It’s really easy to give advice, especially when you’re not the one who has anything at stake. I know that as well as anybody. And in turbulent times, there seems to be plenty of advice flying around. That being said, on the heels of my own cathartic rant at publishers from this morning, I ran across two interesting articles about how to rescue various aspects of the publishing industry.
On The Daily Beast, Anis Shivani goes considerably further than I did in my rant. He declares that it’s time for the lumbering dinosaurs that are the major mass-market publishers to make way for smaller, more decentralized mammals. They need to be more responsive to the needs of readers, and more willing to take risks.
One can easily imagine a scenario where publishers’ retail outlets function in a mode akin to public libraries, becoming centers of exchange of ideas between authors, editors, and readers, as part of a global network of bottoms-up cultural dynamism. Books would not be status objects then but would derive from readerly needs, losing their fetish aspect and becoming transformable over time. The real price of most books—minus unnecessary overhead—probably ought to be between $2 to $5 today, if publishers take full advantage of global economies of scale rather than catering to restricted elite audiences. Technology is exerting tremendous pressure on making authors roaming and unbound, enhancing the ability to create both niche and broad audiences as elite gatekeepers lose prestige. Admittedly, a lot of undeserved cultural authority will have to erode before this idealization can materialize.
Meanwhile, on Publishers Weekly, Bookshout founder/CEO Jason Illian has some advice for salvaging the rapidly-hemorrhaging Barnes & Noble. He feels the company needs to stop trying to be Amazon and find its own identity, perhaps leveraging partnerships with publishers and other companies to create new sales channels. As with Shivani and publishing in general, he thinks B&N should slim down and become leaner and meaner. And he thinks it should take a page from Google’s book (and for that matter, Amazon’s, though he doesn’t mention it) and scoop up entrepreneurs and startups with great ideas that could help the ailing business out.
Nearly everyone I know in publishing is cheering for Barnes & Noble. But the clock is ticking. As a publishing and reading community, we need to realize that Barnes & Noble is not the answer for the future of books, but they can be a catalyst and significant player if their next steps are decisive and well played. Let’s hope they are.
The thing is, these kinds of advice look great on paper, until you realize that commenters like Shivani and Illian (and, for that matter, me, I guess) have the easy job. They can talk ‘til they’re blue in the face about what the best way to “save” publishing or B&N is, but someone else is actually going to have to bell the cat and figure out how to implement the plan, whatever it is. And the more radical a plan you have, the easier it is to suggest and the harder it is to figure out how to do.
As irritated as I have been and still am with the Big Six (now the Big Five) publishers, I recognize that they face a big challenge in days to come. That the crisis they’re in is of their own making doesn’t make it any less of a crisis, and if they’re going to stay afloat they’re going to need to figure out how to find their way out. The decentralized world Shivani describes sounds nice, but New York City publishing is so deep in its entrenched rut right now that it could take dynamite to blast them out of it. (For crying out loud, they’re still accepting and pulping returns, a practice that was begun in the Great Depression.)
Here’s hoping the publishing industry and Barnes & Noble successfully muddle through somehow…and don’t get vaporized.