The Death of Publishing — The Sequel

Ellen F. Brown posted a great article over at Bloomberg — Why Book Publishing Can Survive Digital Age: Echoes, where she talks about some of the other times innovation was about to kill publishing.

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.

And later:

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.

Wow. Change “paperback” to “e-book” and this could be a commentary on contemporary publishing. Industry pushback? Check. Fear that the new format would kill hardcover sales? Check. Insistence that quality authors would never stoop to publishing their work in the new format and it would only offer garbage otherwise unpublishable? Check.

Publishing survived paperback reprints, and later paperback originals. It’ll survive e-books, too. Maybe not in exactly the same form, but then the modern publishing business — even the New York end of it — isn’t exactly like it was in 1939 or 1949, either. Even before e-books arrived in the mainstream a few years ago, it was already very different.

I disagree with her suggestion toward the end that we need editors, agents and booksellers to “cull” the books for us — my bet is that reviewers, both pro and amateur, will take on that job without pushing up the price of the books themselves — but I think she has a calm and rational view of the big picture. I wish more people would look at the history and stop predicting the death of publishing. Folks have already been there, flailed at that, looked silly afterward.

Thanks to Passive Guy for linking.


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Angela Benedetti lives in Seattle with her husband and a few thousand books. She loves romance for the happy endings, for the affirmation that everyone who's willing to fight for love deserves to get it and be happy with someone. She's best known for her Sentinel series of novels, the most recent of which is Captive Magic.