It’s not hard to identify the problems that now beset book publishing. Aside rom the rise of the electronic realm (see below), books have always been a low-profit item and in recent years margins have been shrinking even further. Publishers now regularly give bookshops a 50 per cent or even a 55 per cent discount on the retail price. The distributor that warehouses and delivers the book will typically take 10 per cent of what remains, or more if you are a small publisher; 15 per cent goes on production (printing, paper, typesetting). Add another 10 per cent for the author’s royalties and the publisher is left with 10 per cent to cover promotion costs, rent and office expenses, wages and profit. No wonder it’s called the gentleman’s profession.
Electronic communication has generally made life easier for writers and harder for readers. Text is simpler to produce on computers, easier to amend and spell-check, and a breeze to distribute. No one can be more conscious of this than editors, who are now deluged with manuscripts, attached with consummate ease to letters explaining that if this particular book is not of interest, several others, perhaps more appealing, await on the author’s hard drive. But how does this technology serve the reader? For all the claims of their optical friendliness and handiness, e-books still strain the eyes and are challenging to carry around. Worse, the dizzying range of easily accessible material on the Internet conspires with a lack of editorial guidance to make web reading a disjointed experience that works against the sustained concentration required for serious reading.
A ‘floored’ model
A system that requires the trucking of vast quantities of paper to bookshops and then back to publishers’ warehouses for pulping is environmentally and commercially unsustainable. An industry that spends all its money on bookseller discounts and very little on finding an audience is getting things the wrong way round. Following the strictures of their accountants, the large publishing houses will intensify their concentration on blockbusters. High street bookshops will abandon deep stockholding, becoming mere showrooms for bestsellers and prize-winners. Ever more people will read the same few books.
The future of much of the industry will be dominated by electronic distribution, Internet marketing to niche audiences, and reading by print-on-demand or hand-held electronic devices. There is opportunity as well as challenge in this model. The roles of editor and publicist, people who can guide the potential reader through the cacophony of background noise to words they’ll want to read, will become ever more important.