Wednesday, May 1, 2013
A Bailout for Publishing? Seriously?
by Sandra Parshall
James Patterson is right when he complains that all the talk about publishing these days is negative, focused on the industry’s decline without offering any solutions. But is he really proposing a government bailout?
Last week Patterson placed an ad in Kirkus Reviews and The New York Times Book Review, and on both covers of Publishers Weekly, asking “Who will save our books? Our bookstores? Our libraries?” The ad read in part: "The Federal Government has stepped in to save banks, and the automobile industry, but where are they on the important subject of books? Why are there no impassioned editorials in influential newspapers or magazines?"
The four-page PW ad lists 46 novels and nonfiction books under these questions:
“What will happen to American literature?”
“Who will publish important books like these?”
“Who will help save America’s books?”
“Who will mentor and encourage our authors in the future?”
“Who will recommend books like these to the American public?”
Most of the fiction titles he lists as representative of America’s best are literary novels or modern classics by Hemingway, Faulkner, Harper Lee, etc., but he also includes books by Thomas Harris and James M. Cain.
The world’s bestselling thriller writer may not produce books that could be called “literature” but he is a passionate advocate of reading who has donated thousands of books to U.S. troops stationed abroad, founded a program that encourages children to read, and given time and money to literacy programs. He told PW in an interview that he hoped his ads would turn the discussion of publishing’s survival in a more practical direction. Currently, he said, publishers are in a “Woe is me” rut and the media produce the same “publishing is in trouble” story over and over. He urged publishers to “Get in attack mode.”
Exactly where that attack would be aimed is unclear. PW senior writer Andrew Albanese said in response to Patterson’s ads that “The book is changing, for sure. And reading is under pressure,” but whether “the book” is endangered is debatable.
Patterson’s ad doesn’t mention the phenomenal rise of the e-book, although it’s impossible to discuss traditional publishing’s decline without naming the main cause of it. The figures tell the obvious story: as digital sales continue to rise, print sales continue to drop. But there’s a lot more to it than simple sales numbers.
Some writers are so disgusted with traditional publishing that they would love to drive a stake through its heart, and they think all writers should jump at the chance to take control and self-publish. However, we’re seeing more and more successful self-published writers accepting offers from traditional imprints and happily turning over all the grunt work of publishing to professional editors and marketing departments. Many traditionally published writers might dabble in self-publishing but would never give up the very real advantages of bringing out their books the old-fashioned way. As long as traditional publishing attracts talented writers, including those who start by self-publishing, it will stay alive.
Everybody seems to agree on one thing, though: traditional publishing has to change, perhaps drastically, and adapt to the new realities of the book world. Unfortunately, nobody appears to know how it should change. Merely adding digital departments to process e-books doesn’t look like the answer, when so many other aspects of the business are outdated and writers and readers alike are unhappy with everything from pricing to marketing to the often poor quality of the product.
Will the federal government step in and bail out publishing? Not likely. Publishing is a comparatively small industry. If it failed completely, it wouldn’t bring down the economy, and the economic impact is all Congress cares about. However, local communities and states have a duty to keep public libraries open and provide funding to pay staff and keep both print and digital collections up to date. That is a use of public money that benefits everyone, but library funds are among the first to be cut when communities are faced with deficits.
The good news is the “the book” is alive and well. It's not always in the form of pages between two covers, but it isn’t about to vanish. Many owners of e-readers report that they are reading more than ever because digital books are less expensive than print and can be purchased in seconds. Book discussion communities are thriving online, and face-to-face book clubs are more popular than ever. Readers will find the books they like, regardless of how they're published. Patterson asks: Who will recommend good books to the public? The answer: Other readers will. Favorable word of mouth has always been the best way to sell a book.
Avid readers and book-buyers have never been in the majority – writers realize that the market for our products is small compared to that for pop songs or action movies – but they are passionate about the written word. As long as readers love to read and writers feel compelled to write, “the book” – in whatever form it might take – will live on.