The Incredible Resilience of Books

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Despite challenges faced by the publishing industry and past predictions, the written word has not seen its last day

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In the mid-1980s when I joined Random House as an editor, there was widespread angst in the publishing industry about the growing role of mall-based bookstores -- Walden and Dalton were then the major chains -- because they emphasized bestsellers and genre categories such as science fiction and romance over literary titles and serious nonfiction. A trend toward discounting, led by Crown Books based in Washington, was another worry, opening the way to price competition instead of the traditional acceptance of prices set by publishers. Walden, Dalton, and Crown are all now gone, along with Borders, which was then becoming the up-market retailer because of its commitment to so many varieties of books and its innovative inventory system.

By the 1990s, it was Barnes & Noble that was considered the major force in bookselling, with sprawling superstores across the country. B&N refined a policy that required publishers to pay increasing marketing dollars to secure prime placement for their lead titles; another significant breach in the genteel practices that the industry had long followed. Barnes & Noble stores featured large sections of "bargain" books, publisher leftovers known as remainders that were sold to jobbers at pennies on the pound. B&N also began publishing books under its Sterling imprint, which took up significant additional floor space. Sterling is now for sale, so far unsuccessfully. Many of B&N's most imposing superstores have been closed, including Washington's M Street store in bustling Georgetown and a massive emporium in Manhattan across from Lincoln Center.

B&N has successfully launched a line of Nook e-readers and they now are prominently displayed in front of the remaining stores. The value of the Nook brand, which recently attracted an investment from Microsoft that could reach $600 million, is measured by business analysts as vastly greater than B&N's once-formidable brick and mortar presence. Microsoft clearly wants to be a player in books and has unveiled its own tablet.

So here we are, in the second decade of the twenty-first century, and publishing faces what everyone in the industry agrees are its greatest challenges yet. The overwhelming power of Amazon, both in print and e-book sales, makes the days of Walden and Dalton feel quaint by comparison. Amazon is also making a determined foray as a publisher and producer of audio books.("The Amazon Effect" by Steve Wasserman in a recent Nation is an especially well-reported piece, notable for its balanced tone of judgment.) The Department of Justice's spring lawsuit against five major publishers and Apple charging collusion in price-fixing represents an enormous hurdle for the industry as it reinvents itself to provide maximum flexibility across the multiple platforms in which books can be made available. The consensus is that the Department of Justice, perhaps lacking an understanding of how the industry is evolving, seems ready to grant Amazon potentially even greater power than it already has to set prices as it chooses. While three of the publishers -- Hachette, HarperCollins, and Simon & Schuster -- settled the case rather than run up enormous lawyer bills and open-ended legal distraction, Penguin and Macmillan (and Apple) have refused to accept those terms and have submitted fierce refutations of the allegations. With time running out for public comment on the lawsuits and the proposed settlements, criticism has come from across the publishing spectrum. At last count, there were more than 150 letters filed, with an equal number expected before the deadline of June 25.

For all these existential matters in play, the mood at the recent annual gathering of the industry known as Book Expo was strikingly upbeat. The floor of New York's Javits Center (a venue that does not get any more appealing as it ages) was full for all three days of the fair. There were scores of educational sessions devoted to every aspect of the digital transformation. Many of them attracted packed rooms of authors, booksellers, and publishing staffers intent on making sense of subjects that were once the domain of engineers, such as DRM (digital rights management), the as yet unsettled policy for controlling the reproduction of e-books once they are downloaded, to limit piracy. Given that the role of chain stores once loomed so large and no longer does, predicting the future of publishing in the age of Amazon's dominance is little more than a considered guess. Google, which has digitized millions of books, currently is tied up in court cases, but may yet emerge as another major factor in how books are distributed. And, somewhere in the nether regions of technology and entrepreneurial energy, an equivalent force for publishing may be in development.

Based on the record, I have one certainty: books will endure even as those of us responsible for them are in a perennial, sometimes frenetic contest to keep pace with change.

One of the more hopeful aspects of Book Expo was the optimism expressed among what have always been thought of as bookselling's most endangered (and yet widely beloved) category, the independents. Oren Teicher, president of the American Booksellers Association, reported a modest increase in membership, reversing a downward trend, and a significant boost in sales in 2012 that qualifies as more than a blip. The ABA has yet to figure out how to sell e-books, but as Teicher said in other respects,

We have proven to the industry that our business model is well positioned for the future. Now more than ever, customers appreciate our curated selection, our local ownership and close ties to our towns and cities; our many in-store events and the opportunity to connect face-to-face in our stores with other passionate readers.

The experiences you create everyday in your stores simply cannot be downloaded or replicated online.

Book readers have proven their devotion to the written word for centuries. How they will do so in the years ahead remains uncertain in a variety of ways. But books are here to stay.

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Peter Osnos is a contributing writer for The Atlantic. He is the founder and editor at large of PublicAffairs books and a media fellow at the Century Foundation.

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