KOK Edit: Your favorite copyeditor since 1984(SM)
KOK Edit: your favorite copyeditor since 1984(SM) KOK Edit: your favorite copyeditor since 1984(SM) Katharine O'Moore Klopf
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Saturday, December 06, 2008

What's Really Going On in Publishing

Everyone has an opinion as to what all the mayhem going on in publishing means; as humans, we are programmed to look for meaning in events. That is why I now bring you the opinion (reproduced here in full with permission) of a friend and colleague of mine, Dick Margulis, who has been in publishing even longer than I have:

Consider this a primer on The Way Business Works, so that you can sanity-check content that comes your way in the next months.

In broad outline, what has happened to the book publishing industry and the newspaper publishing industry (along with many other industries) over the last thirty years is that they have been financialized. Ugly word? Yeah. Ugly concept? Definitely. See this (better than what I'd have written).

This has led to the current state of affairs in which companies are run not by experts in the stuff the companies deal in every day (such as books consisting of words on paper) but by MBAs who are there to do the bidding of Wall Street speculators, experts in the other kind of books (numbers in spreadsheets). This is a huge cultural shift. We went from a market where people invested in companies based on fundamentals (long-term health of the company and industry) to a market dominated by people who traded stocks based on what used to be called the technical model—looking at the price of the stock from hour to hour rather than looking at what the company does in the world from year to year.

As a result, a half-percent drop in quarterly profits is sufficient justification for cutting head count. It gets the numbers back in line with the expectations of traders.

So that's where we are. Or rather that's where we were a couple of months ago.

Now, faced with the very real possibility of Great Depression II if they don't get smart, Wall Street types are starting to get religion about company fundamentals and to bemoan the depradations of the technical traders.

So stay tuned. You may see a big shift back to valuing companies based on product quality, customer service, and community support. It will take time, and I don't mean to suggest we're going to see a return to 1950s-style job security anytime soon, but if you're not in the habit of paying attention to business news, this might be a good time to start.

There are going to be a lot of books about navigating the new business environment, and to the extent you do nonfiction substantive editing, it's important to have your finger on the business pulse.

I like Dick's view very much; it reassures me. But to balance things out, here is a snippet of the view expressed by literary agent Lori Perkins on her blog Agent in the Middle:

We, as a country, are in a recession and publishing is no exception. I believe we, as an industry, have priced books out of the buyer's everyday market. A paperback should cost $5, a trade paperback $10 and a hardcover no more than $20. Only exceptional illustrated books should cost more than that, and I better get pop-ups and die cuts and music, if you want me to pay more than $25. When books cease to be an impulse/feel good purchase, and are something you have to calculate and budget (I'll get the new King this month, and then I'll get the Hamilton out of the library), something is wrong.

And the profit margins in publishing are way too tight. I still find it amazing that in today's publishing economics, the author and the publisher make less on a book than the bookstore and the distributor.

Publishing is in the same transition as the movie and music industries. The younger generation of movie watchers and music listeners have already grown used to getting their movies and music cheaper and faster with downloads. If books are to compete as a source of entertainment, they have to follow course.

Bookstores will have to change too—and they already are. Last week I was pontificating that bookstores of the future will actually be big electronic information stores. And then someone told me that Barnes & Noble owns GameStop. Today I just got a flyer informing me that Best Buy is now selling books. Soon, you will go to an electronics and information store, where you can buy almost anything you can't wear or eat. And that same "store" will have an online presence, where you can download almost anything they sell.

That's not to say that the book as we know it is dead, but it does mean that for books as entertainment, it's a brave new world. In Japan, half the books sold in the country are downloaded to phones. We can't be far behind.

4 comments:

valbrussell said...

I'm not sure if it's because I'm a dinosaur, but this is a chilling thought. As a writer it pains me to think of books without covers, ink and paper. It all feels too transient and superficial to me.

Katharine O'Moore-Klopf said...

I'm a dinosaur too, Valbrussell, both in publishing and in journalism. I thought that I'd hate it when print newspapers became obsolete. You know what, though? I much prefer reading them onscreen. And as a copyeditor of book and journal manuscripts, I already read manuscripts onscreen all day long. I'm very happy with the ability to search and scroll that onscreen reading offers and that hard-copy reading doesn't. I guess I've always been an adaptable dinosaur: I was using a computer as a freelancer long before my publisher clients were using computers. I've always wondered why they're so slow to take to new technology. It seems that that reluctance has major consequences.

KathyF said...

I guess I picked the wrong time to think about getting back into the business of writing.

But then I never thought of it as a business in the first place, which was part of my problem.

I think fiction is quite a different animal, though, than nonfiction. I rarely want to search for phrases when I read fiction; I just want to get to the satisfying ending, and be on the edge of my seat along the way! Not the same reading online, though I agree with you about reading online generally.

Katharine O'Moore-Klopf said...

Oh, no, Kathy F., it's never the wrong time to get back to writing. If you write fiction well enough, there will always be a place for it. Human beings love a good story.

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