Reports of Traditional Publishing’s Death Are Greatly Exaggerated

Expert publishing blog opinions are solely those of the blogger and not necessarily endorsed by DBW.

This post is a response to Bob Mayer’s last post on this blog, Was March 2012 the month Traditional Publishing died? I admire Bob and I’m glad he’s one of our expert bloggers, but I happen to disagree with him on this issue. I hope my response inspires a friendly debate among us and those in the industry. I welcome your feedback and comments.

Is the book publishing business as we know it dead or dying? If you believe everything you read, you might think so.

I might be in the minority opinion among publishing business observers, but I happen to think that it’s a vibrant business going through a difficult transition from which it will emerge stronger than ever. And, yes, most of the big players we see today will survive intact.

This belief is why I came to Digital Book World five months ago (to the day). I left a position at Dow Jones covering careers, another topic I’m passionate about, for the opportunity to cover an industry that is among the most dynamic and exciting in the whole world of business.

I didn’t come here to bear witness to the last gasps of the great publishing houses.

Aside from my self-serving conviction that traditional publishing must not be dead, I think there are some very legitimate business reasons that the publishing business will be around in something recognizable to its current form for a long time.

I have three reasons I’d like to put forward here:

1. Publishers earnings. Most major book publishers have closed their 2011 accounts and the results were solid. In 2011, Borders closed, Barnes & Noble reduced shelf space by 20% and many independent bookstores closed – yet the major publishers that publicly reported financial results mostly maintained revenues at levels similar to 2010, doing so through great increases in e-book revenue. E-books, for most companies, carry a high profit margin; e-books helped drive increased profits at these companies.

As Mike Shatzkin has said, these large publishing companies are led by smart executives. They’re in the process of figuring out how to transition from being purely print publishers (business-to-business concerns) to being hybrid print-digital publishers that market and sell directly to consumers. As long as these businesses have a good cash-flow, they have the chance to make the right investments to ensure future profitability.

2. Publishers as curators. At the annual meeting of the Association of American Publishers last week (read about it here, here and here), Malcolm Gladwell closed the show with a keynote about why he thinks publishers are relevant. For him, it’s about being gatekeepers of quality.

While it’s a miracle of modernity that anyone can publish (imagine the stir Martin Luther could have caused if his distribution platform was more than a church door), much of what is published is probably not worth reading – wait for it – given the chance of reading something better.

That thing that is better is what publishing companies strive to provide. Sometimes they’re successful, sometimes not, but, at this point at least, they lay claim to most quality book content.

Marcus Leaver, in his keynote at the Publishing Business Conference, echoed Gladwell’s sentiment: “The world does not need another book,” Leaver said.

3. Sales, marketing, distribution, logistics, accounting, investment, etc. Hachette spelled it out in an internal document leaked to Digital Book World in December. The gist of it is that large publishing companies have put great resources behind the publishing functions listed above and generally do them better than individuals or smaller companies – at this point.

All of this could change overnight. Much of it already has. Social media, for instance, has put individuals on equal marketing footing with large companies – at least in the realm of Twitter and Facebook.

Let’s also take into account the example of print distribution. It’s basically impossible to get a book into most bookstores, let alone on a front table, without a publishing operation. I’m unaware of any self-published authors making hay at bricks-and-mortar Barnes & Noble stores today.

Until print distribution is less than, say, 20% of the business (and it’s doubtful that this will happen any time soon – if ever – across all publishing segments), it will still be critically important for authors who want to reach the largest possible audience to work with publishers.

I have confidence that there will still be a place for large companies to perform these functions in the next five years at a minimum.

So, Bob, others, what do you think?

Printing press photo via Shutterstock

3 thoughts on “Reports of Traditional Publishing’s Death Are Greatly Exaggerated

  1. Peter Bowerman

    Hi Jeremy,

    Good piece! And I’d say I agree and disagree…

    Just for context, I’m a self-publisher since 2000, with 4 books released, and two currently in print (and incidentally, both are in bookstores, and have been since day one). Since 2000, I’ve had a cumulative 65,000 copies of my books in print and they’ve provided me with a full-time living since 2001.

    In my book (The Well-Fed Self-Publisher), I sell directly against traditional publishing, and assert that there’s precious little a publisher can do for you that you can’t do as well if not better, and I feel my books are proof of that.

    We could certainly debate that point, and in fact, MOST self-publishers could hugely benefit from the involvement of a publisher (or at the very least, a “book shepherd” who guides them through the essential mileposts of a successful publishing journey.

    Things like solid editing, quality cover/interior book design, indexing (in the case of non-fiction titles) are, far more often than not, given short shrift by self-publishers, and their lousy results prove it. And it’s there that I think publishers can be a good choice for many authors.

    Yet, my beef with a publishing scenario is that you give up the rights, creative control, the timetable and most of the profits, yet you’re still expected to do most of the marketing yourself. IF a self-publisher has the money and the commitment to creating a superior physical product, then there’s no reason to go with a conventional publisher.

    Yes, publishers can get you into bookstores, and I still feel, unlike many, that you need to have the bookstore base covered (though given the amazing reach of the Internet and social media, it’s becoming less of an issue).

    But self-publishers of physical books can still get into bookstores through a distributor or even through wholesalers like Baker & Taylor (who yes, has a big focus on the library trade, but has a big presence in the trade world as well…), without the need to go through a publisher.

    But, the quality has to be there, and too often, it’s not. So, the new explosion of independent publishing options, while offering unprecedented access to book buyers, no more translates to easy success than having a web site translates to healthy traffic.

    I think publishers will continue to thrive, mainly because they can cherry-pick, and because there are still countless authors who’ve made publishers their “Holy Grail” and are desperate to make inroads with one (scanning the content of most writers’ conferences, even today, will affirm that).

    Part and parcel of that is the belief that landing a publisher will give one serious industry validation and credibility. I think that’s far more about the author’s need for affirmation than anything else (when was the last time you bought a book based who published it?). And last I checked, self-published authors weren’t required to label their books as such, to warn unsuspecting buyers… 😉

    Bottom line, no matter the path you choose, make sure you make quality and excellence your top priorities. And learn from publishers how to do many things right, but know that they often get many things wrong.

    As Dick Cavett once opined:

    “Both minor and major publishing houses long ago perfected the art of unselling an author’s work. That excellent writer Calvin Trillin has threatened repeatedly to do a book titled, “An Anthology of Writers’ Atrocity Stories about Publishers.” I think the most likely reason he hasn’t yet produced this tome is that no one would be able to lift it. (Could he be having trouble finding a publisher?)”

    And check out Cavett’s own horror story (and if it could happen to him, what chance might we mere mortals have?) at


  2. C. T. Blaise

    As you point out, e-books have helped to drive sales for these traditional publishers. I would be negligent if I didn’t highlight and praise that statement. Other cost-cutting measures, i.e, trimming shelf space, have helped. They have also concentrated on their proven winners as opposed to introducing new voices to the market. I made a blog post about the failure of the publishing companies to nurture their future earnings, and I think Bob made that point in his piece. I believe they are riding a wave of residual earnings from past marketing efforts. So what are they doing for tomorrow? Let’s see what hatches in 2012 before we count any chickens for 2013 and beyond.

  3. Peter Turner

    Great post, thank you. Your quote from Gladwell–” . . . publishers are relevant. For him, it’s about being gatekeepers of quality . . . ” — goes to the heart of what I believe publisher/booksellers uniquely have to offer readers. And as the volume of content being produced increases and readers continue to migrate online, this curation around quality will only increase in value. But, publishers for the most part have not created any brand to associate this value that they’re deliver to readers. Unless they market and SELL direct to consumers associating brand with this customer value will be fruitless. This is why I refer to “publisher/booksellers”–my guess is that they will increasingly become one and the same. They can’t compete with Amazon on price but there is other value, along with quality, that they can deliver to readers.



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