Numbers show that the publishing industry is handling the rise of e-readers better than what folk knowledge might suggest.
The fall publishing season is in full swing. There can hardly have been a year with more luminaries atop both the fiction and nonfiction bestseller lists; J. K. Rowling, Michael Chabon, Ken Follett, Junot Diaz, among others, represent literary acclaim and commercial appeal. Diaz (This Is How You Lose Her) is having an especially good run: He is both a National Book Award finalist and a recipient of a MacArthur "Genius" prize. Stephen Colbert, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Neil Young, Bob Woodward, and Salman Rushdie are just a sampling of the nonfiction bestsellers. (For the full array, check out the New York Times's copious five pages of print and e-book listings in the book review, which are supplemented online with "expanded rankings" featuring "more titles, more rankings and a full explanation of our methodology.") Whatever else may be happening in this tumultuous period of transition in how books are produced and distributed, the sheer range and quality of so many titles is indisputable proof that our marketplace has writers and readers in impressive numbers.
For all the complexities that publishing faces, the notion that books are somehow less of a factor in the cultural or information ecosystem of our time doesn't hold up to the evidence.
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Recently, Colin Robinson, a respected founder of a New York-based independent publisher, OR Books, wrote an essay for The Guardian entitled "Ten Ways to Save the Publishing Industry." The summary paragraph was grim: "Book sales are stagnating, profit margins are being squeezed by higher discounts and falling prices and the distribution of book buyers is being ever more polarized between record-shattering bestsellers and an ocean of titles with tiny readerships." For the most part, Robinson's recommendations are common sense: an emphasis on selection, pricing, effective use of the Internet, and a focus on readers by devoting more effort to reaching them directly through social media. Jeremy Greenfield, editorial director of Digital Book World, in a response to Robinson's manifesto makes a strong case with observations that I generally share: "The publishing industry isn't a monolithic thing: some publishers are doing well and others are not. ... I don't see an industry that's flailing—I see one that's managing a complicated transition much better than would be expected."
The available numbers seem to support this view. In the first six months of 2012, according to Publishers Weekly, drawing on data from 1,186 companies, the Association of American Publishers reported that trade sales increased 13.1 percent, to $2.33 billion. The most important indicator is the continuing boost in e-book sales, up 34.4 percent, to $621.3 million, which makes it competitive with the totals for hardcover print sales. When you consider that it was only with the appearance of Amazon's first Kindle reader in 2007 that e-book sales took off, the pace of change is stunning. I still own an original Kindle, and picked up an iPad when it was released (these early models serve my simple purposes), but there are so many more advanced versions of these readers that consumers now have choices galore that are far more extensive, for example, than are provided by televisions, which most people judge simply by the size of their screens or the quality of the picture.