The Incredible Resilience of Books

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.

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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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