Finding an Edge: Part One
How bad are things in book publishing? It’s old news that the trade division of my old company, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, has not only laid off a significant percentage of its staff, but has announced it will not be acquiring new books for the entire year of 2009. This has prompted some writers at a Harvard discussion forum I frequent to wonder whether the bad economy offers smaller start up publishers a new opportunity to grow.

This presupposes, however, that the infrastructure of the book publishing industry is still sound, and this is where things look gloomy. Aaron Greenspan, the head of his own small publishing firm, Think Press, which in addition to standard publishing features its own Interbook publishing technology, weighs in with some details:

“The most obvious [problem] I’ve faced is distribution. Even though my company has an account with Baker and Taylor, Ingram is basically off-limits to small publishers, and Baker and Taylor is barely solvent. (Borders Group, Inc., one of their largest clients, is also about to go bankrupt from the look of things, which doesn’t help. Neither does the fact that libraries, which depend on public funding at the local level, are finding their budgets shrinking at an alarming rate.) Both companies rarely pay their bills on time, if at all, and engage in a number of admittedly very clever accounting tricks to avoid paying what they owe. Baker and Taylor in particular has a knack for making books “disappear.” This makes it hard to stay afloat if you really make your income from publishing and depend on a steady stream of checks from distributors.”

At first glance, this makes the Print-on-Demand option for newbie writers look more promising.
But it’s an option many authors, including myself (pace my first novel over there in the left pane), find unsatisfying, and Aaron nicely sums up why.

“People do tend to associate bigger imprints with legitimacy, even if most of the stuff they publish these days is terrible. Not many authors I know want to be published by a small press; I certainly didn’t before I was indirectly forced to start mine. The advantages I can offer as a small publisher are really just a higher cut of each book sold, but I can’t make offers for multi-million dollar advances. My company in particular can also offer a bit of a technological edge since I’m also a software developer, but my technology might not really be that appealing until it catches on, and it’s really best for non-fiction writers I think.

“So, I’d be surprised if a bunch of small presses suddenly fill the shoes that the larger publishers leave behind. It may be that there’s simply a gap in our nation’s literary tradition for a few years until we can figure out an efficient model for writers, publishers, distributors and retailers alike.”

What that model will be remains to be seen. If Borders goes under, and the big publishers (the ones that don’t tank) feel squeezed by Barnes and Noble’s power to pick and choose whatever books they see fit to promote (meaning, their own), we may perhaps see each of the survivors branch out into their own web-front book stores and perhaps, here and there in the big cities at least, their own brick-and-mortar stores.

In the meantime, writers continue to think of other ways to promote our existing books. One obvious route is Video. In Part Two, I’ll take a look at popular children’s science author Vicki Cobb who has become a virtual one-woman production studio.