The world of books seems to be having a bit of an identity crisis right now. Isn't it great?
But whatever your own personal take might be on where publishing and bookselling is going in the future, the one great aspect to this whole wave of nervous self-regard is that everybody's got an opinion, and everybody's got someplace to let their voice be heard. There are a lot of pundits out there, prognosticating about our future.
When I wake up in the morning, and make my way to the desk with coffee in hand, it's easy for me to think that I work on the side of the angels. I represent a whole raft of independent publishers, university presses, poorly paid but insanely creative authors, etc. I sell their books to (almost exclusively) independent bookstores. When I'm not selling to indie bookstores, I'm calling on a few larger companies based in my territory, and I'm working to convince those big guys to give the up-and-coming publishers and authors a shot. Once I'm done patting myself on the back, though, the cold reality of bookselling right now can be a bit scary.
But here are a few thoughts that help keep me centered as I work with my booksellers and talk to my publishers:
- I know that words certainly aren't going anywhere. If anything, there're going to be more words than ever before. Words are what we do. It's not bound packs of paper or shiny discs or packets of bits. The question is, which collections of words are going to be free and which ones will be worth paying money for?
- You'd have to be pretty clueless to witness the rise of online self-publishing, blogging, citizen journalism and the whole social media whirl and continue thinking that everything is going to continue on the way it did 50 years ago or even 25 years ago. Some people's profit margins are going to be clipped but good.
- It's a truism in bookselling that you keep an ear on what your customers are asking for and special ordering. That's how you know where your store's holes are. Likewise, how can you not pay attention to the sections that aren't selling because of fundamental changes in the business? That's the fin in the water - you get out of the water on that beach and find a safer beach.
- I know I'm not the only one with this perspective, but I think everybody's excessively freaked out about e-books right now. Instead of trying to hash out the one perfect solution and the one industry standard before we all move forward in lockstep, I say let a million flowers bloom. I want a chaotic blur of different options, e-readers, file formats and marketing strategies. Let the market speak and we'll see what works best.
So where do indie publishers fit in this scary new world? And my beloved indie bookstores? This is the great part. There will always be niches where scrappy publishers with new ideas can thrive. And I believe that there will continue to be a portion of the publishing world that continues to need retail space to reach their customers - no matter what format those stores are selling.
And I'm not the only one thinking like this. I read a few articles and blog posts tonight that got me reviewing my own place in this business, and wanting to try to express my own thoughts on this.
I came across this post at the New Yorker's Book Bench: Rise of the Indie Publisher. That's where I got the quote that headlines this post - "put quality first, don't get greedy."
Forgive me if I hear an echo of Michael Pollan's foodie manifesto from the New York Times in 2007: "Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants." Maybe we need our own crystalizing manifesto for reinventing publishing?
The NYer blog post links to indie publisher Two Dollar Radio's Eric Obenauf and his column in the Brooklyn Rail, called The Revenge of Print, that circulated widely earlier this week on Twitter. One of his main points is that big conglomerates are going to be in trouble, but "there is space for print not only to exist in modern society, but to thrive, if undertaken on a realistic scale."
Eric discusses a number of indie publishers who are currently operating in the shadow of the major conglomerates, yet are actually achieving "the mission for book publishers and print media at large should be to create a product that is irreplaceable and indispensible."
From Eric's column, here's a list of some indie publishers who are operating on what he calls a "responsible scale": Europa Editions, Seven Stories Press, Bellevue Literary Press, Akashic Books, Soft Skull Press, Melville House, and City Lights.
I would add more names to the list of exemplars: Arsenal Pulp Press, Feminist Press at CUNY, Coffee House Press, Graywolf Press, Small Beer Press, Copper Canyon Press, Dzanc Books, Soho Press, McSweeney's Books, Milkweed Editions, Exact Change, Tin House Books, Unbridled Books and upstart little guys Busted Flush Press and Exterminating Angel Press.
Other voices that are helping me to make sense of the future: Richard Nash. Booksquare's Kassia Krozser (especially this piece). Kat Meyer & Charlotte Abbott (Follow The Reader). I like to read Bethanne Patrick at The Book Maven. Check out Quartet Press from Kat & Kassia & Kirk Biglione. Pablo Defendini, web producer for Tor.com, is doing really creative online publishing and marketing for Macmillan.
What else? You know I'm all about the rich connections that social media is helping us build. Richard Nash notoriously epigrammatized himself at BEA when he said that "Twitter will not save publishing" but if you want to be inspired by its potential to help publishing, take a look at what Unbridled is doing with their own Twitter account, withtheirstaff, and their authors (Masha Hamilton, Jason Quinn Malott, Elise Blackwell, Colin Dickey, Edward Falco, Emily St. John Mandel, Eric Barnes, etc.) I don't think there's another publisher with a greater proportion of their authors taking part in the great Twitter conversation with booksellers and readers.
We're all trying to find our way through this muddle - and with books coming from great indie publishers like those mentioned above, and social networking tools like Twitter to help us find our way together - I'm feeling pretty OK about the future of publishing and bookselling.