Suicide in American Trade Publishing

The slow death of big-time American trade publishing is becoming rapidly more imminent, suggests the Random House-Penguin merger of desperation. Technology is only an accomplice, after the fact, to this fate. The real cause is suicide.

The big publishing houses do precious little to add value to the products they distribute. Except for a handful of editors within a few houses, authors and their own teams of privately-hired agents and editors do all the real work in manuscript writing, editing and rewriting — and marketing.

At many publishing houses, editors do not even read manuscripts, other than acquisition editors giving a skim to verify acceptability and young copy editors going over them for minor quibbles about punctuation and hyphenation.

The publishers offer no real marketing either, except to those few celebrity authors where the rate of return is obvious or to those surprise breakout books that make it on their own, where trailing marketing dollars cannot help at least break even.

True, publishes create a dust jacket, but though that often takes some skill and a bit of imagination, many covers could be done by any modestly capable graphic designer. Some covers come out with ad copy that suggests that the copy writer, much like her colleagues in editing, didn’t actually read the book. For non-fiction, publishers even outsource the creation of indexes to freelancers.

What, then, do publishers do? The only special thing such publishers really do is choose a manuscript to render into a book. That adds value as an imprimatur, but only when the house invests in the exercises they have abandoned, which are to scrutinize manuscripts and edit books.

All the houses really do, then, is send large numbers of manuscripts to a printer, ship the result to booksellers, and hope for the best.

That is a doomed professional or business model. Why should readers care whether a book is self-published or published by Random House? Why should an author really care whether they get a deal with Simon & Shuster or assemble their own network of inputs to work through the publication process?

Technology has abetted the death, and Amazon, as a technology and a business, has helped. I’ve been self-publishing a book since 1997, which sells well year in and year out (called a long seller) and made best-seller lists of the New York Times and Business Week for many weeks.  I published it in print and did all the marketing myself; Amazon and the internet were real boosts a few years into the venture.

If the future is bleak for traditional big-time American trade publishing, there are both lessons and opportunities for the next tier of publishers and for the academic houses. The lesson for them all is to be absolutely sure of adding value. That means actual editing, actual scrutiny, actual marketing.

It will not be enough for Harvard University Press to rest on its laurels or Cambridge University Press (publisher of my most recent book) to rest comfortably on the fact that it has been around for 500 years. Absent real investment, there is no guarantee any such houses will be around in 5 much less 50 years. The same goes for the next tier, more niche publishers—such as other places where I’ve published like McGraw Hill or John Wiley & Sons.

The opportunity is to exploit the death of the big houses, with academic presses doing more effective cross-over books (for which Princeton is particularly famous); and educational, professional or other niche presses reinvesting their brands in more mainstream titles.

Add value or authors and readers will have no reason to keep you in business.

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2 Responses

  1. For an authoritative treatment of contemporary Anglo-American trade publishing — one in agreement with the above in some respects and at variance with it others — I recommend John Thompson’s Merchants of Culture.

  2. Joe Hodnicki says:

    So the general trade industry is suicidal. What about the commercial legal publishing industry? Three major publisher have almost 95% of the US market. Two general publishers, West and Lexis have 70% or more since the consolidation that was executed in the 1990s.. At the state level, they demonstrate monopolistic tendencies. Editorial quality has been replaced with content commodization. Law librarians have know this for years but it appeared in the sunlight of a not atypical practice by way of a law suit in 2010. For details, see