For several days now, book bloggers have been all over Boris Kachka’s piece in New York magazine about the increasingly dire state of business at the big publishing houses. Some folks have taken issue with the article, noting (reasonably enough) that the doom and ruin of the publishing industry has been predicted on numerous occasions in the past. But Kachka’s article strikes me as extremely perceptive and well-informed, and I think he makes an extremely convincing case against the sustainability of many present-day business practices (such as huge advances and pushing for blockbuster sales in an era of ever-shrinking readership) at the big corporate-owned imprints. Books, Kachka notes, aren’t a mass medium any more (if they ever truly were at all)—but the major houses can’t admit as much, mostly because their business models have become so heavily reliant on pushing many hundreds of thousands of copies of a few blockbuster bestsellers.
Kachka isn’t predicting the end of books here—rather, he’s just pointing out that the current model for mainstream corporate publishing simply isn’t working. But there are other models out there, as Kachka notes near the article’s end:
One indie publisher has been pitching an imprint around town that would go beyond what Miller’s doing—expanding into print-on-demand, online subscriptions, maybe even a “salon” for loyal readers. He envisions a transitional period of print-on-demand, then an era in which most books will be produced electronically for next to nothing, while high-priced, creatively designed hardcovers become “the limited-edition vinyl of the future.” “I think they know it’s right,” the publisher says of the executives he’s wooing, “but they don’t want to disrupt the internal equilibrium. I’m like the guy all the girls want to be friends with but won’t hop into bed with.”
Sounds a lot like what some folks in the music industry have begun trying, doesn’t it? And though it’s not at all clear exactly what will work for either books or music in the long run, it seems to me that aiming rich content at niche audiences is bound to be far more successful than attempting to push a few bestsellers to everyone (and thus also no one in particular) on earth. Why? Because all audiences for books are niche audiences these days—and the same is basically true for music. This doesn’t mean that there’s no money to be made in books or music—but the profits will almost certainly have to come on a smaller scale. And that’s fine by me—I don’t think the quality of books reaching the market is going to be hurt any if they’re actually aimed at the people who read them, instead of at some entirely imaginary general reading public.