The Serious Business of 21st-Century Book Publishing

Editors have dropped wasteful galas and expenses of old as they focus more than ever on how to reach the readers of the future

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Reuters/Brian Snyder


In June 1990, at the annual book industry trade show in Las Vegas, Random House hosted a lavish bash in the grand ballroom of the new Mirage Hotel for the forthcoming publication of Donald Trump's Surviving at the Top. The next morning, as Trump highlighted a breakfast for 3,000 booksellers, the Wall Street Journal reported that his business and personal empire was on the verge of bankruptcy. Trump hustled back to his 737 (with his paramour, Marla Maples). As a guest on that flight to New York, I half-expected Trump to throw open the door and jump. But "the Donald" was upbeat and disappeared with Maples into his private cabin for part of the trip. A few weeks later, a bank bailout saved Trump. Still around in 2011, and after a tease about running for president, Trump has announced a "policy" book that will be available this fall from Regnery Publishing. Surviving at the Top was published in late summer and disappeared so fast that I'm guessing Random House's bills for the champagne reception--let's say $100,000--had barely been paid.

The overall sense in publishing is that, rather than being pushed to the margins, the industry is making dramatic changes with skill and flexibility that surprises everyone involved.

The point of revisiting that Trump episode is to show how different publishing is these days. No more Las Vegas. This year's trade show was again at New York's Javits Center. All of the parties hosted by publishers put together probably cost a fraction of the Random House fete for Trump. Instead, there were long days of education sessions and panels, mainly and understandably focused on the digital transformation of the book business. The big issues--the roll-out of e-readers, digital rights, self-publishing, and the future of the traditional bookstore--were discussed, over and over.

One of the biggest stories of the fair was the announcement that Amazon had hired Laurence Kirshbaum, an enormously popular and successful former industry CEO who had become an agent, to run its fledgling New York publishing operation. This was a signal that the online behemoth had determined to become a major player in the acquisition of books to supply its Kindle and print-on-demand business and to compete directly with publishers that now depend on Amazon as a principal retailer. Kirshbaum's move followed by a few weeks the news that Scott Moyers was giving up his lucrative job as an agent with Andrew Wylie's firm to return to Penguin Press as publisher. The decision by these two stars that the action in publishing now is in the creation of books rather than selling the rights to them is a meaningful indicator of the excitement in the industry about the digital potential. After a day-long International Digital Publishing Forum, Publishers Weekly headlined this as "The Year of the E-Book"--while hardly a revelation, this still is an unequivocal declaration.

Another major development was the proposal by Liberty Media, a company controlled by John C. Malone, to buy a billion-dollar piece of Barnes & Noble, which includes bookstores, an online retailer, the Sterling publishing imprint, and the Nook e-reader, which has emerged as a significant competitor to the Kindle. Malone is considered a super savvy media investor, so his play for Barnes & Noble is another sign that books and book-selling are seen as a growth asset in the digital age, a stunning turnaround in perception for what was considered a stodgy has-been in the Internet era. Oren Teicher, CEO of the American Booksellers Association, the trade group for independent stores, reflected this mood in a speech that outlined how his members can take advantage of the transformation. As reported by the PW Show Daily, he said:

The bookstore's role as showroom remains vital, although the scope has shifted outside the store's physical walls to include staff picks on bookstore web sites, Facebook, Twitter; e-mails, school visits and off-site events. "The simple fact is that to most consumers if you don't exist online you simply don't exist."

The overall sense in publishing is that, rather than being pushed to the margins of the information and entertainment revolution, the industry is making dramatic changes with skill and flexibility that surprises everyone involved. As I've written many times before, there will be winners and losers (the collapse of Borders and its struggle to get out of bankruptcy shows how destructive mismanagement can be). There are innumerable questions. For instance, can Amazon expect other booksellers to carry its books in print versions? How will Barnes & Noble founder Len Riggio handle Malone's bid? Will authors and agents decide they can do better on their own in e-book distribution and diminish the role of publishers? This is still an early stage of the digital age, and the impact of new devices, overhauled business models, and competitors (Apple and Google, to name two) remain to be tested.

One thing does seem absolutely clear. Big bucks for Las Vegas galas are out of style in 21st-century publishing.


Presented by

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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