Publishing industry faces paradoxes, challenges

By Chris Meadows – Via Teleread

IPA-Cape-TownPublishing Perspectives is carrying a keynote speech delivered in absentia to the International Publishers Association Congress in South Africa in which Chad Post, publisher of small nonprofit translation press Open Letter Booksdiscusses the paradoxes that shape the current publishing market, the opportunities for a small press, and what various people in publishing should do in the longer term.

The paradoxes Post cites are remarkably apt. Speaking from the viewpoint of publishers (the “we” he refers to), Post points out:

  • We rely on readers, but we want to keep them at arm’s length.
  • We champion small independent stores, although our business model favors Amazon.
  • We hate Amazon because it’s so successful it broke our power structure.
  • We also hate Amazon because they’re good at the thing we turned our back on: relating to readers.

The publishing industry has essentially handed Amazon its market on a silver platter, then complained about Amazon gobbling that platter clean. Publishers have always left market research and getting to know readers to the bookstores that made up their interface to those readers—because, after all, there wasn’t any efficient way for a bookstore to reach beyond its local community, or for publishers to reach all communities at once. But then came the Internet, and Amazon to leverage it.

Unlike many publishers, Post’s Open Letter Books was founded from the start as a nonprofit—Post recognized he was never going to get rich publishing books, and preferred to treat the publisher as a sort of service organization to make the world a little better place by getting books into the hands of people who would benefit by reading them. But because of its small size, the press finds it is a challenge even getting noticed.

And that’s a problem common to all small publishers (not to mention self-publishers and even full-sized publishers) in the 21st century:

We have entered a confusing age in the evolution of books and publishing. After ages of conglomerations conglomerating and other inward mingling trends (e.g., B&N making the same books available everywhere in the country, like McDonalds hamburgers), the world has suddenly fragmented. Certain books are only available on Amazon, there are 10,000 for every sub-genre of a sub-genre, and readers live everywhere, accessing it all in a plethora of ways.

This is daunting to some, exciting to others. For a small press looking to do books that fit a particular niche (a la Open Letter), this is a fantastic situation. Unlike years past when we fought for space in the same five review outlets and tried to convince the same booksellers to handsell our books, we can now go directly to our customers, and can cultivate an audience in ways that never existed before.

Post has advice for all branches of publishing, as well. Agents, he says, need to stop “screwing around with e-book rights”—withholding the e-book license from print publishers so they can’t use the print and e-book formats to promote each other. Translators should try to cultivate a community of readers interested in their books, to promote greater sales. Publishers should “grow a personality” to build better word of mouth.

Authors should try to find a niche who will buy their books instead of crossing their fingers and hoping for mass appeal in an era of decreased reading and increased market fragmentation. And everyone should keep in mind that the increasingly fragmented nature of the book market means that fads are going to be less and less effective as people go find what they want to read instead of buying into whatever the publishing industry want to push next.

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