The demise of publishing?

More bad news in the publishing industry in Canada. The collapse of H.B. Fenn means the collapse of distribution networks throughout Canada. Fenn used to handle distribution for the University of Oxford Press, for example.

Is this the beginning of another Enron? I actually think it might be. And I hate to say it, but deservedly.

Fenn also owned Key Porter books, which ceased operations in January. According to PW, Fenn “has encountered significant financial challenges due to the loss of distribution lines, shrinking margins and the significant shift to e-books, all of which have significantly reduced the Company’s revenues.”

E-books. As if this is news? 

In the stock market, you hedge your bets. Why are publishers relying solely on traditional distribution networks? It’s like Henry Ford has just turned out the Model T and these guys are still out there rounding up horses. 

If the parent company gives up one of its star holdings, it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to know it’s in big trouble. If this was the stock market, Fenn shares would have plummeted in January, bringing the company down then, not now.  I suppose that when Borders goes down, we’ll see similar expressions of shock.

But maybe that’s what’s wrong with the publishing industry. It acts as if it’s immune to market forces, as if e-books are a temporary phenomenon. I kind of feel like I’m watching Sigourney Weaver trying to convince her bosses that there’s an alien on-board the spaceship; they don’t take her seriously. And don’t they look surprised when their chests start exploding.

Maybe the belated disbelief about e-books is because most publishing companies seem to be run by men in their fifties who have their secretaries type their emails. 

An ageing boomer (my vintage) gets to decide what books to publish and how to market them in an era where the biggest emerging demographic grew up on the Internet.

And they’re getting it wrong.

The publishing industry is in as much trouble as the legal industry is (which is another reason  I quit law). Lawyers priced themselves right out of their clientele. No-one could afford to use them anymore.

You get big and expensive and forget that eventually, it’s the rodents that outlive, outlast, and outplay, not the dinosaurs.  Small, nimble, responsive: that’s what it takes to survive.

I mean, c’mon, people. In the early 1900s, when Henry Ford developed the Model T,  there were two ways to respond. Those  companies who ignored it, who said the technology would never be popular, soon went out of business. Others rolled up their sleeves. 

I think publishers should stop kvetching about e-books and holding meetings to talk about their declining profits. E-books are here. Get with the program.

Cheap e-books will change the marketplace the same way that affordable cars did. Accept it. If you have a company that distributes hard copy books, why aren’t you developing  distribution channels for e-books, too?

Create some beautiful on-line bookstores. Get those young Internet-savvy kids to help — think Facebook. There are hardly any costs involved in e-book distribution: you can knock Amazon out of the park. 

Provide reviews that people can trust so they can select what e-books to buy. Put podcasts with authors on your websites, the same way bookstores used to have signings. Get back to real customer service: on the Internet, people will appreciate that, there’s so little of it.

But do something. Because all the talk in the world isn’t going to stop people from saving money wherever they can in tough times. Regular books are simply too expensive. People my daughter’s age ‘get’ that: they’re paying off student loans. So do ageing pensioners on fixed incomes. And so will boomers, once we find our incomes declining, too.

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2 Responses to The demise of publishing?

  1. Authors on websites, with or without ebooks, is certainly a smarter way to market books. Time and money is spent lugging luggage around to cities and signings that may not bear fruit, or even an audience. Stuart MacLean, for godssake, only got 4 people at a Fall signing in Belleville — and at least one of those, if not two, was coerced by the bookseller in a panic at the poor turnout. If there’d been a web event, he could have had a nice conversation with four people, no embarasment to anyone. Instead, there he is, with 36 empty chairs in front of him. It happens to everyone. It’s uneconomical — not just financially, but in terms of time. Why waste the time getting there and back? It is still productive to speak to four people for an hour. It is not productive to take four hours or more to get there and back.

    This doesn’t eliminate the chance for personal contact, but makes that time efficiently used — in the author’s city and nearby locations, in pivotal towns with a decent “catchment” area for the particular author.

    The trouble with ebooks, I hear from my publisher, who is young and open to the new technologies, is that they are not cheap to produce, because of having to create all the different formats for the different ebook readers. As an independent, she’s out of that game.

    There’s surely a solution, but it’s been the problem with the technologies of the past twenty or thirty years. You can’tplug one into the other. The consumer gets left holding the bag — or the wrong Kindle.

    Since you mention the model T, imagine if different cars had different gas tank fittings what a fix we’d be in. There was that brief period when we had cars with leaded and unleaded gas, and you had to use different pumps for each. That’s where we’re at, to a large degree, with some of the new technologies.

    I ramble. I’ll stop.


    • Peggy Blair says:

      I’m sure that the e-book glitches will be worked out soon enough. There’s a huge market out there and people working to get at it. And I totally agree with you about book signings. I’ve been to some where I’ve seen the poor author all alone with nothing to do, kind of like being an agent at an Open House when nobody comes. Pretty inefficient way to sell books or to get known to people.


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