How Book Publishing Has Changed Since 1984

A look back at an age of old retail and indie bookstores, before computers, celebrity memoirs, and megachains came to dominate the literary world 

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In April 1984, I arrived at Random House as a senior editor after nearly two decades at the Washington Post. Publishing is now undergoing the most significant transformation in the way books are distributed and read since development of high-speed printing presses and transcontinental rail and highway systems. Looking back at the industry in the 1980s may help to explain how much has changed and what has not.

On my first day at Random House, I encountered the fundamental difference between the news business and the book business. In newsrooms, you got the story, it was printed in the paper, and then you went home. In publishing, you acquired the story, got it written, had it printed, and then—crucially—figured out how it should be sold. Because books have no advertising or subscriptions to provide revenue, the combined mission of obtaining the story and selling it was and is the essence of the art of publishing. For all that today's technology and marketing methods have evolved, the basic task remains the same: to define and find the audience for which the book was written.

The rise of the chains had the greatest impact on department stores such as Macy's and Marshall Fields, which in their heyday were centers of bookselling. By 1984, that era was ending.

To help me recollect the retail scene of the 1980s, I called Carl Lennertz, who was then a young Random House sales representative and now coordinates HarperCollins's relationships with independent booksellers. I remembered Carl as especially wise about how books were sold, and he was generous in educating me, who despite my fancy title and extensive background in news-gathering was very much an ingénue when it came to publishing. So with Carl's help, here is where books were sold in 1984: The biggest names in retailing were Walden, Dalton, and Crown, still relatively new as national chains. They made books available in malls as populations moved to the suburbs. Led by Crown, which was mainly in the Washington, D.C. area, the chains adopted discounting as a strategy and limited their selections to put greater emphasis on bestsellers and "category" books such as self-help, diet, and romance. Barnes & Noble and Borders, which became dominant in the 1990s with superstores (absorbing Dalton and Walden, respectively; Crown went out of business), were still in their early stages. The rise of the chains had the greatest impact on department stores such as Macy's and Marshall Fields, which in their heyday were centers of bookselling alongside housewares and clothing. By 1984, that era was ending.

Independent bookstores—according to Carl's estimate, there were about 3,500 full-service booksellers,  which is twice the number there are today—played a major role, since they had the ability, when enthusiastic, to turn first novels into bestsellers. Some of today's leading independents, such as Tattered Cover in Denver and Powell's in Portland, were already influential. But many other stores of that era closed, overwhelmed by the chains and superstores, and eventually Amazon and the rise of online retailing. "Hand-selling," as it is known, is still the independents' specialty, and while their role is smaller than it was, they remain at the spiritual core of publishing. It is encouraging to see so many of them holding their own and adapting to the digital age in various ways. In the past three years, several hundred new stores have opened, often where there were none before. At their best, the "indies" anchor communities with author signings, reading groups and other events.

The Book-of-the-Month Club and The Literary Guild were still very prominent in the 1980s, with millions of members. Their monthly choices were eagerly awaited by publishers. But, like the department stores, the "clubs" gradually lost their place as bookselling moved into so many new venues, and their remnants focus on niche markets with much smaller constituencies.

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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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