There is no lack of opinion regarding the state of the publishing industry. While I am not a professional insider, my status as a writer-publisher of two novels, as well as my previous experience as an author/editor of a traditionally (Big Six) published nonfiction work, gives me some credibility, I believe, in this discussion. As much as many writing on the topic, at any rate. It is my opinion that traditional publishing is exhibiting evidence of an industry that is deeply moribund.
As a surgeon practicing for over 27 years, I have had the deeply unpleasant experience of witnessing institutional decline and failure. This past decade has been particularly challenging for hospitals. On several occasions, I have witnessed the process of a hospital failing around me. The signs are always the same. The first evidence of a problem is the day that I’m told that some suture or medication that I’ve routinely used during an operation is “not in stock.” While variously ascribed to “vendor problems” or “delayed shipment,” the real reason is that the hospital has stopped paying its bills in a timely fashion and the suppliers are waiting for a check before they send any more stuff. Obviously, this is a problem. It affects the care of my patient, but one finds a way to make do. Next, the clerks start disappearing from the wards and nursing stations. These individuals, while not licensed professionals, are the equivalent of the staff sergeants in the military–the people who know how to get things done. They make everybody’s job easier. But since they have no direct patient contact and are not regulated by the various accreditation agencies that the hospital must answer to, they are first to go as the hospital seeks to pare down its salary expenses (salaries are always the hospital’s highest expenditure). The absence of the clerks doesn’t directly endanger the care of patients, but it makes the lives of the nurses, PA’s, and doctors much more difficult. Suddenly, the care givers must spend time doing clerical duties to get things done for their patients, making everyone less efficient. And it’s not like we have a lot of extra time to take on these tasks, so everybody feels the strain. Hospitals depend on the fact that health care professionals, however, will pick up the slack for the good of the patient. After all, everybody who works in the hospital has sworn an oath to that effect; everyone, that is, except the hospital administrators. But this can only be stretched so far, and eventually, the best staff members leave to take positions at other, more solvent hospitals. The remaining staff, too old or marginally competent to relocate, are left behind in a situation of downward spiraling care. The final phase before the doors are ultimately locked is a deeply distressing period, though patients are often oblivious to the situation.
I see the same thing happening today in the publishing industry. Obviously, traditional publishers are in a financially challenging environment. Their current reaction, it seems to me, exactly mirrors what I describe above. Experienced and talented professionals in the field, some of them my friends and associates, are being let go. Divisions are being downsized or consolidated. Jobs once done by these experienced pros are now done by interns, or not at all. In-house expertise is sacrificed to subcontractors, always the lowest bidder. My recent reading experience has given sad evidence to this trend. Ebooks put out by major publishing houses on Kindle and Nook (I use both) exhibit extensive formatting issues, nonfunctional Tables of Contents, and copy editing errors pointing to a “scan but don’t proofread” approach to converting their manuscripts from print to the electronic format. Even recent print editions, both hardcover and trade paperback books, show the kind of mistakes that shouldn’t be allowed by a professional publishing house that holds itself to a standard above the independent author-publisher. Supposedly.
This is the crux of the matter at hand. The traditional, professional publishing houses are in competition with independently published writers, as well as multiple small presses. The response to this competition must be to turn out an even better product, to provide their contracted authors with a level of support and professional cache that will make for continued loyalty. This has not been in evidence. It seems, instead, that the response is to cut corners as they cut expenses. It’s not going to work. This short sighted approach, like the hospital trying to keep its doors open as it provides decreasing quality of care, leads to failure.
The response of a challenged industry giant must be to use their assets to explore new markets and areas of opportunity. For example, many independents and small publishing houses are exploring the use of “bundles” to provide readers with greater value. This is a natural technique for traditional publishing houses to employ, as they own the rights to huge libraries of previously published material, much of it desirable to readers. It costs almost nothing for publishers to exploit this asset, but there is little or no effort being displayed in this regard. It seems to me that every time I purchase a book written by an author published by RandomPenguinWhatever, I should receive the recommendation to buy a bundle of that author’s previous work, or some part thereof. Not happening.
If traditional publishing houses continue to play defense rather than innovate, to pare down rather than promote those aspects of their industry in which they excel, the downward spiral to institutional failure is inevitable. The best and brightest in the industry–authors, editors, marketing and legal professionals–will leave for the new opportunities which will arise in their stead. These folks haven’t sworn an oath to support their publishers. And readers are not oblivious.