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The Coming Revolution in Book Publishing?


PUBLISHED: May 25, 2006

Today, BoingBoing has a post on how the lifespan of bestsellers is shrinking. According to a study conducted by Lulu.com, a print-on-demand publisher, the life-expectancy of a bestselling novel has fallen to barely a seventh of its level 40 years ago. The study examined 50 years of NY Times bestsellers lists and finds that:

The average number of weeks that a new No. 1 bestseller stayed top of the hardback fiction section of the New York Times Bestseller List has fallen from 5.5 in the 1990s, 14 in the 1970s and 22 in the 1960s to barely a fortnight last year.

According to Lulu.com CEO Bob Young, this means “the blockbuster novel is heading the way of the mayfly,” “the publishing industry is unravelling,” and “the publishing revolution is nigh.” And Cory Doctorow, one of the editors of BoingBoing, intuits “this means that more books are becoming best-sellers, but that best-sellerdom means less in terms of revenue expectations.”

Rarely have I read such wrong-headed assessments. Doctorow at least gets it half right (“more books are becoming best-sellers”), but anyone who knows how large the book market has grown in the last 50 years knows that most bestsellers today generate far more revenue that a typical bestseller from the 1960s. In regard to Mr. Young’s breathless pronouncements, beware of studies undertaken by for-profit companies with a commercial interest in the outcome. It would help if Mr. Young had a little understanding of the history of publishing before he announced the coming revolution (which he seems to think his company is leading). If the market for books is becoming more fragmented, it’s because most mature markets head this way (music is another obvious example). Publishers have been targeting niche markets for decades. What’s happening today is fundamentally the same as in the past—there are simply more niches (as one would expect given the fragmentation of the larger culture) and some of those niches are bigger, so they get noticed by the media (chick-lit and lad-lit have obvious antecedents in the ’50s). For Mr. Young to offer “the market today is more chaotic” is to state the obvious. But for him to say the “publishing industry is unravelling” is incredibly uninformed.

And “revolutions” have been occuring for decades (and centuries) in the book market. Does anyone remember the revolution of Penguin paperbacks and PocketBook mass market paperbacks from a half-century ago? (If not, go read Kenneth Davis’s Two-Bit Culture: The Paperbacking of America.) Or the revolution in American publishing in the mid-19th century when publishers started hiring salesmen to call on bookstores? (Let’s wait a decade or two to see how print-on-demand technology changes the industry compared to those two.)

Yes, the publishing industry is undergoing a good deal of change today. But it has always been so, since Gutenberg first set books by type in the 15th century. (Imagine how the scribes of the day felt!) For all those would choose to make wild statements about “revolutions,” it would help if they truly understood what one was. Expected change or even chaotic change is not a revolution. The publishing industry ten or twenty years from now will look a great deal like it does today. One can only wonder if Mr. Young will still be in it.

2 Comments

Robert Hanselman's picture
Robert Hanselman · 13 years ago
This is a remarkably lucid and knowledgeable piece. Mr. Morrissey has the industry by the book flaps in his assessment. Having spent almost 30 years in the newspaper publishing systems business, I have seem many changes, the lease worrisome of which is the lessening of interest and resulting readership, especially among small dailies where there are no alternatives for local news, sports, kids lunch menus and the like. The net and its news bazaar will only whet the appetite of the casual reader (most of them) and help all hard copy publishing, especially magazines and books. And among regular readers, spending $20 or more for a hardcover book is less than a round of drinks – and infinitely more satisfying.
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Matt Cheplic's picture
Matt Cheplic · 12 years ago
Cogent response yet figures alone, on either side, do not reveal the entire story. Take for instance edge.com where John Brockman insists that literature has been eclipsed by science. Or consider the indisputable loss of gravitas suffered by fiction at large, as well as the lack of legs great fiction has on the best seller list. Compare the numbers for today’s “masterpieces” to the numbers achieved by “Shoes of the Fisherman” or “The Spy Who Came in from the Cold.” Yes, the web may fuel interest in literature, but you’d be hard pressed to prove that the ocean of incoherence in blogville indicates genuine involvement. Instead, indications show that since comparatively anonymous individuals can establish their own forums, they’re busier preaching and disseminating than they are absorbing and cogitating. It’s a mixed bag, not a Manichean good or bad. One thing’s for sure. The twilight of American culture (thank you M. Berman) is rearing its ugly head everywhere you look, and no more prominently than in the world of the arts.
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