffs …

You get the picture. Buying and selling used books at yard sales, in bookstores and online is, according to this article, bringing down publishing.

And, as a result, Powell’s is in trouble? Huh? Powell’s is best-known as a seller of  used books. Its huge collection is available to buyers both in-store and via its website. It has always gotten those used books that it sells from people who tend to buy and sell used books. If Powell’s is in trouble, could it, in anyone’s wildest dreams be because of (pause here, please, to appreciate the lack of logic) the availability of used books?

The book industry isn’t in trouble because used books are available. If that were the case, Powell’s, listed as one of those in trouble, would be doing just fine. It provides a market for used books. And why, if people could bring down an industry by buying and selling used, couldn’t they bring down the industry by going to the library instead of the bookstore?

No, the book industry is in trouble for all the reasons it’s been in trouble for the past several years. And now, like virtually every other industry, it’s being hurt because, during a recession, people cut back on expenditures.

That’s why even Powell’s isn’t immune.

Publishing has been hurting for years and it’s easy to trace the history, if one thinks before opining. Independent bookstores were the first to suffer when, a few years back, like independent stores of all types, they had difficulty competing with big box chain stores that offered comparatively huge inventories and at significant discounts. Then Amazon crowded out the big box stores, offering far larger inventories, discounting even more and making it more convenient so that the big box stores started to falter.

And all this affected book publishers and authors. It was the independent bookstore merchants who told regular customers about the new books that they knew those customers would enjoy based on past reading habits. Once the personal relationship between bookseller and customer was gone, the book buyer had to find his or her own next good read. So books that were prominently displayed in big box bookstores got the customer’s attention. Publishers typically pay many $thousands for that prominent placement, which makes selling any book that doesn’t get significant promotional support more difficult. So, authors of books that weren’t expected to become bestsellers sold even less than they might. Amazon, too, has pay-for-play arrangements with publishers.

And now, everything is worsened by the recession. Nobody (other than Amazon), is selling as much this year as last, not clothing merchants or electronics stores or toy stores or booksellers. Publishers, trying to limit their risks, are looking for sure things: books by authors who have previously had bestsellers and books by celebrities.

What does all this mean to writers? It’s most certainly not that we will be ruined by the purveyor of used books. But we must recognize that the business of publishing is changing. We either adapt or fail.

There will still be a market for books — but in a recession bordering on depression, the market for everything is smaller, books included. So, we are forced to think in new ways. A forward-thinking colleague, with many books published by major publishers to his credit, has started his own publishing company. I believe that may be the way to go for many of us.

Random House needs huge sales in order to cover overhead, stay in business, and profit, but authors who become publishers actually need fewer sales than if published by Random House to earn as much.

What authors do need to learn is more effective marketing and promotion. And, since book sales, like other sales, seem to be moving more and more to the web, that means mastering promotion on the web. Which is a good thing for authors because promoting on the web can be far more economical than coming up with the thousands required to get books displayed on the tables in the front of the store at Barnes & Noble or Borders.



  1. You’re absolutely right!

    When money is tight, we get our books from the library instead of the store (online or bricks-and-mortar).

    Comment by Snark — December 28, 2008 @ 3:22 pm | Reply

  2. While many new writers struggle to get published, I could name 10 off the top of my head who are finding huge success in the world of eBooks.

    It’s more than just a recessio – it’s a changing marketplace, where many more people are finding value in the comparably-less-expensive world of electronic books.

    I own three sites dedicated to eBooks. In the past year alone, they have all tripled in traffic.


    Comment by eBookGuru — December 29, 2008 @ 12:59 am | Reply

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