Commentary Magazine


Topic: e-books

Painful Changes in the Publishing Industry

I am not usually saddened to hear that publications that I never read will cease to be published. But I am saddened to learn of the fate of Editor & Publisher and Kirkus Reviews, two publishing-industry trade titles.

From my vantage point as an author, their demise is part and parcel of the general decline of the publishing industry. There are still lots of publishers producing plenty of titles, but there are increasingly fewer bookstores and book reviews to peddle their wares. To some extent the slack has been taken up by the Internet — but only to an extent. Amazon is a godsend for all sorts of reasons, not least because it makes it so easy to acquire even obscure titles — a service of which I make ample use.

But Amazon is also leading the march toward e-books. That’s not necessarily a bad thing; you can argue from an author’s standpoint that it shouldn’t matter whether words are delivered by paper and ink or by digital means. But the pricing structure of e-books — with most new titles going for less than $10 — severely undercuts the economics that have traditionally underpinned the industry. If books no longer sell for $15 or $20 or more in hardcover, there will not be much left over to support editors, publishers, publicists, designers, and all the rest. It’s not as if book publishing had fat margins to begin with; e-books threaten to make financial statements that once looked weak into sheer catastrophes.

I realize that there’s a danger of sounding old and cranky when you complain about the impact of technology upon any industry. No doubt buggy makers around the turn of the 20th century felt similarly threatened by the arrival of automobiles and missed the fact that the transportation industry as a whole was growing even as their small sector of it was receding into nothingness. And no doubt information will continue to be purveyed in the digital age, and information purveyors will continue to be paid — just not in the same way as they were before.

Still, the adjustment is a painful one. The scribbling classes are now feeling the pain felt for decades by industrial workers. Wonder who will be next as computers continue to transform one economic sector after another?

I am not usually saddened to hear that publications that I never read will cease to be published. But I am saddened to learn of the fate of Editor & Publisher and Kirkus Reviews, two publishing-industry trade titles.

From my vantage point as an author, their demise is part and parcel of the general decline of the publishing industry. There are still lots of publishers producing plenty of titles, but there are increasingly fewer bookstores and book reviews to peddle their wares. To some extent the slack has been taken up by the Internet — but only to an extent. Amazon is a godsend for all sorts of reasons, not least because it makes it so easy to acquire even obscure titles — a service of which I make ample use.

But Amazon is also leading the march toward e-books. That’s not necessarily a bad thing; you can argue from an author’s standpoint that it shouldn’t matter whether words are delivered by paper and ink or by digital means. But the pricing structure of e-books — with most new titles going for less than $10 — severely undercuts the economics that have traditionally underpinned the industry. If books no longer sell for $15 or $20 or more in hardcover, there will not be much left over to support editors, publishers, publicists, designers, and all the rest. It’s not as if book publishing had fat margins to begin with; e-books threaten to make financial statements that once looked weak into sheer catastrophes.

I realize that there’s a danger of sounding old and cranky when you complain about the impact of technology upon any industry. No doubt buggy makers around the turn of the 20th century felt similarly threatened by the arrival of automobiles and missed the fact that the transportation industry as a whole was growing even as their small sector of it was receding into nothingness. And no doubt information will continue to be purveyed in the digital age, and information purveyors will continue to be paid — just not in the same way as they were before.

Still, the adjustment is a painful one. The scribbling classes are now feeling the pain felt for decades by industrial workers. Wonder who will be next as computers continue to transform one economic sector after another?

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