Poets & Writers Magazine has a great article on the publishing industry, called, "Publishing in the Twenty-First Century" by Gabriel Cohen. It talks with author John B. Thompson, who wrote, Merchants of Culture: The Publishing Business in the Twenty-First Century. Thompson is one of the first people to analyze the business. He discusses the major influences affecting publishing since the 60s, like the mass-market book, the rise of retail shops, the rise of the power agent, and later the addition of electronic technology. It's an eye-opening article for any writer.
I found it interesting to consider many of our perceptions on publishing as quite new. Like the superagent that was born in the 1980s, that now seems ironclad. The article explains how agents started by accident when the lawyer, Morton Janklow, was asked by a friend to sell his book to publishers. He later set up Janklow & Nesbit. Soon comes Andrew Wylie who started a literary agency after college. The two basically create the standard in the industry for agents repping writers, something that is commonplace today. But it's weird to think twenty or thirty years ago this was a new concept.
Or consider how mass-market books, which were once the money-makers during the 60s and 70s, are now being replaced by the double-trade book (have you seen these) at twice the cost. The book is bigger than a trade book, and not quite something to lug to the beach. Publishers might see this as a means to generate more money on backlisted titles. It might also be a gross way of getting people into eBooks quicker, since the books are quite big. Next time you're in a bookstore, check out the rerelease of Jean Auel's Clan of the Cave Bear series.
Retail chains which launched the book business through the 80s and 90s is now declining. Online markets are taking over. Accessibility to a variety of books is diminishing as publishers trend toward less titles, in order to sell more of the same. I've noticed this trend for many years. You need only study the best-seller lists worldwide to see that the same titles are selling everywhere. What this means is that the general public is reading all the same books, hearing about only the same twenty or so titles. (Of course, not everyone falls into this. I find at the MFA level, I hear about all sorts of good books that don't make those lists.) While small publishers offer an advantage to a broader range of titles/authors, the ability to get the word out is more difficult. Where is the Amazon.com brick & mortar?
I appreciate Thompson's view of eTech, the fact that it will be more of a sharing of print and ebooks--that there will be some who read on electronic devices and some that stick with a hardcopy. He sheds light on the dangers of eReader companies (like Apple) that can force the market to depreciate the cost of books. Technology makers aren't actually part of the publishing biz, but rather, outsiders who influence buyer perception of value. One thing he doesn't mention is the importance of textbooks in the diagram of eBooks or even publishing. Financially, textbooks have kept Barnes & Nobles afloat. But publishers of textbooks have been coming up with better eBook solutions. Even in five years, there is an eBook companion to every textbook.
As writers, the more we can understand the external forces influencing the market, the more we can understand our place in the grid. Where do you see yourself? How much should a writer know about the industry? How does the market affect a writer's visibility? What are the long or short term effects of eTech, eBooks, downloads, self-publishing, on the average writer?