December 1, 2010
Now about that Festschrift . . . and other things you need to know about the future of publishing (Part 1)
Our academic obsession with books was underscored for me a few weeks ago when a NT scholar confessed to me that he had taken ten volumes of rabbinic literature along with him on his honeymoon. He admitted this was a sad commentary on his life at the time.
Sad? Frankly, I thought it was pathetic!
These days he could have taken along the entire corpus of rabbinic texts on his Kindle or iPad!
Well, they don’t call us “knowledge professionals” for nothing.
For the past twenty-five years I’ve been living on the thin blue line that separates the published from the perishing, or the author from the reader. I often have imagined myself as some kind of knowledge broker, looking for and acquiring knowledge properties that I think will have value in the marketplace. And hoping that I can enhance the property, make a deal that will be good for the seller and good for the buyer, plus keep our brokerage in the black.
However you regard that image, publishing is certainly a significant interface between the academy and the marketplace, a point at which real dollar values are placed on ideas and their expression. But that marketplace has undergone convulsions recently. Let me mention four obvious factors:
First, the gradual disappearance of the independent neighborhood bookstores as they are struck down by the advancing empire of Amazon. Every city has its story: Seattle’s beloved Elliot Bay Book Company, a true “brick and mortar” institution in the Pioneer Square district—complete with squeaky wooden floors and virtually within line of sight of Amazon’s headquarters—is fighting for survival by moving to a lower rent district of the city. Consider the fact that ten years ago IVP did not have an account with Amazon. We only sold to them indirectly through distributors. But now Amazon is our #1 customer. They put the squeeze on publishers with ever increasing demands. And they are a major player in the advancing wave of the e-book.
Second, the crashing economy of 2008, which saw book sales dropping precipitously and austerity measures rushed into place by publishers, as also by educational institutions. Sales were drying up at an alarming rate. AAR and SBL 2008 formed the nadir of my own experience in academic publishing. And misery had plenty of company in the publishing industry. Things are much better now. But publishers have learned to be cautious.
Third, the rise of e-books—long promised but now arrived—with Kindles and Nooks and iPhones and iPads and a host of other e-readers competing for allegiance. The presence of this future i-Kingdom has sent tremors through the publishing world. And among other things, there is a rush to put backlist as well as frontlist books into e-book formats. But this effort is not without complications. And, I would point out, when you publish an e-book and subtract the 12% of a $20 book that goes to print and paper costs, you do not get $9.99! (You read that right—contrary to popular myth, only 12% of the retail cost of a book goes to printing and paper costs!) In other words, there are fixed costs in publishing that do not disappear with electronic publishing—and a few new costs are added back in.
Then too, what about those university presses? I think they are affected by all this to an even greater extent than so-called trade publishers. Their titles aren’t usually big sellers to begin with (though there are certainly exceptions). Many or most of these publishers work on a publishing model that is based on a heavy proportion of library sales. Their books are priced for short print runs and big library budgets. (Those sometimes exorbitant prices aren’t because they use expensive paper and binding!) But apart from academic institutions with massive endowments, even those budgets are being squeezed through belt tightening. And university presses, which are often subsidized by their institutions, are finding their own budgets cut. The effect for some is that they are constricted internally and externally. Creative solutions are being explored. But publishing is not a business with wide financial margins, and it doesn’t take much to put a small publisher in peril.
Fourth, the growing recognition that the habits of “deep reading” are being silted in by the effluents of our electronic media. This is perhaps the most troubling of all. We are headed into what Nicholas Carr has called The Shallows, where deep-draft books are in danger of running aground on shallow capacities for reading. Our neural pathways are being rewired, away from habits of deep concentration and into the distracted state of hyperlinking, shifting from one thing to another.
Where does the future lie? There are no simple answers to that question. But the picture isn’t really as bleak as it might appear.
(This is an expanded version of a talk I gave at the recent Fuller Seminary breakfast at SBL. I’m posting it here in three parts.)