As an imminent first time book author it might not surprise you to know that I’ve spent a fair bit of time over recent months pondering on the “future of publishing”, or as the thought has sometimes formulated itself, “is there a future for publishing?”.
These – frequently red wine fueled - musings have been prompted by a pretty familiar (pardon the pun) story … you know, independent book shops gone or going, Borders is kaput, Barnes & Noble pulped their CEO, book sales down almost 5% last year. Etc etc etc (as Richard Rogers would put it).
As I’ve become a minor (very minor) cog in a new (to me) big wheel some of the idiosyncrasies of the publishing industry – which I wonder might hold some clues to its future trajectory – have come into sharper relief. One in particular – which to my mind is a vastly under-reported factor, relevant to publishing and to many other industries – has come front and center.
Quite simply, the publishing industry is drowning in oversupply. [Now the irony of someone just about to add to that oversupply stating that is not lost on me; I would draw the jury’s attention though to my overstuffed bookshelves as evidence of my efforts to right the imbalance between demand and supply].
Some estimates suggest that roughly a million new books are published (in the US alone!) per year; a million! Even I can’t buy that many! My wife will tell you I’m trying though! A million new books on top of the millions and millions already published. Hundreds of new novels every month, bios, manifestos, states of the union, fitness guides, YA, etc … the list goes on and on and on. And on.
If all was hunky dory in publishing houses around the world then you might look at that figure and go “great; sign of a vibrant, healthy , diverse market … bet they’re ordering some more Bolly right now”. But all does not seem to be hunky dory; this lays out some pretty sobering realities that are probably instrumental in Ambien’s success story (hey, there’s an idea; maybe someone should write a book about the rise and rise of Ambien!).
There appears to be a formula – seemingly widely held in the publishing industry – that growth can be created by increasing supply. We can’t control or manage demand, the logic seems to go, but we can control and manage supply … so let’s justify our expense accounts by doing that. “Find me more authors, find me new book ideas, and find me the next Fifty Shades of Grey, the next Good to Great, the next Hunger Games”. More, more, more.
Now I’m no economics whizzkid; ‘afraid the combination of “dismal” and “science” was not exactly a big draw to the 17 year old Ben Pring when I was studying it at Watford Boys Grammar School. But even I know that this formula doesn’t seem to add up.
Increasing the supply faster than the demand leads to depressed pricing. Depressed pricing is meant to increase demand. But when it doesn’t even more supply leads to further depressed pricing and depressed aggregate demand. The publishing industry has decimated the notion of scarcity (if you miss this publishing event of the decade another one will be along momentarily) and in doing so has weakened the overall demand for books full stop. More truly has become less.
The publishing industry has not been alone in following this curious approach; I was talking to a pal the other evening who works in TV. He had exactly the same perspective; there are so many TV shows nowadays and the competition between the supply side is so fierce that the whole ahem, house of cards, feels to him as though it’s teetering on the edge.
I would argue that the same dynamic has played out in the music business; in the 1960’s there were maybe a dozen LPs (I saw a bunch of these in Urban Outfitters in Boston last week … fantastic!) released in a given month. The supply was greatly outmatched by the demand and the Beatles sold a ton (as did quite a few other “artistes” - btw; did you know that the number one selling LP in the UK in 1968 and 1969 was The Sound of Music? So much for the Swinging Sixties!). Now over 5,000 records are released each week. And as we all know recorded music sales have slumped to an embarrassing fraction of where they used to be.
Of course oversupply is the by-product of success; because the Beatles and Malcolm Gladwell and The Wire went mega both the T-shirts and the Suits want in; “I could write that” … “I could make a killing on that”. Demand is ahead of supply and for a while the cottage industry grows and becomes a town, and then a city, and then a megalopolis.
That’s what’s happened in the publishing industry; the gold mine got flooded by prospectors who then flooded the market with what they dug up. The Nabokovs and Roths and Updikes and Amis’s who made a great living (along with their publishers) made creative and suit alike think they could do it too. But the Golden Goose was smothered to death by all the hens that she hatched.
Oversupply is the ugly little truth that hovers unacknowledged in the dark recesses of many an executive boardroom across the land; that only a few industries seem to really understand. One that does, somewhat ironically, talking of mineral extraction, is the oil industry. OPEC are the experts at managing supply to maintain demand (and demand at high price points). Maybe the publishing and movie and TV and record industries should find out who OPEC’s lawyers are and hire them!
Oversupply, I would argue, is a greater factor in the turbulence the publishing industry is experiencing than anything else; even more significant, you may be surprised to read given that we at the Center for the Future of Work are primarily focused on the impact of new technology, than the emergence of eBooks and digital publishing. Clearly the change in “platform paradigm” is important but as some luminaries have pointed out recently not really the central element of the narrative. [In fact the new platform is probably only adding to the aggregate oversupply issue].
Having said all this there is, I believe, a very rosy future for publishing. As Tim Waterstone put it “interest in reading is so deeply rooted in … culture and (the) human soul … that it is immovable”. Bravo Sir, Bravo. I entirely agree, hoping that the wish is not simply the father to the thought. But that future is predicated on the market finding a new equilibrium between demand and supply which is in turn predicated on publishers being more acutely attuned to satisfy current (and modestly growing) demand not racing greedily ahead.
Within this new equilibrium maybe the market could stand 100,000 new books a year; 10 great new novels; 2 amazing new cook books. And one incredible new book about the future of technology and how to thrive in this weird and wonderful new digital era. I wonder what book I could be referring to?
The future of publishing is, in many ways, a lead indicator for the future of many industries; oversupply is a common factor everywhere you look. Why are there 40 brands of car in the US? 390 brands of cereal? Over 1300 newspapers?
Hyper competition – in our late stage capitalist world – is a cause and effect of a disequilibrium, which as we can see all around us, always rights itself, often with painful consequences.
The publishing industry is in the midst of the painful process of finding the new equilibrium. Which it will do given time. As long as an acknowledgment is made that simply throwing more books at the problem isn’t going to fix anything; in fact, it will just make it worse.
But of course in the meantime don’t let that stop you from buying Code Halos nor from demanding that the authors write the sequel AS SOON AS POSSIBLE!