Monday, September 29, 2008

The Problem with Publishing

So the entire Internet seems to agree that book publishing is dead. As someone who works for the Library Journal--a publication whose existence relies on the strength of the publishing industry--I feel that, despite my age and lack of experience with, well, everything, books included, I can offer some insight.

Along a dusty back shelf of my office, behind the snack tray and past the copy room, the complete archive of the Library Journal sits like an old person in a retirement home; long past its ability to be useful, it simply bides its time until that time is up. (Which, in the case of the archives, will mean being sent to the 18th floor, bound in giant binders, and stored in an even more out-of-the-way shelf in some back room.) The oldest issues still on our floor are from the mid-80s.

Earlier today I decided to actually look inside a few of these older issues, to see how the magazine has changed and what, if anything, those changes say about the evolution of the publishing world. I know our current issues well; my job consists of preparing the materials that will be used in those issues, and I always take a look through the finished copies anyway, to see the fruits of my labor, so to speak.

Those older issues are exactly what you'd expect from a niche-market trade publication: tiny font; obscure ads; entirely black and white. I noticed some key differences between our current issues and their 80s brethren. Whereas ads nowadays are just as likely to be for Web services or audio books as they are for actual publishing houses, all of the ads in older issues were for new books and the imprints that distributed them. Obviously, there was no Internet in the 80s--at least as we know it today--but still, the shift in ads from books themselves to other forms of literary technology speaks to the decreasing importance of books in today's world, including today's libraries. Indeed, our cover story for the October 1 issue talks about "the challenges of innovation."

And the older issues are thicker. This is because there were probably twice as many ads in our magazine back then. Seriously, LJ must have been like Vogue for librarians; I could see some dressed-up professor, sitting at her desk before her next lecture, flipping through the ads and admiring what she saw, yearning for that new Stephen King, that mystery series now in paperback, that fall lineup from HarperCollins. There were but a few articles in these older issues; the bulk of their weight was made up of ads and book reviews. Today, editorials and interviews make up almost half of our issues, and book reviews now include audio books and DVDs. We also run a lot fewer ads.

Today, one of the editors mentioned to me that we were possibly in the process of being sold. A quick Google search yielded no results for me, but I figure that in-house discussion is just as reliable as a Mediabistro blind item. I don't know what such an sale would entail for the future of our magazine, but I can't imagine we have a ton of eager buyers. Our ad space has gone down dramatically; this isn't a fault of our magazine itself, but rather the result of the simple fact that books just don't sell like they used to. So the industry is losing money, libraries are losing money, and we're losing money; the vicious cycle will complete itself, again and again, but I don't think it'll eventually hit zero. There is still a place for books in modern culture: art books, for instance, provide a method of viewing that even the clearest computer screen can't match; there is something satisfying about marking a line or passage on a page that goes missing when you use the highlight function on Microsoft Word; and, quite simply, it's still easier to read things on a page, which explains why I always print out online reading assignments, even those of just a few paragraphs' length.

I do think that the book publishing industry is going to have to change the way it markets itself. As my Internet-bred generation gets older, we're going to increasingly influence the way media shapes our culture. My friends and I, Millennials in arms, have long since rendered libraries obsolete in terms of academic research; at best, we might go to one to fill a requirement of the assignment, but for the most part, to many kids like me, libraries exist as fun relics of a bygone age, a place to browse for obscure titles about teen angst and familial melodrama. Books are increasingly becoming a niche commodity themselves, losing the necessity of their use that perpetuated their popularity and dominance throughout the world over the past, oh, 300 or so years. Computers and the Internet are taking their place in that respect. But as fans of sports, cinema, and fashion can tell you, there is a very real place for niche interests in our society; in fact, if the Internet has done anything at all to our culture already, it's splintered our knowledge and made it easier and more practical to study and enjoy what you want, no matter how esoteric.

I'm not saying books will be relegated to the level of ham fanaticism, but I am saying that the publishing industry must prepare itself now for the shift in books' function that will take place in the not-too-distant future. My predictions: textbooks will go digital; most new novels will be available online for cheap, in a way akin to iTunes, but for literature; and the Library Journal will find a buyer somewhere on the Internet. That latter prediction might already be happening; the Computer Media section of our magazine is going to be turned into a blog.


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