Why Publishing Cannot Be Saved (As It Is)

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Editorial by Richard Eoin Nash

The book business is a tiny industry perched atop a massive hobby. But rather than celebrate and serve the hobbyists, we expect them to shell out ever more money for the books we keep throwing at them (a half million English-language books in 2008 in the U.S.). Cutting back might work for individual companies, but not for an industry — s/he who truly believe that the best thing for our customers is less choice shouldn’t let the door hit them on the way out of this industry, indeed this culture.

We’ve built a massive supply chain system for connecting writers and readers because it suits us, but it clearly doesn’t suit most writers or readers. The ones getting their advances cut right now are a small minority of writers (working in any language today); we  should not weep for them, most were overpaid anyway. Instead of using the ever-increasing array of cheap and free tools now available to offer new ways to structure the writer-reader relationship, we’re using the technology to either thwart the readers (see: DRM) or to hustle them, using social media to move product, not have a conversation.

The question increasingly arises in today’s media: can publishing be saved? No. It cannot and should not. There are plenty of non-profit publishers that exist to create and distribute the un-economic content. For-profit publishing should not be saved — it should figure out new business models, ones that offer services that both readers and writers want and are happy to pay for. We cannot wait for a deus ex machina to descend. (In other words, neither MySpace, nor Twitter, nor price-fixing, nor some new piracy-inducing extension of copyright law will save publishing — we simply need to start doing business better.)

What are those services? It’s premature to state definitively, but we need to start with the conversation, so that we can listen to what the readers want.  Clearly the reading group is the best thing that happened to publishing in the past 30 years — while reading is solitary, talking about books is social. Given that books are orders of magnitude more demanding of our minds than any other media, they are commensurately better reflections of our minds and identities than other media. We publishers should be servicing readers’ desire to communicate about themselves with peers, offering books as the basis for connecting.

We’re also going to have to recognize that reading increasingly is writing — readers are writing back in all sorts of ways, commenting on books, re-mixing books as in fan fiction, or creating from scratch, and publishers, rather than barring this activity, or hiding from it, need to embrace it and find ways to serve it.

Books earned their place in our civilization because for millennia brave entrepreneurs and innovators (Gutenberg’s name is remembered, many others are lost) ignored or overcame the cultural and legal obstacles to new reading technology thrown up by the establishment culture of the time. It’s now time for those entrepreneurs to step forth and continue the glorious democratization-by-technology of writing and reading in the Digital Age, just as they did in the analog ones before.

Richard Nash, formerly publisher of Soft Skull Press, is now working on a social publishing start-up. Follow his progress at RNash.com

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Guest Contributor

Guest contributors to Publishing Perspectives have diverse backgrounds in publishing, media and technology. They live across the globe and bring unique, first-hand experience to their writing.