We survived the Bookopalypse!

Plus an update on the Blake Bailey/Philip Roth shambles

Usually, when I do something for the first time, I start in the library. When I wanted to become a journalist, I read Mencken’s Newspaper Days. When I wanted to sail, I read The Wayfarer Book. And when I wanted to start a book publishing company, I read John B. Thompson’s Merchant of Culture: The Publishing Business in the Twenty-First Century.

I read a lot of other books about book publishing, including (thank you Jack David) a fascinating life of Blanche Knopf, The Lady with the Borzoi, which gives her credit for much of Alfred A. Knopf’s success. But Thompson’s book had real utility.

A Cambridge sociologist with a wicked 1974 haircut, Thompson (below) put a lot of effort into investigating how publishing really works, from the acquisition of a manuscript to the ultimate sale of books to readers. He looked at a bunch of recent developments in the trade: the growth of the big-box bookstore, the rampant consolidation of publishing companies, the blockbuster mentality of the big publishers, and the emergence of literary agents as a new type of gatekeeper on the literary scene. He also had a chapter on the digital revolution which, in 2012, the year his book was released, was making a dent in the Anglo-American publishing world. I have enormous regard for Thompson’s book—highly recommended.

And so I was excited to see this week that he is back. Book Wars: The Digital Revolution in Publishing picks up where Merchants of Culture left off. In the decade since he stopped writing Merchants, the technological dent in publishing has become a crater, and Book Wars is its exploration.

Thompson’s starting point is the circa-1999 expert consensus on what would result from the collision of digital technology and the book industry. The industry, said the experts, had experienced very little change in its 500-year history at the start of this century; it was still dependent on ink and paper and glue, the publisher, the printing press, and the bookseller. In other words, it was ripe for disruption. Digital technology would liberate content from the material medium in which it had long been embedded, as well as the material processes by which it had found a market.

Surely, said the experts, the book, as we knew it, was dead. How could things as ancient as a paper, as dirty as ink, and as clumsy as an iron press be relevant in a world of 0s and 1s?

Surely, if publishers themselves were already making books on computers— manuscripts had become files—readers would read them on computers rather than carry around bricks of type.

Surely, once publishers learned that it was far easier and less expensive to sell a digital file than a physical artifact, they’d quit manufacturing and shipping tons of product at enormous expense. Who needed all that inventory in an on-demand world?

Surely if books were nothing more than files, they’d cost next to nothing, like a streamed song. And if what happened to the music business was to happen to book publishing, publishers themselves would soon be much diminished if not extinct—bypassed as creators made their own direct connections with consumers.

Surely, given the deterministic force of technology, the future of publishing as a business would look like this:

There is a lot of great stuff in Book Wars, so much so that I’ll probably be talking about it more in weeks to come. Thompson covers every dimension of the digital impact on publishing, including Google’s attempt to make the world’s largest libraries available online at no charge; Amazon’s takeover of book retailing; the explosion of self-publishing; and the rise of the new digital formats, ebooks and audiobooks. He’s got a lot to say on all these things, but his major point is this:

Despite the disruptive potential of the digital revolution and the turbulence that has characterized the book publishing industry since the dawn of the third millennium, this industry has fared remarkably well... Book revenues have not collapsed, print books have not disappeared and even brick-and-mortar bookstores have begun to make a modest comeback: counter to the predictions of many prophets of doom, the book publishing apocalypse has not come to pass (or, at least, not yet).

There has been a lot of change, to be sure. And things, for a time, did look dire. Ebooks took off like a rocket. Amazon seemed capable of controlling the prices for everything connected with books. Google was doing a stellar job of convincing consumers that information was free and that intellectual property was a dead letter. Publishers that had spent the last half of the twentieth century scaling up to unprecedented levels found they were pipsqueaks in the new digital world. Whether measured by capital, audience, or cultural cachet, the likes of Google, Apple, and Amazon dwarfed even Penguin Random House.

The publishers were not only competing with giants, but they were competing on unfamiliar turf. For book publishers, it had always been about the content, creating a steady supply of good books. For the tech companies, content was a means to some other end, whether a search business, a retail business, or a device business.

Whereas publishers appreciated content because they could sell it at a profit, full stop, the tech guys wanted to sell content or distribute content at no charge in order to generate revenue and (often more important) acquire proprietary user data they could sell or use to better compete in their markets. Tech was indifferent to the quality of the content; it was all about attracting users.

Technology also crushed the barriers to entry to publishing. The walls came down and millions of individuals (and a lot of startups) rushed in to sell their self-made content directly to consumers, bypassing the historic supply chain of publisher, wholesaler, bookseller. This was disconcerting to publishers. So, too, was the fact that old and out-of-print books, out of reach to all but the most assiduous collectors, were suddenly available by the millions in digital and print-on-demand formats. These trends represented a whack of new competition for each book produced by conventional publishers. The number of books available to readers exploded.

(There was a lot of good in the crushing of the barriers. Thompson opens Book Wars with the story of Andy Weir’s The Martian, which began life as blog posts on a personal website, got uploaded to Kindle, and wound up a Random House bestseller and a Matt Damon vehicle. This series of metamorphoses was impossible a generation ago.)


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So, yes, there was a crazy amount of disruption, as the experts predicted. But much has not changed, and certain things have changed for the better. Surprises and ironies abound.

The big publishers failed in their bid to stop the Google Library Project in court, but Google lost interest in the project, reached an accommodation with the publishers, and catastrophe was averted. This was a huge factor in allowing publishers to continue producing bricks of type and charging good prices for them.

Ebooks initially terrified publishers. It looked as if publishers would lose control of the pricing of their digital product to Amazon, just as the music industry had lost control of its pricing to streaming services. The publishers’ initial efforts to fight Amazon got them convicted by the Department of Justice for conspiring to raise prices, but here, too, they somehow reached an accommodation with their disruptor, Amazon. They were able to hold their prices of both ebooks and physical books and once again staved off disaster.

Amazon, for all our complaining about it, has enormously expanded the overall marketplace for books: physical, ebook, and audio. Its dominance is worrying but publishers have never had so vast and reliable a platform for selling product. I don’t know exactly how you’d calculate this, but it’s a safe bet that by bringing more content in more formats within reach of people who don’t like physical books or who don’t live near bookstores or who have esoteric tastes or who like discounted bestsellers (the discount comes out of the retailer’s take), Amazon has been the best thing to happen to publisher revenues in the last fifty years.

Readers have played their own role in foiling the doomsday predictions by demonstrating an attachment to bricks of type, and a stubborn willingness to pay for them. As a result, the centuries-old production processes and supply chains upon which conventional publishers rely to bring their product to market have held up reasonably well. Paper and ink still are still bought by the ton. Books still move by the truckload from press to warehouse to bookstore. The old infrastructure runs side-by-side with the new digital infrastructure.

Perhaps most surprisingly, the book industry has outperformed pretty much every other legacy media and creative industry over the past 20 years, and certainly the newspaper and music industries. The latter two were devastated by digital disruption. Revenues fell through the floor. Here’s a chart showing the onslaught of digital product in the publishing marketplace.

And here’s a record of trade publishing industry revenues at the height of the digital onslaught:

Revenues actually went up when ebooks peaked. Not by a lot. But they went up.

And here’s a visualization of how the most widely anticipated outcome of the digital revolution in book publishing never happened:

Physical books are not dead, and they haven’t been marginalized like CDs or vinyl LPs, at least not for most genres of literature. Interestingly, a closer look at the data shows the digital impact has been unevenly distributed. Digital works of adult fiction, especially of the romance and fantasy and thriller variety, have eaten about a third of the total market. Physical books have been highly resilient in other genres, particularly adult non-fiction. Perhaps most surprising of all, kids are overwhelmingly attached to physical books. Here is data from a representative American publisher:

All in all, Thompson’s story is a positive story. There are a million problems in book publishing, but we have thus far survived the bookopalypse. More to come in weeks ahead.


A bit more on the Bailey/Roth shambles

We had a lot to say about this last week but there are new developments. To recap quickly, W.W. Norton brought out Blake Bailey’s official biography of novelist and sexual controversialist Philip Roth earlier this month with great fanfare, which lasted until Bailey was accused of sexual abuse and rape.

We noted last week that Norton’s initial strategy was to pretend that it was abandoning Bailey and his work while still leaving its initial print run of 50,000 copies available in the marketplace. The publisher said it would pause any new promotion or reprints of the book. Much of its original promotion was left in place, including this noise on Amazon:

This strategy appears to have been designed to allow Norton to recoup its hefty investment in the book while appearing to take the allegations against Bailey seriously.

I described the strategy last week as brilliant, if fiendish. I thought they’d get away with it. They didn’t.

The pressures on Norton went up a notch this week and the publisher lost its nerve, announcing that it was cutting all ties with Bailey and permanently pulling his book from the market. (You can still get the book on Amazon but only from its second-tier sellers.)

Far from solving Norton’s problems, this latest move has compounded them. The Authors Guild and PEN America are now on the publisher’s case for taking the path of least resistance.

PEN says let deviants be deviants:

“If we were to apply that standard writ large there would be thousands of books by bigots, misogynists and miscreants that could be removed from circulation on those grounds. While these books may be picked up elsewhere, once that stigma is attached there may not be another publisher willing to touch them.”

The Authors Guild says there are things to be learned from deplorables:

“Freedom of expression and the freedom to publish are the bedrock principles upon which literary culture and civil society are built. Removing a published book from circulation because of the authors’ conduct and resulting adverse public opinion against the author or the subject, no matter how strong and justified, contradicts important principles of free speech and open discourse. The book may, for example, serve as a historical document of Roth’s treatment of women and his own misbehavior, and of conduct that some have even found acceptable in the past. It provides food for discussion about these important topics as well as other aspects of Roth’s life. We cannot rewrite history.”

In our opinion, the publisher should have argued from the outset that bad people can write good books and ignored the pressure to withdraw Bailey.

I don’t know where Norton goes from here but it’s probably time for a Julia Reidhead watch. She’s Norton’s president. She was informed of the allegations against Bailey pre-publication and didn’t take them seriously. She published the book knowing all this was lurking in the background, and since it’s come forward she’s been unable to nail a response.

Meanwhile, the New York Times is also been feeling some heat. Vanity Fair magazine, among other outlets, noticed that the newspaper, which led the charge on #metoo, sat on knowledge of an accusation against Bailey for five years and then pimped his book anyway.


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