Publishing: Adapt or Die

On the Media, a National Public Radio program, just had its annual show reporting on the state of on the publishing industry. Have a listen to such interesting pieces as How Publishing and Reading is Changing (did you know that the average US nonfiction book sells fewer than 250 copies a year and fewer than 3000 over its commercial life?), Is Amazon a New Monopoly? (I’ve yet to hear a convincing answer; let me know if you have), The Problem of Knock-off Books (have you heard of I am the Girl with the Dragon Tattoo? Hint: it’s not Stieg Larsson’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo), and more.

I don’t think all of On the Media pieces “hit on the nail on the head”. Some of its guests are given to histrionics (ahem, Barry C. Lynn), and as good as the hosts Brooke Gladstone and Bob Garfield are, they sometimes don’t ask the right questions. Without reservations, however, I love this show.

I love it for the simple reason that it tells me things that I didn’t know before tuning in. Compare On the Media Is Amazon a New Monopoly? with the New York Times David Carr’s Book Publishing’s Real Nemesis for instance. I didn’t learn anything from reading David Carr’s piece. What I got from that piece was “Maybe Amazon is bad. I, David Carr, don’t have any clear supporting evidence for that hedged supposition. I don’t have any new facts or analysis, nothing that hasn’t been said in countless other places previously. But that’s not going to stop me from writing an entire piece to be published on the New York Times.” Such a piece, I feel, wouldn’t have fly On the Media.

One more thing: did it strike you how often Amazon in mentioned in this program on the publishing industry? Even in pieces not directly about Amazon, Amazon plays a role. In Do Book Copyright Hide Them From View?, for instance, the guest talks about his research using Amazon data. (As a side note, I featured Mr. Heald’s research here on T&B before On the Media did. Small, meaningless victory to me!) In The Story of Pottermore, part of the story that’s worth mentioning (and indeed was mentioned) is that Rowling got Amazon to send its customers to Pottermore’s website to make any purchases. In The Problem with Knock-Off Books, the knock-off books discussed were all self-published on Amazon, although the problems of knock-offs surely transcend the Amazon website. By contrast, how often is any publisher mentioned by name? Not zero for sure, but in a show about the publishing industry, publishers — as a mass, brand-less, combined entity — were mentioned, at most, as much as Amazon. That’s interesting, no?

(Of course, this isn’t to imply that this lesser visibility is necessarily bad for the publishers. It’s probably the foreseen result of a business choice they made long ago: publishers do not nurture relationships with readers/the public/those who make up the majority of listeners to radio shows like On the Media. Instead, they focus on relationships with their authors (although in an age where agents play such a prominent role, authors seem to increasingly divide their affection and loyalty between their publishers/editors and agents) and distributors. Amazon, on the other hand, is a retailer (although it is now moving into the publishing space also) and so have a much more immediate connections to its customers. Thus, Amazon is more salient and features more prominently in public discussions.)

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2 Responses to Publishing: Adapt or Die

  1. Wow. The average is 250 copies a year? That’s just depressing!

    • So said “On the Media”, citing one (unnamed) survey. I would think that the average-selling nonfiction book sells less than the average fiction book, however. Plus price must be a huge factor — don’t many self-published, cheaply priced books sell many copies?

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