Echoes Dispatches From Economic History
Why Book Publishing Can Survive Digital Age: Echoes
Word on the street is that the publishing industry is under attack by technology. Amazon.com Inc. has launched a bare-knuckled assault against independent bookstores. Print-on-demand firms make it possible for anyone to get his work on the market, and thus threaten to render agents and editors obsolete. And with e-books priced so low, how can authors and booksellers earn a decent living?
Yet the publishing industry has a long history of weathering these sorts of challenges, and its past offers some optimism for the future.
In the 1920s, drug, grocery and department stores gave booksellers fits by offering popular titles at cut-rate prices. An old industry yarn tells the story of a flapper looking to buy lipstick. She walks into a bookstore and excuses herself when she realizes she had made a mistake. "I'm sorry," she says, "I thought this was a drugstore, I saw books in the window.''
Also problematic was the Book of the Month Club, a distribution company founded in 1926 that sold inexpensive hardcover versions of popular books through mail order. Within 10 years of its founding, the club had almost 200,000 members. Ten years later, there were more than 50 imitator clubs in North America with more than 3 million participants.
And, of course, there was the ultimate competitor to bookstores: public libraries. Throughout the first half of the 20th century, communities across the U.S. funded the construction of facilities where books could be had for free, albeit only on loan.
Then came the "paperback revolution." According to Publishers Weekly, word spread at the 1939 American Booksellers Convention that "some reckless publisher" was going to bring out a series of paperback reprints of popular novels to be sold for only a quarter a piece. The industry was equal measures aghast at the nerve of such a plan -- American readers had proved notoriously resistant to paperbacks -- and terrified that it might succeed. Major publishers fretted that, if the books proved popular, the reprints would kill hardcover sales of the featured titles. Most booksellers refused to stock the series, unwilling to compete with their existing inventories of full-priced books.
Undeterred by the negative buzz, publisher Robert de Graff advertised his New Pocket Books directly to readers with a mail-order coupon system and to wholesalers who sold magazines to newsstands and grocery stores. He touted his books as small enough to be carried in a pocket or purse and "as handy as a pencil, as modern and convenient as a portable radio -- and as good looking."
The industry watched with amazement when the books sold like wildfire. Skeptical publishers couldn't remain aloof for long in the face of such obvious success and rushed to produce their own lines of paperback reprints.
The real test of the industry's mettle came in 1949 when Fawcett Publications announced a new series of 25-cent paperback originals. A vigorous debate arose over the propriety of original work being released in such an inexpensive format. Mainstream publishers predicted that paperback originals would undermine the entire structure of publishing and threatened to blackball agents who negotiated contracts with Fawcett. Critics said quality authors would never be interested in selling their new work at such a low price and that the series would only be able to offer books unworthy of publication.
Once again, readers responded to low prices, and the new books were a sensation. Fawcett boasted of selling more than a million books in the first year. Copycat publishers rushed into the marketplace, and many fine writers who had struggled to make it into hardback -- including Kurt Vonnegut and John D. MacDonald -- readily signed contracts.
So how did all of this competition affect the traditional trade?
In the long run, low-cost books -- whether reprints or original, paperback or hardback -- posed a vigorous, but bearable, threat. Although there was much grumbling along the way, the industry gradually accepted that the new products and distributors, including libraries, were not evil incarnate. To the contrary, they were something of a boon in that they generated interest in reading among people who didn’t frequent bookstores.
The new products also had a hard time maintaining their early successes. It's a simple matter of economics: Delivering a high-quality product at a bargain-basement price is difficult. Once competition heated up in the cheap-book market, signs of strain began to show. Editorial standards slackened, paper quality declined and, in a desperate attempt to catch the eye of readers in the crowded marketplace, many discount publishers resorted to covering their books in lurid images that often had nothing to do with their content. Readers eventually balked at the increasingly shabby products, and publishers were dismayed to find themselves stuck with warehouses of books they couldn't give away. One firm resorted to burning its excess stock in an abandoned canal outside of Buffalo, New York.
By 1969, the New York Times Book Review was asking, "Is the Paperback Revolution Dead?"
Fast forward to today's digital revolution. History suggests there's reason to take heart. Despite years of cheap books, readers have consistently shown a willingness to buy quality material in a quality format. And as much as electronic retailers have to offer with their expansive inventories and cheap prices, and no matter how egalitarian self-publishers are in providing new opportunities for authors, the truth is, not all books deserve to be published, nor are they all worth sifting through. For decades, our reading experience has been incalculably enhanced by the editors, agents and booksellers who work behind the scenes culling books for us, and there's every reason to think readers will be willing to pay a premium for such services.
This isn't to say the industry won't have to make adjustments, especially the bricks-and-mortar stores. They'll have to be alert to changing dynamics and get creative about generating demand. Many already have dived in by offering e-books through their websites and by increasing the number of live events that bring readers into their stores. Some are even venturing into publishing. Hub City Bookshop in Spartanburg, South Carolina, for example, operates a nonprofit press that emphasizes books on the Southern experience. Such specialization -- also known as expertise -- is likely to be the distinguishing hallmark of independent sellers in the future.
Electronics are here to stay, but someday the digital revolution in publishing may well be seen as just another phase in the natural evolution of a vital and resilient industry.
(Ellen F. Brown is a freelance writer and co-author of "Margaret Mitchell's Gone With the Wind: A Bestseller's Odyssey from Atlanta to Hollywood." The opinions expressed are her own.)
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