Doubleday Executive Editor Gerald Howard was not the first person I expected to find on the schedule for the 2011 Association of Writers and Writing Programs Conference, especially as the keynote speaker for the Council of Literary Magazines and Presses. However, as we look toward publishing’s uncertain future, it seems an appropriate time to reflect on the publishing industry as it currently stands, and evaluate how the relationships between big and small publishers may soon change.
In his keynote address, Howard offers an array of possible outcomes, spanning from a horrifying portrait of authors selling t-shirts at the back of their readings to the almost equally horrifying prospect of big corporations regaining a complete monopolization of the market. But somewhere in between, there lies hope for the success of small presses in the digital future.
Howard refers to Jason Epstein’s review of John B. Thompson’s The Merchants of Culture: The Publishing Business in the Twenty-First Century, a sociological examination of the dire state of the publishing industry today. In his review, Epstein reflects on his own journey through the golden age of publishing in the late 1950s and early 1960s, when editors were given freedom to follow their literary senses, the relationship between booksellers and publishers was intimate, and a strong backlist sustained a house’s profits regardless of the success of the season’s bestsellers.
Epstein is sympathetic to Thompson’s evaluation of the publishing industry today as “a culture in trouble, facing a profound change in its mode of production, but so encumbered by its past as to be unable to seize opportunities offered by technological change.” As the retail market for books plummets, Epstein predicts that a self-financed direct-to-consumer digital market will be created by new digital startups that operate much like the lean houses of Epstein’s past.
While this may be an accurate guess (and perhaps these new companies are starting up as we speak), I find Epstein’s vision to be highly compatible with the ways in which literary presses and magazines already function.
According to Epstein, “These digital start-ups will promote and distribute their specialized titles on appropriate websites to readers with similar interests, capturing their names and e-mail addresses to form communities of interest linked to similar communities worldwide.” While hyper-targeted marketing presents an immense challenge for large houses with thousands of different micro-markets, literary presses and magazines already have hyper-targeted markets by the nature of the products they sell. And community building is also already a major tenet of literary publishing, one essential to the survival of every literary magazine and press.
It seems to me that small publishers are in an ideal position to inherit the future of publishing, but this moment of opportunity could easily be missed if they tiptoe into the digital age rather than leap. As I talked with several small presses about digital change at the AWP Bookfair, I found a common attitude of, “We don’t want to be first, we just don’t want to fall behind.” But at the current rate of change, not being first could very easily be the same as falling behind.
Howard observes that big houses are limited in their efforts for digital innovation by their bulk and old paradigm strategies. They are hesitant to take any bold action “unless enough financial pressure builds up so that not doing it no longer seems an option.” Here, Howard, too, sees an opportunity for literary publishers: “We, the big houses, may have power, but you, the small presses, have the ability to be light on your feet and to make adjustments to the rapidly changing publishing landscape far more deftly and swiftly than we can.”
The key to taking advantage of this unique moment of opportunity is for literary presses and magazines to be just as deft and swift as Howard credits them to be, or else the digital startups, or the corporations, or someone else will zoom ahead. The digital future is currently up for grabs, and the risks of cautious hesitation could be even greater than the risks of forward action.