Friday, November 02, 2012

The publishing industry death spiral

Image by Kevin Rushforth; Creative Commons licence CC-By-SA-3.0

Random House takes over Canadian publisher McClelland and Stewart.

Douglas & McIntyre files for bankruptcy protection.

Key Porter Books closes its doors.

Small, independent and iconic Ottawa bookstore Books on Beechwood closes for good.

These are just a few examples that trouble any writer, particularly one in Canada. I'm not the only one who sees them as symptoms of a deep malaise.

It has not been a good couple of years for traditional publishers, especially in Canada. Amazon, on the other hand, keeps growing like the creature from 20 Million Miles to Earth.

The loss of independent Canadian publishing companies is alarming. How many are left?

And with the news that Random House is merging with Penguin Publishing Group, reducing the Big Six worldwide publishers to the Big Five, the industry just becomes that much more monolithic, that much less diverse, that much less open as a means for the world to share ideas.

The real irony is that there are more books being bought, and presumably read, than ever before. Not just by a little bit, either — the e-book phenomenon has multiplied the total number of books — and incidentally, writers — by factors of magnitude.

And yet, the commercial publishing industry continues to ignore the independent authors. It’s understandable that a business will favour proven authors over risking a lot of money promoting an unknown, but today, it’s next to impossible for a new author to get a manuscript even looked at by an agent, let alone a publisher. The only new writers to get a traditional, commercial publishing contract, it seems to me, have some kind of connection to the publishing world, already.

The commercial publishing industry has not kept up with the change in the world. Publishers keep doing what they’ve always done. It’s time for some fresh ideas.

Instead, we get more work by sure-hit producers. I look forward to the next book by Cormac McCarthy or Yann Martel as much as anyone. I cannot oppose JK Rowling's move to adult-marketed fiction. But publishing a book ghost-written for Snookie or Justin Bieber is an immoral waste of resources.

The traditional publishing industry’s strategy clearly is not working. Like the mainstream political parties in the US, book publishing is disconnected from the reality most consumers live in. It sings its own praises to itself, it puts on a good show, but its members are the only ones watching.

Publishing is in a death spiral: fewer and fewer companies, fewer authors, and as publishers close down one by one, the spiral tightens. It seems the centre that it’s sinking into is denial.


  1. Interesting stuff for sure. I've read before that hardback sales have remained steady and ebook sales have accounted for 16% of book sales (2011) - if this is true (and who knows if it is for 2012), all bookstores aren't going away anytime soon (and I hope they don't, I love shopping in a store :).
    I agree that traditional publishers need a revamp, but what scares me right now is Amazon - they aren't treating indie authors well at this point either (look at the debacle over reviews). It will be very interesting to see what happens in the next year or two.

  2. Well said. I just published my first book (actually co-authored with my deceased father). Never once did I consider trying to go the traditional publisher route - it was Amazon from the start. I have no regrets.

  3. Anonymous11:17 AM

    Great post. I agree. It makes you wonder what the Big 5 are thinking. I know 99% of my author friends have gone the indie route and are perfectly happy.

  4. Anonymous11:19 AM

    Good post. I agree. 99% of the authors I know are indies and happy with their decision. I think the independent publishing companies that are popping up are going to do very well because of the small minds at the Big 5.

  5. Anonymous3:41 AM

    Good Article!