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Is There Life After Death for the Publishing Industry?

by Louis J. Wasser

Much chatter fills the air these days about the so-called “death” of publishing. Newspapers have either closed, or morphed from print to digital format; journalists and editors have been canned; and publishing houses have either dissolved, or been gobbled up by bigger fish in the business. Writers who can no longer find jobs now write angry essays or books about an end to literacy. After all, if they don’t have an educated readership, is it the writers’ fault they’re having difficulty knocking out a living?

But even a less-educated reader knows that what’s changed everything is the Internet. The marble halls of the Manhattan publishing industry have been virtually abandoned; many talented editors are now pursuing alternative careers; and publishing as we once knew it is essentially restricted to The Big Six — Simon & Schuster, Harper Collins, Random House, Macmillan, Penguin Group, and Hachette. Of this group, only Harper Collins and Simon & Schuster are American. Random House and Macmillan are owned by German companies. The Penguin Group, part of Random House, is also British, and Hachette is French.

Although there are only six big global players remaining in the publishing game, news of its death, to tweak Mark Twain’s memorable quote, is still premature. What truly is dead as a doornail though is the industry’s patrician American sub-species known as the Manhattan independent publisher. They’ve all gone corporate. The names Scribner, Harper & Row, Farrar, Straus, and Giroux are effectively imprints — a now fancy name for publishing ghosts. Once upon a time in America, wise and patient editors like Maxwell Perkins, courtesy of Charles Scribner & Sons, would nurture developing authors like Ernest Hemingway, Scott Fitzgerald and Thomas Wolfe. Gone are those days.

To get some sense of the gentlemen’s dead-tree publishing market, consider this short Wikipedia summary of the Scribner dynasty — the life span of each generation, along with its years of tenure.

Charles Scribner I (1821–1871), 1846 to 1871

John Blair Scribner (1850–1879), 1871 to 1879

Charles Scribner II (1854–1930), 1879 to?

Arthur Hawley Scribner (1859–1932), circa 1900

Charles Scribner III (1890–1952), 1932 to 1952

Charles Scribner IV (1921–1995), 1952 to 1984

Talk about brand names! The original Charles Scribner & Sons is older than Coca Cola and Ivory Soap. As of 2011, the firm was taken over by CBS.

Publishers no longer depend on long-term relationships with authors. Authors, like anyone else, can be had for a bigger buck. As movable assets, they’ve helped alter the dynamics of what was once a business carried on by a handshake and a martini lunch.

The collateral victim in the collapse of the publishing dynasty has been the independent book store. Want to browse those musty shelves to make a fascinating intellectual discovery? Sorry — but Google has now replaced the physical act of exploratory book browsing. Names like Coliseum Books in New York City, Leary’s Bookstore in Philadelphia, and Brentano’s in Chicago have all gone the way of the woolly mammoth. Enter amazon.com!

Much negative comment has been made of Amazon’s CEO, Jeff Bezos. The question has even been raised whether he’s even good for books.

That said, I’d love to be a fly on the wall when one of Bezos’s detractors orders a book. I doubt whether they patronize the last remaining book store in their area to pay retail to read a new novel by Karen Russell or a recent of edition of the Dialogues of Plato. My guess is they also order these books online from Amazon.

I’ll bet too when they receive their books, they make their way down to their local coffee shop, and exploit the difference between the retail price and the Amazon.com price of the books to pay for a latte — so they can relax while they read the printed edition they had just received through their online order. If you have to break an egg to make an omelet, Bezos has cracked more shells than any online entrepreneur. Welcome to the new world of retail book distribution!

Amazon.com hasn’t stopped at hollowing out the printed book business either. It’s competing tirelessly for a big piece of ebook publishing. The literary community is furious over Bezos’s strong-arm business tactics with the French publisher Hachette. He’s been delaying delivery in its print book sales just to negotiate a bigger slice of the pie from its ebook sales.

Is there life after death for the publishing industry then? Of course there is. A very long tradition of the printed word has caused us to lose sight of the fact that the verb “to publish” actually predates the debut of Gutenberg’s press by at least 100 years.

While Gutenberg was certainly on to a good thing, his predecessors knew they didn’t need paper and ink to publish. The miraculous success of amazon.com is conspicuous albeit annoying proof that the great inventor’s successors also don’t ultimately need these cherished artifacts.

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