Some Parting Words for the Book Biz from Jim Milliot

From Publishers Weekly:

Ever since I joined PW in April 1993, my objective has been to write and publish articles that would help everyone in the publishing industry succeed. Leveling the playing field by providing information to help smaller companies and startups compete with entrenched players has been a guiding principle. It’s a rule that’s helped me navigate the incredible changes publishing has experienced, since spring 1979 when I used the American Book Trade Directory to find phone numbers for independent booksellers to determine their hot-selling titles for a story for the BP Report newsletter.

While PW still reaches out to booksellers today, we, like many in the industry, now track bestsellers with BookScan. The evolution from using phone calls to gather data to using online services exemplifies one of the two most important ongoing developments that I have witnessed in my 44 years covering the business.

Technology has transformed publishing in every conceivable way, from how books are acquired to how they are printed, marketed, discovered, and sold. And while book publishing has a reputation for being technology resistant, the industry has weathered the digital revolution better than most media businesses. E-books now augment print books, rather than replacing them as had once been widely prophesied. The sales surge for downloadable audiobooks seems likely to continue, especially since the newest tech trend, AI, will allow many more stories to be converted to audio editions using synthetic narration. And online retailing has made books easier to purchase than ever. The fact that technology companies, going back to RCA’s 1966 purchase of Random House, have been drawn to publishing shows the importance of the written word and quality content to what has become a knowledge-based society.

The second ongoing trend is consolidation. I had a front-row seat to watch an industry once characterized by hundreds of independent presses, many family owned, give way to the rise of corporate publishing. So, too, bookselling was transformed from those thousands of indie booksellers I found in the ABTD to a retail space that was dominated by the bookstore chains.

It was sad to see many indies go out of business as Barnes & Noble, Books-A-Million, Borders, Crown Books, B. Dalton, Waldenbooks, and numerous regional chains sprung up, but the advent of the chains made all of bookselling more professional and made books more accessible. In many ways, the heyday of the chains in the 1990s was one of the most exciting periods that I experienced. The entire industry expanded to meet the greater demand for books, spurred in part by the growing number of retail outlets.

It was also during the 1990s, of course, that Amazon was born. There is no doubt that Amazon has had the biggest impact, for good and bad, on publishing and bookselling over the course of my career. (And it led to the demise of a number of those 1990s bookstore chains.) In doing research for this piece, I discovered a story I wrote in 2008: “Amazon: Friend or Foe” detailed publishers’ complaints at that year’s London Book Fair, including many about Amazon’s then-new policy of making publishers that use print-on-demand go through its BookSurge subsidiary. That same story covered publishers’ desire for an online competitor to Amazon to emerge, fears that the company would move into the content creation business, and concerns over e-book pricing.

In 2023, Amazon is the unquestioned master of online sales, but consolidation has also led to a publishing ecosystem in which other parts of the business have their own dominant players. Ingram is the king of trade wholesaling; Baker & Taylor dominates library wholesaling; ReaderLink handles distribution to nontraditional retail outlets; Barnes & Noble is the dominant physical bookstore chain (though it is heartening to see the revival of indie bookstores). And of course, book publishers have the Big Five.

To be clear, all these companies are very good at what they do, but I worry that they are becoming islands unto themselves. I think the entire publishing ecosystem would benefit from more cooperation and transparency. Tackling issues that affect all of publishing, such as sustainability and AI, would be aided by a team approach. Fighting among trading partners often makes for great stories, but I’m not sure it’s the best approach to navigate the new challenges the industry will confront.

Link to the rest at Publishers Weekly

PG’s reaction to the OP is that the author has a strong belief in things as they ought to be with NYC becoming/remaining the center of the book universe.

“To be clear, all these companies are very good at what they do, but I worry that they are becoming islands unto themselves. I think the entire publishing ecosystem would benefit from more cooperation and transparency.”

In ancient times the big publishers in NYC reigned as Masters of the Universe.

Then Amazon showed up.

  • Not the right kind of people, at all,
  • Located on the wrong coast
  • No idea how books should be sold
  • Trying to sell books online when, as everyone knows, The Book of the Month Club is the only company that ever succeded in selling books in flyover country, a place where women in Iowa organize book clubs to distract them from their empty and unfashionable lives.
  • Should be permanently banned from membership in the Ancient and Honorable Order of Publishers, including total bars to any Amazonian members, past, present, or future, which prohibition prevents any Amazonian from serving as, First Ceremonial Master, Second Ceremonial Master, Director, Marshal, Captain of the Guard, or Outer Guard.

3 thoughts on “Some Parting Words for the Book Biz from Jim Milliot”

  1. My attention was caught by the paragraph near the end:

    – Amazon is the unquestioned master of online sales
    – Ingram is the king of trade wholesaling
    – Baker & Taylor dominates library wholesaling
    – ReaderLink handles distribution to nontraditional retail outlets
    – Barnes & Noble is the dominant physical bookstore chain

    Do people feel that is relatively accurate?

    • Consolidation isn’t just for the Manhattan Mafia.
      Stagnant markets consolidate everywhere the feds aren’t looking. If they had their druthers, Ingram would buy out the last three.

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