Wednesday, September 17, 2008

BAD DAYS FOR THE BOOK BUSINESS, TOO

NY Magazine - The demise of publishing has been predicted since the days of Gutenberg. But for most of the past century - through wars and depressions-the business of books has jogged along at a steady pace. It's one of the main (some would say only) advantages of working in a "mature" industry: no unsustainable highs, no devastating lows. A stoic calm, peppered with a bit of gallows humor, prevailed in the industry.

Survey New York's oldest culture industry this season, however, and you won't find many stoics. What you will find are prophets of doom, Cassandras in blazers and black dresses arguing at elegant lunches over What Is to Be Done. Even best-selling publishers and agents fresh from seven-figure deals worry about what's coming . . .

The anxiety would be endurable if it was just a function of the late-Bush economy: Sales at the five big publishers were up 0.5 percent in the first half of this year, bookstore sales tanked in June, and a full-year decline is expected. But pretty much every aspect of the business seems to be in turmoil. There's the floundering of the few remaining semi-independent midsize publishers; the ouster of two powerful CEOs-one who inspired editors and one who at least let them be; the desperate race to evolve into e-book producers; the dire state of Borders, the only real competitor to Barnes & Noble; the feeling that outrageous money is being wasted on mediocre books; and Amazon .com, which many publishers look upon as a power-hungry monster bent on cornering the whole business.

One by one, these would be difficult problems to solve. But as a series of interrelated challenges, they constitute a full-blown crisis-a climate change as unpredictable as it is inevitable. And like global warming, it elicits reactions ranging from denial to Darwinian survivalism to determined stabs at warding off disaster-attempts not to recapture some long-lost era but to harness new, untapped sources of power. That is, if it's not too late. . .

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