There’s an old joke about a guy who goes to see his surgeon. The surgeon has bad news: they’re going to have to operate. The guy says he can’t afford the operation. So the surgeon says, “No problem. For a hundred bucks I’ll touch up the x-rays.”
Right now a lot of people think touching up the x-rays is the way to save traditional publishing. They know that major surgery is required but have no idea where to cut, what to look for, or how to make it better.
It’s really no one’s fault. Stuff happens. In this case, the stuff is e-publishing/reading, and it has exploded faster than most thought possible. And big industry is not built to change on a dime. It’s not even built to change on an open road, especially when there are all sorts of trails and byways it has never explored, or even been equipped to explore.
Meanwhile, a bad business spiral only increases in speed.
Bookstores are closing. Revenues for print books are way down. That means fewer books published on paper. Even those that are P-published have fewer places to go. They sure ain’t going to Borders.
The trend line for print is not good. According to the American Association of Publishers, in January of this year hardcover sales were down 11.3% and mass market paperbacks down 30.9%.
Further, the old way people used to find books –- browsing and being hand-sold by trusted folks in physical bookstores — is over. Gone. Finito.
The big publishers didn’t want that to happen.
But it has.
And we have to acknowledge the reality and not get out the Sharpies to cover spots on the x-ray film. (see also, “Sand, Ostrich Head In”)
The ever insightful Mike Shatzkin sums it up:
I take no pleasure in the big publishers’ pain. It is a matter of professional pride to me to not allow my preferences to color my predictions. I love bookstores and libraries and consider the top management of the big trade houses to be intelligent, ethical, and creative people. I consider many of them friends. The fact that the transition from reading and distributing print to largely reading on screens and distributing print online makes much of their skill sets and business models obsolete is not their fault. Nor is the fact that preserving their old business, and the cash flow it still yields, sometimes interferes with inventing the new one.
The next 4 – 6 months are critical for the survival of traditional publishing in some form. It will not look like it does now. And it will never again be “the only game in town.”
Meanwhile, writers write. We know there is money to be made in self-publishing e-books. I’m experiencing that now with WATCH YOUR BACK.
This pleases me, because it is the most elemental of transactions, just like when Og the caveman got a year’s worth of fox furs from the tribal chieftain for telling stories about heroic fights with the killer mastodons. We can go directly to readers, who can download us directly to their devices.
There are many, many things traditional publishers do well, and have for a long time. But that is a bit beside the point. Typewriters did many things well, too.
Here’s the $64 billion question: Which traditional publishers will turn out to be like Apple and which like Underwood? What will the new industry standard look like?