Publish or Panic
The credibility of books is in a million little pieces. The Web is stealing readers. But publishers are fighting back
Another alternative presented by technology would retain the traditional book format but change the way books are produced and delivered. Print on demand--which makes it financially feasible to print small batches of books inexpensively--is already a boon for the self-published author (box, Page 49) as well as for traditionally published authors seeking to reprint their out-of-print books. Now Jason Epstein, the former editorial director of Random House, is preparing to test a more sophisticated, even less expensive all-in-one book-making machine capable of producing up to 20 quality paperbacks an hour. The World Bank Bookstore in Washington, D.C., is installing the Espresso Book Machine, as Epstein calls it, later this month. Using digital files, the machine will be able to immediately print any book in the World Bank catalog. The chief benefit of the machine, says Epstein, is that a requested book would never be out of stock or out of print. Such a machine could make books less expensive, Epstein believes, because it would eliminate the need to warehouse and ship books; instead of guessing how many books to print--a game that leaves bookstores stuck with piles of unsold flops and readers unable to find out-of-stock surprise hits--the supply will always be just right. Will the Espresso brew satisfy? Technology--and copyright--updates on all these developments are sure to follow.
Still, for all the technology rumblings and despite shudders caused by the NEA survey, book sales in 2005 increased. Nielsen BookScan recorded 709.8 million sales--a healthy 9.3 percent uptick from 2004. But for the most part, it seemed a winner-take all victory, with the top 200 bestsellers accounting for about 10 percent of the whole. Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince by itself generated 7.02 million sales--1 percent. Would-be writers are advised to do the math before quitting their day jobs.
But it's an odd paradox of book publishing today that even as it has grown larger, it has gotten smaller. Years of mergers and acquisitions have consolidated New York's major publishing houses into a mere six megasize companies. But "under the radar," as a 2005 survey by the Book Industry Study Group put it, some 63,000 small presses thrive. There are also more than a few midsize publishers.
Little houses. Improved technology (like print on demand) is one reason. Whereas in the past it was too costly to print a small number of copies, with new technology, small-run, niche books can now make money. And that means that in addition to viewing the book market with a more global perspective (with the recent sale of the Time Warner book group to France's Lagardere, five of America's six major book companies are now owned by corporations based outside the United States), publishers are also going local.
Their goal is to wag "the long tail"--a concept popularized in a widely read article by Chris Anderson, editor-in-chief of Wired.
When publishing executives invoke the long tail--and almost everyone interviewed for this article did--what they mean is that if you tote up enough small sales (especially via a low-cost, direct-to-consumer sales tool like the Internet), you can add up a big profit over time. So for the first time in many years, publishers are once more interested in smaller--not just bigger--sellers. That's good news--until you wonder how they lost track of all the smaller and classic back-list sellers to begin with. In his 2001 book, Book Business: Publishing Past Present and Future, Epstein noted that, in recent decades, publishing houses have concentrated on bestsellers to stay profitable but have tended to neglect the potentially larger assets they could derive from the long-term revenues of their back lists.