The Publishing Industry: A Sinking Ship?

As I listened to NPR this morning in my spring cleaning frenzy, I noticed a pattern in the topics. The message: publishing is on the way out. I heard it again and again in stories about Amazon.com, the new HBO show Girls, and discussion of the Pulitzer Prize in fiction, or lack-thereof. But nowhere was it more apparent than in this week’s edition of “On the Media,” the program’s  annual look at the publishing industry. You can listen to the whole story here: http://www.onthemedia.org/2012/apr/20/.

The gist of it is that the publishing industry is suffering. And we’ve all heard this. With the increasing viability of self-publishing, the pervasive e-book revolution (which I wrote about here), and free and pirated content available everywhere, what does the publishing industry really have to offer readers anymore? Do they even know who we are?

My response would be no. They do not know who readers are because the composition of the publishing industry is not representative of the general population. And this is how the HBO show Girls ties into the conversation. The main character, a recent college grad, has been working an unpaid publishing internship for two years in New York City. Who, you ask, can afford to work full-time, unpaid, for two years, while living in the most expensive city in the country? Let’s just say not your average Joe. In order to get into publishing you must start out as an intern, or at least as a lowly editorial assistant, with no living wage, if you’re lucky enough to be paid at all. Couple this with the fact that most publishing houses are located in large, expensive cities with high costs of living, and the result is that the only people who can afford to enter this industry are those with existing wealth. In the case of Girls, the intern was bankrolled by her parents. So you can imagine that those in the publishing industry, all of whom more or less start out in this fashion, really have their fingers of the pulse of nation.

In addition to many publishers being out of touch, the second problem is the way we buy books. More and more people are buying books online, and hardly ever setting foot in a bookstore. This isn’t new. Last night, when I attended a reading, a friend of mine complained about how she couldn’t find a book she needed for a workshop at any of the bookstores or libraries in Boston. She needed it as soon as possible so she wouldn’t fall behind in her class. Without even thinking about it, I asked, “Why don’t you just have Amazon overnight it?” Yes, I, too, am part of the problem. Because Amazon may just ruin books as we know them. They are selling books for such ridiculously low rates that, not only are they putting brick and mortar stores out of business, but they are making the book industry increasingly unprofitable for both publishers and writers. Even within the last year book prices have gone down by 20% on Amazon.

Even worse is that Amazon is not actually in the business of selling books. They don’t care if they completely ruin the book industry because they are more interested in selling other things, like appliances. Selling books was just their way in. Couple this with the fact that they use very low-wage workers in unethical and unsafe working conditions to package their books – so they can arrive at our houses so quickly – and Amazon pretty much comes out looking like the devil (check out the exposé at Mother Jones). Is this the only model for book distribution that can work now? I don’t have the answer to that, but in my experience even a concerted effort to choose more ethical ways of buying always loses out in the long run to the American preference for convenience.

But – as my Dad would say – but! There’s good news! At least a very tiny bit of good news. Remember how I mentioned earlier that there was no Pulitzer Prize winner in the fiction category? Well guess what? People cared. And that gives me a little bit of hope, because it says that people – at least some people – still care about high quality writing. And until the internet figures out a way to screen the bad free content from the good, we may still need this publishing industry to help us access great writers. All hope is not lost. Just most of it.

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2 Comments on “The Publishing Industry: A Sinking Ship?”

  1. I see a lot of news stories and opinion pieces about the viability of self-publishing. It seems to be a good thing for a lot of people who want to get something in print. What I haven’t (yet) figured out is how self-publishing is negatively impacting the mainstream publishing industry. Most people I know never buy self-published books, not so much due to any issues with quality, but because they don’t hear about them. As always, people seem to talk about and read bestsellers and well-known authors with big fan bases from the same publishers they’ve always gotten them from. I see the stats on Amazon and with few exceptions, there aren’t many self-published books with any buzz, high sales or anything else going for them that seems to be challenging the mainstream book industry. Have you found anyone saying exactly why/how books “nobody’s ever heard of” are a threat to the authors we’ve always been reading?

    Malcolm

  2. EHW: Part of the problem with publishing is that no one knows who is “great.” Just one small example: the chinese poet, Du Fu, by common acclaim the greatest poet China has ever produced (& boy, what an accolade!) was not recognized as great until three centuries after his death. (As a result, only about a third of his poems survive.)

    Doesn’t it say somewhere in the Elements of Style that writing is an act of faith?

    I think the best advice you can give an aspiring writer is: what else do you like to do? I don’t mean that young writers should despair; instead, they need to establish themselves in the world first and acquire some experience. The longed-for recognition as a writer can come in any number of ways, at any time–and be more intense for what we have invested in the enterprise. Trust yourself; trust your writing. RT


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