Why is publishing unprofitable?
It's no secret that American publishers are hurting financially. Cost-cutting is the rule, it seems, at houses large and small. Virtually all industry insiders agree that the US recession might as well be called a depression on publishers' row. But the agreement ends there. Everyone gives a different reason for the problems.Skip to next paragraph
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Publishers are fond of citing a decline in literacy; competition from TV, movies, and video entertainment; soaring manufacturing costs and the consequent tripling of retail book prices over the last decade.
Critics of the industry, on the other hand, blame a sharp decline in literary quality; overemphasis on forgettable mass market ''blockbusters''; ''sex-ploitation,'' even in serious fiction; fad books and ''nonbooks.''
In a 1980 New Yorker magazine series reprinted in book form (''The Blockbuster Complex,'' Wesleyan University Press), Thomas Whiteside faulted the conglomerates that were busy snapping up publishing houses during the '60s and ' 70s. They have less interest in producing good books than in turning a fast buck , he argued.
Earlier this year in another volume (''Books: The Culture and Commerce of Publishing,'' Basic Books), three sociologists charged that the influence of accountants has eclipsed the influence of editors at some large houses and has taken its toll on book quality.
Now an industry insider has come along with cogent ideas of his own. Leonard Shatzkin formulated his views in the course of a career that included responsible posts at the Viking Press, Doubleday, and McGraw-Hill. He now works as an independent publishing consultant.
His book, ''In Cold Type: Overcoming the Book Crisis'' (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 397 pp., $17.95), will interest not only publishers, authors, and booksellers, but also general readers who are curious about the publishing world or who are concerned about literary quality.
The real cause of the disastrous economic performance throughout the industry , Mr. Shatzkin insists, is a set of antiquated manufacturing and business ideas and practices - especially those relating to book distribution. Among the points Shatzkin makes in his book:
* In the United States there is only one general bookstore for every 50,000 people; this contrasts to one auto supply store for every 10,000 and one drugstore for every 4,000, according to the most recent count.
* One out of every 3 books in retail stores doesn't sell and is returned to the publisher for credit.
* If you or I look for one of last year's best sellers, we won't be able to find it in the vast majority of bookstores; in fact most books, regardless of their continuing sales potential, are off the store shelves, unadvertised, and for all practical purposes dead within a matter of weeks or months after publication.
* Until recently, mass-market paperback royalties supported the whole ''trade'' publishing industry, which was itself operating at a loss. (By ''trade'' publishing, Mr. Shatzkin is referring to what most readers commonly think of as the entire publishing industry - the companies that produce hard-covers sold in bookstores and known as ''trade'' books; the term excludes publishers of textbooks, professional books, and the paperbacks sold outside bookstores.)
* Today the paperback subsidy for trade publishing is drying up, and this could spell disaster for trade publishers, if they don't make immediate changes.