Not Until The Fat Lady Sings

I don’t spend as much time here as I usually do. Fighting cancer does that sometimes. It intensifies your focus making it difficult to multitask.

However, I’m never far from my feed reader. So when I come across something that ‘grinds my gears’, you bet I’m all over it and reaching for my keyboard.

My latest windmill to tilt came in the form of an article by Michael Levin which I read on The Huffington Post titled, “Publishers Weakly: What the Penguin/Random House Merger Really Means”.

Having worked in the corporate world, I know a thing or two about mergers, especially from the lowly view of a minion. It’s a fearful thing for those of us who know that when we hear the word “synergy”, it pretty much means that you’d better make sure to clear all personal things from your desk and hope you have enough in your savings account to cover things until you find work again.

So I can understand Mr. Levin’s sentiment when he saw that same word used in regards to the merger. One which he feels “represents one more death rattle of the once-thriving book publishing trade.”

Have we really given up?

I agree the book publishing trade is suffering. Their “feet on the street”, the local booksellers are being put out of business by big-box and online retailers. Readers are turning in greater numbers toward other mediums in order to access the written word. I get that. However, the following is what had my indignation level rising above the stratosphere:

Lots of editorial, marketing, and other jobs will vanish. Agents will have fewer places to sell books. Fewer books will be published. Authors will get even less money (if that’s even possible, since some publishers are paying zero advances whenever they can get away with it). And the pontificators will pontificate on what it all means to society (not much, since most of society has already given up on reading books).

Let me repeat “. . . since most of society has already given up on reading books”.

With all my heart, I hope this is another poor use of a generalization. Otherwise that death rattle everyone is claiming to hear is coming from a much more profound and frightening source than the publishing industry. That people are no longer reading books, is one of the most dangerous turns any society can take. One toward a world I cannot imagine, nor do I want to.

Mr. Levin apparently has no problem imagining such a scenario, as he has done it before.

I realize he means that people haven’t stopped reading books but are switching to digitized literature. However, this summation is a slippery slope. First of all, many in society (if we are speaking globally), do not have the means and/or access to the technology required. Secondly, with the advent of DRM, we don’t own the books we purchase as some Kindle owners have found out the hard way.

I don’t know about you, but if I shell out my hard earned money for a book, I never want to worry about waking up in the morning to find it – or any other book – deleted from my eReader without my knowledge or consent.

When I glance over at my home library and see how well stocked it is, I know how lucky I am. When I walk into my local library or bookstore, I appreciate the amount of culture laid before me. I also take a moment to feel grateful as I know that there are still places in the world where the populace doesn’t have this kind of access, if they have any at all.

Books are a cultural treasure and don’t deserve to be set aside so quickly as a dead medium.

For What It’s Worth

Later in the article we get to what I feel is the true reasoning behind why these giants of the trade are (and will) fail:

They had the responsibility to shape society by providing it with books worth reading, to create a cultural legacy for our generation and generations to come. And instead, what did they give us? Ann Coulter, Navy SEALs, and Fifty Shades of Grey.

I cannot disagree with this statement.  I truly believe that the bottom line has become more important than providing a quality product that people want, even demand, and would be willing to pay for. But asking us to shell out an obscene amount of money for a new hardcover or nearly as much for a digital edition is prohibitive – especially in this economy. Just because a book makes the bestseller’s list doesn’t make it a worthwhile purchase. I doubt I’m the only one who reads blogs, talks to friends, and asks the staff at the local independent book store (caveat: I used to work there) to see what they’d recommend before I spend even a dime.

Just as Ruskin said, if it’s worth reading, it’s worth paying for.  The devil is in the details, or in this instance, the quality of the content. Concern about the bottom line carries little weight with a reader. If you want them to buy your product, produce one worth paying for.

The power (and profit) of trust

I found, through the experience of working in a small independent bookstore, trust is a major factor in selling anything, especially a book. The staff, being avid readers, are an excellent source for recommendations. In addition, being such a diverse group, nearly every genre was covered so a customer could be assured they were getting knowledgeable suggestions.

This is why I nearly lost my mind when Mr. Levin says:

You can’t run a successful business selling information in the form of printed books by putting them on trucks to distant cities, hoping that booksellers (anyone who can fog a mirror, run a cash register and repeat the phrase, “We don’t have it but we could order it for you”) will actively work to sell your stuff to people.

Please don’t lump all of us together as mouth-breathing automatons behind the counter. Granted, bookselling zombies do exist, but they are a much rarer creature than you lead your readers to believe. Also, never discount the devotion of readers to their community bookseller. As a matter of fact, there has been an increase in membership with the American Booksellers Association as well as a boost in sales that does not appear to be a fluke. As noted by the CEO of the American Booksellers Association:

We have proven to the industry that our business model is well positioned for the future. Now more than ever, customers appreciate our curated selection, our local ownership and close ties to our towns and cities; our many in-store events and the opportunity to connect face-to-face in our stores with other passionate readers.

The experiences you create everyday in yours stores simply cannot be downloaded or replicated online.

I’ve seen personally what an active and involved Independent seller means to its community, especially to its children. For the store I am associated with, the largest turnover has been, and to this day, remains the children’s section. I can’t see any better hope for publishing and our society than what I see in the faces of kids clutching books tightly to their chests as they leave the store. This is where trust begins. It must be encouraged as they grow out of juvenile fiction, supported while in those tough YA years, and developed completely by the time they wander the fiction aisles.

That is the future of publishing. Plain and simple.

For Whom The Bells Tolls

If the eventual demise of the new entity created by the merger isn’t enough to make one fearful, here is another morsel for thought: “The remaining publishers will find it harder to compete . . . So they’ll fire people, merge, fire more people, and eventually roll over and die.”

Competitors of those that have merged may find it harder to compete and thus fail. Still, it’s not set in stone that they will. This merger may be a wake-up call more than a mortal wound to the entire industry.

Also, if the bell is truly tolling for big publishers, then what about the reader? Unless we can ensure whatever replaces the book is affordable and available to all, what will be the loss to society if the printed word goes by the way of the 8 track?

There is hope and it’s name is Indies. The lesser will become greater if they continue to care about quality over quantity, of this I have no doubt, and I am not the only one:

In any recession, the vanguard is to be found beyond the mainstream – and risks taken by those typically seen as outsiders. Indies, as they always do, will be seen as the risk takers in a climate of doom and gloom, nurturing talent and publishing books not deemed safe enough for the panicky, profit-driven corporations. – Heather Mallick, “Penguin Merger Minuses Could be Pluses For Indies”

If Indies continue to believe in the power of supporting each other as well as authors and producing a quality product, then the blow struck by this merger may not be a fatal one after all.

There is cause to be concerned, but I for one am not ready to give up on books. Not yet. I also believe wholeheartedly in the grassroots power of readers loyal to the printed word. We all have voices either literally or through social media. Be sure you are heard. Our society and our children’s future depends on it.

No pressure. Much.

Sources quoted or used in the research of this article:

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