Let the big publishers fall

Megan Hustad, commentator and author of "How to be Useful."

TEXT OF COMMENTARY

Tess Vigeland: Today Barnes and Noble reported bigger losses than expected ...
34 cents a share for the third quarter.
Sales fell more than four percent in yet another sign of the publishing industry's troubles.
But you can still get a book deal as long as you have a first name and occupation that become famous in a presidential campaign.
Joe The Plumber is penning a book on American values -- due out Dec. 1.
Commentator and author Megan Hustad says she's neither surprised -- nor upset -- that much of the publishing industry is on life support.


Megan Hustad:
What I'm about to say qualifies as one of the dumbest professional moves I've made. See, I've published a book and I hope to publish another one. But I must confess that when I hear the news about various publishing companies' struggles, I think to myself, Hallelujah. Can't wait 'til they all go under.

Don't get me wrong. I hope people keep reading -- and reading, yes, actual books -- for decades to come. I just don't believe today's publishing industry is at all equipped to deliver that bright future.

In fact, many of their practices put the business in jeopardy. Rampant consolidation has meant pressure to achieve higher and higher margins. The corner office now asks for 15 percent in an industry that historically chugged along at half that. How do publishers trim budgets? Well, no editor I know actually edits at the office -- they're too busy with administrative stuff. Publicists are asked to promote more titles than they have time to read. High-overhead, cash-strapped publishers take shortcuts. That means a lot of half-baked books wind up on store shelves. Industry insiders describe this as the "throw spaghetti at the wall and see what sticks" business model. Today's major publishers consistently release more product than they can and do support in a noisy and increasingly crowded marketplace.

This doesn't do authors -- or what business leaders today might want call "content providers" -- any favors. The value added by, say, an experienced editor, is notoriously difficult to determine. So it's likely this scrimping will continue. Can you prove-to a CFO's satisfaction-that an extra 40 hours of editing leads to a 20 percent boost in sales volume?

No, you can't. Though I really hope an MBA student somewhere is putting his or her mind to it. Whoever figures out a way to quantify these variables should get the Nobel Prize for Literature. Until then, readers and writers would be better served by smaller, more nimble outfits. Let's let the big houses topple, and clear ground for some innovators.

Vigeland: Megan Hustad's new book is called "How to be Useful." She lives in New York City.

Comments

I agree to American Public Media's Terms and Conditions.
With Generous Support From...