The Decline and Rise of Publishing

Book publishing can be done only by hand, one book at a time, like any custom work or like writing itself, though with respect to writers publishers are mere valets or midwives. Industrial methods come into the work only at the end, when the manuscript has been edited and sent to the printer. But even at this stage books are individualized in countless ways. Should there be illustrations? Should they be in black and white, or in color? Should they be gathered in groups of eight or sixteen pages or should they be placed appropriately throughout the text, a more expensive process? Should the paper be off-white or white? What should the paper weigh?

Though publishing depends on profits, like all businesses, and the balance sheet eventually judges every calculation, the dream of riches is not, or ought not to be, what lures most people to this highly speculative, not very profitable handicraft. The business of publishing general fiction and nonfiction for sale through bookstores, as distinct from textbooks and other institutional publishing, is a cottage industry whose net sales in 1988 were about three billion dollars, the price of two attack sub-marines, or about as much as Americans spent that year on turkeys and apples. Usually what lures recruits to this peculiar trade is a displaced literary impulse, as it was for me and for most other publishers I know, people for whom literature or at least writing had become, at a critical point in their lives more compelling than anything else, including money.

Recently, however, book publishing has attracted a number of professional investors—the visionary Rupert Murdoch and the speculator Robert Maxwell, for example. And for several years such large entertainment conglomerates as Paramount and MCA/Universal have owned publishing companies not only for profit but on the questionable theory that book publishing can benefit their other businesses such as films and television, or that books lend themselves to further use by the “knowledge industry.” But these benefits have yet to show up. Meanwhile book publishing profits continue to depend upon the vagaries of writers and the unpredictable tastes of readers, and throughout 1989 there was talk among publishers and in the press of unusually high losses, with more to come, well beyond the usual ups and downs of this normally precarious industry.

Since the reasons given in the press for these forebodings have been somewhat incomplete I would like to attempt a fuller view than readers have so far had of the industry’s recent problems, which, in my opinion, are grave but temporary. These problems will seriously affect individual publishing companies, but there are no signs, despite the allure of competing media, that the supply of writers and readers has diminished and some evidence that the number of readers may even have grown. There is also reason to hope, as we shall see, that familiarity with sophisticated literature, once an elite and academic privilege, has been somewhat democratized. Eventually the marketplace will suggest new and …

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