ALEXANDRA ALTER Everyone was braced for the collapse of the book retail ecosystem. Instead, what we saw was an incredible boom.
BROOKE GLADSTONE The hazy, crazy publishing days where what's up is now down and what's down is now up. From WNYC in New York, this is On the Media. I'm Brooke Gladstone. In pursuit of the next blockbuster, publishers remix the old big hits.
KATY WALDMAN You hear a lot of joking and snarking about the girl in the window. the girl with the tattoo in the window, the girl on the train with the tattoo in the window.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Plus, is paper the new vinyl?
JOHN B. THOMPSON The old fashioned reading device that the print-on-paper book delivers certain things to people that they highly value. With an e-book, you can't put it on your shelf. You can't give it to someone as a gift.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Blobs on book covers, supply chain nightmares and antitrust lawsuits. It's all coming up after this.
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BROOKE GLADSTONE From WNYC in New York. This is On the Media. I'm Brooke Gladstone. Analysts and assorted other worry warts have long foreseen the death of the publishing industry destined to be trampled under the heavy boots of our screen-dominated culture, risk-averse mega-houses. And of course, Jeff Bezos.
NEWS CLIP Amazon.com is the reason that there is all this heartache in the book industry.
NEWS CLIP All the bookstores are disappearing. The independents are gone, and Barnes and Noble is the only thing standing. And they're got a major fight going on about the future — even of Barnes and Noble. But the whole industry has changed.
NEWS CLIP Well, the publishing industry has been doomed as long as I've been in the publishing industry, which is 25 years. So it's an industry that is in a state of perpetual crisis.
BROOKE GLADSTONE And yet in 2022, the publishing world seems to have a steady pulse. Reading among the average American drifting down year after year since the early 2000s suddenly took an upward turn in 2020. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average American adult began reading about 20 minutes a day, an increase of 4 minutes from the year prior, and book sales are up too. But those vitals are not enough to bestow a clean bill of health on a trouble-prone system.
NEWS CLIP Workers are demanding HarperCollins increase pay and provide better paid leave benefits, as well as address its lack of diversity.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Last month, more than 250 employees at HarperCollins went on an open-ended strike after months of fruitless contract negotiations. The publisher still hasn't agreed to substantially raise wages, despite having reaped record profits in 2020 and 2021. In September, in search of a clearer assessment of the book industry, we called Alexandra Alter, who covers publishing and the literary world for The New York Times.
ALEXANDRA ALTER People are cautiously and surprisingly optimistic. A couple of years ago, when the pandemic hit, everyone was braced for the collapse of the book retail ecosystem, you know, a real shrinking of independent bookstores.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Oh yeah
ALEXANDRA ALTER They expected their sales to tank. And instead, what we saw was an incredible boom. It makes sense if you think about it. You know, there were no movie theaters to go to. Concerts were canceled. You couldn't get on a flight that easily, but you could still read. And a lot of people did. Print sales skyrocketed in 2020. They were up 8%. It was the first big increase in something like 18 years, and it continued to rise in 2021.
BROOKE GLADSTONE How are we doing so far in 2022?
ALEXANDRA ALTER We have seen a softening of print sales so far this year, mainly because the last couple of years were so extraordinary. Sales are still well above what they were in 2019. So it seems like the gains aren't fleeting, at least. And what's even, I think, more encouraging to people is to see the strengthening of the independent bookstore ecosystem. Everyone, I think, was rightfully concerned that the shutdown would put a lot of bookstores out of business. The amazing thing was not only did the bookstores, many of them survived, but many of them are thriving. And In the last couple of years, more than 300 new bookstores have opened up across the country, and a lot of younger, more diverse owners are coming into the business. And that's a very exciting and enriching thing that is pretty new and was a side effect in some odd way of the pandemic.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Independent bookstores became a kind of nexus of community activity, right? Curbside pickup, ordering from them online — you never really ordered from them online before?
ALEXANDRA ALTER Yes. Communities really rallied around those shops. People bought gift cards so that when the stores reopen, they could use them, but they could give them a cash infusion now. Stores were very creative. They did bicycle deliveries and curbside pick up. And as you said, many of them transformed overnight into online businesses, which is something that independent stores broadly hadn't been doing that effectively. That wasn't sort of why people wanted to shop there, but in a pinch when they couldn't, people found that they could order online. And I think that business has really trained a lot of book lovers who might have automatically gone to Amazon for an online book to think, Actually, I can buy from my independent or I can go to Bookshop.org, which also emerged during the pandemic as an alternative to Amazon and funnel some money back to independent stores. So it's really changed, I think, the dynamics of online retailing and made it something that independents can also benefit from. Instead of like this crushing, oppressive source of competition.
BROOKE GLADSTONE The struggle to keep independent bookstores open has played out in pop culture. You know, iconic movies like You've Got Mail, where Meg Ryan's indie store is bought up by Tom Hanks's Fox Books standing in for Barnes & Noble.
YOU’VE GOT MAIL CLIP I think you could discover a lot of things if you really knew me.
YOU’VE GOT MAIL CLIP If I really knew you, I know what I would find. Instead of a brain, a cash register, instead of a heart, a bottom line.
ALEXANDRA ALTER If they remade that movie, the Barnes and Noble, the owner would be the underdog. You know, Barnes and Noble has been struggling because they have been up against Amazon as much as independent stores have. But, you know, in recent years, people who love books wanted to support their independent bookstore. And Barnes & Noble became kind of like this generic chain store. That has started to turn around under the leadership of their new chief executive, James Daunt, who was very successful in the U.K. with a chain called Waterstones, which he transformed by basically modeling these chain stores on independent stores, saying we're going to give more autonomy to the booksellers to sort of reflect what their community’s interests are. We're not going to take money from publishers to put what they want at the front of the stores, which is something that Barnes & Noble did for a long time. And I think we've seen Barnes & Noble doing a bit better. And certainly they have some new stores that are opening. They're not closing stores at the same rate they were. The pandemic was still extremely hard on them, but it wasn't as devastating as people anticipated.
BROOKE GLADSTONE And it seems like for younger readers, especially, they like to have physical books.
ALEXANDRA ALTER One of the reasons people tell me is Book-tok, which is these communities of book lovers on Tik-Tok who have these packed bookshelves behind them, and they give very passionate reviews and they can send a book soaring up the bestseller list, even a book that came out, you know, years and years ago.
BOOK-TOK CLIP Convincing you to read books based off their first lines. They've never found the body of the first and only boy who broke my heart, and they never will.
BOOK-TOK CLIP Here are some more books that had me on the edge of my seat the entire time. The Cabin at the End of the World by Peter Tremblay. I literally flew through this and one day I couldn't read it fast enough…
ALEXANDRA ALTER And authors tell me that book-tokers like to have the print copy. They want to hold it up. They want it on their shelf. One interesting conundrum publishers are facing now is that because people want more print books, which they didn't expect that to be the case in 2022, everyone was thinking it would be more of an e-book economy, there aren't enough printers, and so they get into these backlogs at the printing presses — stuff gets out of stock, they have to shift publication dates, shift operations overseas. And so it's gotten very complicated. A lot of printer jams.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Let's talk supply chain. Now we're facing strikes and cargo ships are parked out at sea because there aren't dockworkers to unload them. There aren't truck drivers to deliver the contents to the bookstores. It's so much, right?
ALEXANDRA ALTER I mean, it goes to the very basic material that a book is made of — to paper. You know, there was a time during the pandemic when there were paper shortages. A lot of the pulp was being used for packaging for Amazon and things, and paper prices went up. The printing presses are overbooked and there aren't enough of them. Several of them shut down when people thought e-books were going to be the future.
BROOKE GLADSTONE I heard from agents and publishers that a season of new releases was put on ice for months because Michelle Obama's Becoming had pretty much commandeered all the printing presses in the U.S..
ALEXANDRA ALTER It's very interesting that you bring that up because that was before the pandemic, but we are already seeing that squeeze at the printing presses where they didn't have enough capacity. And it really became an issue around Michelle Obama's release because I think it was a massive first printing, something like 2 million copies. And then of course, they needed to reprint because she sold more than that. And often publishers will coordinate around big release dates, mostly because they don't want to lose all the publicity, the book store displays, all that stuff. You don't want all the oxygen sucked out by a huge author like a Harry Potter book comes out and no one reads your debut novel. But this was a little bit more complicated because, as you said, this was a matter of capacity of the printing presses. The question is, are publishers going to bite the bullet and is the industry going to see more investments in the printing plants which are ill equipped to meet the demand for print books at this moment? They're certainly will be hard pressed to meet a demand for even more, which is a possibility.
BROOKE GLADSTONE And how about shipping containers? Your colleague Elizabeth Harris wrote that publishing professionals say that a container, which can hold roughly 35,000 books, used to cost them about $2500 but now it can cost as much as $25,000.
ALEXANDRA ALTER Yeah, there is incredible pressure, I think, on the industry right now from the supply chain costs in the way those have gone up. In fact, to the degree that you saw, you know, arguably the most successful and biggest publishing house in the country, in the world, Penguin Random House — in their most recent earnings report, they cited a drop in earnings because it costs a lot more to get those books printed and shipped and delivered. And I think that's something people are concerned about. Nobody wants to raise the price of books. I think everyone understands that customers are very price-conscious right now, and a hardcover is already around $30. That's an investment, you know. But at the same time, there's not a lot of places in the supply chain where you can save money, particularly when you're looking at an analog product like a book, like every step of the way is something that you need that machinery, you need those workers. There's no sort of efficiency to be gained at this point that people are seeing.
BROOKE GLADSTONE We talked about supply chain issues. What about labor issues? Publishers Weekly released a report earlier this month on growing discontent over entry level pay in the industry. They found that at the higher end of entry level salaries in 2021, it was like $45,000 a year. And that's hardly enough to survive in New York City, where a lot of these publishers are based, at least not without outside support. Has some of the larger push for diversity in the industry extended to a conversation about working conditions and pay? If the salaries are this low, it's only people who can afford not to work there, who would be able to afford to work there. And so that excludes a lot of communities of color.
ALEXANDRA ALTER It's quite interesting to see people being open about what they make. There was the movement in 2020 where people were putting up notices on social media saying publishing paid me. It was both authors talking about their advances. But you're also seeing publishing industry employees talking about their wages. And HarperCollins recently saw some of its employees who are part of a union go on a strike. They were demanding additional pay and better family leave benefits and a stronger commitment to diversity from the company. I do think there's going to be more collective action in publishing. And the question is, how are publishers going to respond to that? We've talked about the cost constraints they're facing. And they have long relied on highly educated workers that aren't always highly compensated. Will that have to change for them to continue to attract new employees?
BROOKE GLADSTONE What do you see as having the biggest impact on publishing going forward? Supply chains, mergers, the overall state of the economy. I mean – you got a magic eight ball?
ALEXANDRA ALTER I think a big question, of course, at the moment is you mentioned consolidation. And right now the publishing industry has five big publishing houses and then a constellation of midsize and independent houses. And we've seen a lot of the power to attract bestselling authors shift over to those bigger houses. And in their efforts to continue to make a profit, they tend to focus on those big blockbuster authors. Those are the books they spend the most on advances for. Those are the ones they market the most and put forward to booksellers, to media. And so it definitely trickles down to readers as well. The other thing I think people are really wondering about is just the overall state of the economy. And books became so critical for people during the pandemic. People held on to their love of reading or built up a new habit. And publishers are very nervous about whether that discretionary spending will continue if there is a recession. And what impact will the health of the overall economy have on people's book buying and reading habits?
BROOKE GLADSTONE It was a pleasure talking to you, Alexandra. Thank you so much.
ALEXANDRA ALTER Thank you so much for having me. It was really fun and interesting to talk to you.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Alexandra Alter covers publishing in the literary world for The New York Times. Coming up, the DOJ wants to preserve competition in publishing. The suspected monopolists just say they want to make art. This is On the Media.
BROOKE GLADSTONE This is On the Media, I'm Brooke Gladstone. This month, the CEO of Penguin Random House stepped down following the failed $2.2 billion takeover of its rival Simon & Schuster. The merger was blocked when a federal court ruled in favor of the Department of Justice in an antitrust suit.
NEWS CLIP This merger would have created a mega-merger, a publisher that would have been roughly 49% of the market for bestselling books.
NEWS CLIP While they may appeal, they lost. And in fact, there is a $250 million payment that may go to Simon & Schuster. That's a paramount unit, by the way.
BROOKE GLADSTONE The trial, which took place this summer, was a three-week peek at the industry's leading lights and their critics, each wielding terms like backlist and book-tok and anticipated top sellers, which is where publishers invest most of their hopes and resources. On behalf of the prosecution, lawyers, experts and even a sneaker clad, self-styled freelance writer named Stephen King spoke up. He stood as a government witness for less-established writers deeply suspicious of publishers' vows to keep competition alive.
NEWS CLIP King told the court the suggestion the two companies would still bid against each other for books is as ridiculous as the idea that a husband and wife would compete to buy the same house.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Although this particular merger was blocked, Simon & Schuster is still on the market, and two other major publishers, Hachette and HarperCollins, have expressed some interest. Katy Waldman writes about books and culture for The New Yorker. She told me earlier this year that the DOJ, the Penguin Random House trial, revealed a lot about the current state of the publishing industry. She said the prosecution's argument against the merger was that both writers and readers would suffer if the Big Five. Penguin-Random House, HarperCollins, Macmillan, Simon & Schuster and Hachette shrank to only four.
KATY WALDMAN So the idea is that if there are fewer buyers for book contracts, the authors are going to have to lower their prices and they're going to get lower advances. The DOJ's argument is basically that that is going to result in fewer titles being published and also less diverse books being published. The DOJ is basically saying you have particular books that are going to make you most of your money and you know which ones those books are going to be because those are the books that you pay the highest advances to.
BROOKE GLADSTONE It strikes me that if everybody knows what's going to be the bestseller, as the DOJ contends, wouldn't that drive the prices of those books up?
KATY WALDMAN You can look at the data, you can look at past successes, and you can anticipate that something may do well, but you can't know for sure. And so, you know, in a risk-averse industry, if there are fewer companies able to take that kind of wager because they're wealthy enough, because they're dominant enough, the size of the advances will go down.
BROOKE GLADSTONE So the government found an expert witness, data scientist Nicholas Hill, who's taken part in past antitrust cases. His most memorable contribution to the argument that publishers were focused on a top seller market that you could predict and plan for was something called the GUPPI Index that stands for gross upward pricing pressure index.
KATY WALDMAN He was basically predicting what share of the market combined Penguin Random House, Simon & Schuster, Colossus would occupy. That is what the GUPPI is trying to elucidate. And then separately, he made a really big contribution to the government's case that authors behave differently at $250,000 advance or more cut off point
BROOKE GLADSTONE They buy expensive bottles of champagne?
KATY WALDMAN I mean, they may do that, too, although actually, if you think about that advance paid out over a series of years, I'm not sure that they're living entirely so large. It's really that the type of book that that advanced level symbolizes is the type of book that would benefit from things that only the Big Five or the Big Four can really provide, which is reputation, breadth of marketing, breadth of distribution, relationships with librarians and booksellers. The works that we embrace as the next big thing. The books that are making publishing houses most of their money — that doesn't just happen magically. That is because so many resources are devoted to helping those books succeed.
BROOKE GLADSTONE So the publisher's case, you said they had presented their industry in a, quote, tenderly drawn portrait of gamblers, guessers and dreamers — sung by Kris Kristofferson, I guess. They argued that it's a business of passion, not numbers.
KATY WALDMAN Yeah. I mean, what we were hearing from the executives of the Big Five who were called to testify is that publishing is a labor of love. It's a game of chance. And there's really no such thing as an anticipated top seller because you can't anticipate what will fly off the shelves. It is all just starry-eyed adventurers who believe in a project and devote their resources to it. And sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn't.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Markus Dohle, CEO of Penguin Random House, told the judge that they're not going to shutter any of their imprints, that he'll allow them to compete with each other as though they were independent and that competition wouldn't decrease.
KATY WALDMAN I mean, it is possible, but I think especially juxtaposed with the very data-driven economic consultant presentation of Nicholas Hill, it was just hard to believe that that kind of promise, that sort of in good faith, we're all rowing together vision was coexisting with, you know, publishers trying to dominate the marketplace. And there was actually a moment when Nicholas Hill took the stand and he was asked about Dohle's promise. And he said that is not legally binding, and it's somewhat ludicrous to me that we're even talking about it in court.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Let's talk about when the Big Six turned into the Big Five. It was in 2013 when Penguin and Random House merged, leading to the behemoth it is today. Penguin Random House now seems to dominate a quarter or more of the book market. What did we learn from that merger?
KATY WALDMAN So in 2013, there were no promises not to shutter any imprints, and indeed imprints were shuttered. A lot of positions were made redundant. mid-list contracts were canceled.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Define the mid-list.
KATY WALDMAN Sure. Consider like an Avengers movie or maybe like a James Patterson novel. Those are the million dollar advances. Books that we're pretty confident are going to sell no matter what. Your mid-list titles are maybe equivalent to your Sundance winners — very artfully constructed vessels of craft that have some support behind them, but are not the big crowd pleasers. And those are the places that I think a lot of people in the industry look to, hoping for newness and freshness and literary evolution.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Dohle also said Success is random. Best sellers are random. That's why we are the Random House. And the president of Viking said that he'd passed up Marie Kondo's book, The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up and Where the Crawdads Sing. So there is no algorithm that picks a bestseller. That was their point, right?
KATY WALDMAN Yes. There are no sure things in publishing. At the same time, publishing houses are being somewhat disingenuous if they don't acknowledge that they are very good at detecting, sleuthing out those patterns and then making decisions that will help them recreate prior successes. You know, you hear a lot of joking and snarking about the girl in the window, the girl with the tattoo in the window, the girl on the train with the tattoo in the window. Yeah. I mean, these books are getting deals because publishers think that they have a shot at getting that goose to lay another golden egg.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Right. Everything is about comparables. I hear that from frustrated would-be novelists all the time. Unless the book is done before they say, Well, we think you're a great writer, but we just don't have the category.
KATY WALDMAN I've gotten a little bit ahead of myself in terms of cynicism. Sometimes what unites these books as literary achievement —- good books that read like other good books. However, there are whole swaths of literary achievement that are possible that these publishers have not permitted themselves to explore. The really hacky version is you have genre fiction that is reproducing itself in an uninspired way.
BROOKE GLADSTONE You have observed the-woman-in-the-window and the girl-on-the-train-type books feature unreliable, messy, alluring female narrators who see a crime, but maybe they're just alcoholic. And there's weird quasi-feminism in it. But if you think too hard, you just become depressed about the state of the world.
KATY WALDMAN Yes. I think you've entirely summed up my aggravation, my exasperation with that particular template. And I will also throw out a few other easy clichés of book publishing successes. There is the pop science: Here is how cyrillic runes reveal the flight patterns of hummingbirds, which will help you get more sleep and kill it at work.
BROOKE GLADSTONE That explains everything.
KATY WALDMAN Exactly. Explain everything is the crucial point there.
BROOKE GLADSTONE And who's the master of that genre?
KATY WALDMAN I feel bad invoking him because he probably did it better than most. But Malcolm Gladwell is the king, inspiring a thousand lesser flowers to bloom. But to be a little bit more serious about it, there are worthy types of books that are important but that are being presented as the only option for new writers. And I'm thinking about the lyrical immigrant novel of loss and the fiction of black trauma. These things are not bad on their face, but if debut writers of color feel like they're the only space that will receive them, that's a real constraint on their imaginations and a deep disservice not only to them, but to us, to readers.
BROOKE GLADSTONE They are offering an in to groups that previously had few doors of entry. You cited a New York Times study in 2020 that showed 95% of widely read authors in 2018 were white. They were looking at a dataset of 3000 authors. There are writers who say, unless you're a person of color or trans or something, you can't get a book published anymore. But you say this is really sour grapes.
KATY WALDMAN Yeah, well, I think Joyce Carol Oates was someone to pity the plight of the white male writer recently. But 95% of widely read authors are white, and there have been strides made. But it's such a drop in the bucket, and that long history has been shaping our perspective on literary quality for a really long time. And I think that that's a tough hurdle to clear.
BROOKE GLADSTONE This trial seems to be unearthing the age-old clash between art and commerce. Has this lawsuit pushed you to think about this internal conflict in a different light?
KATY WALDMAN Yeah, I've heard the strongest versions of the case for exclusively art and exclusively commerce, and neither has been satisfying. I guess what I would say is I felt the gravity and the pull of this sort of romantic vision of publishing that they're not hedge fund managers. They have gone into the business of creating art and publishing books. And it is not entirely wrong to think that they want to create beauty. But I also think that hearing from executives, the farther you get away from the editorial assistant and the closer you get to the C-suite, I think the logic becomes much closer to any other business. And so the government's points along those lines hit home.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Katy Waldman is a staff writer for The New Yorker's Books and Culture Section. Katie, it's been a pleasure. Thank you so much.
KATY WALDMAN Brooke, it was so lovely to talk to you. Thank you.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Publishing is flush with fluctuating tech, trends and taste, and that market mutability prompts big publishers, like big film studios, to play it safe — which helps explain why if you walked into a bookstore in the last couple of years, you may have noticed that a lot of covers share a certain aesthetic which some observers across the Internet have dubbed the book blob. Actually, they're blobs of various bright hues and contours, beckoning abstractly behind the title.
MARGOT BOYER-DRY Cute, splashy, asymmetrical shapes on things. Bright colors all kind of smushed together.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Journalist and culture critic Margot Boyer-Dry spoke to On the Media earlier this year. She wrote a piece in 2019 for Vulture called “Welcome to the Bold and Blocky Instagram Era of Book Covers.”
MARGOT BOYER-DRY I saw someone carrying a copy of Meg Wolitzer’s The Female Persuasion, and it's a really striking cover. It's got these diagonal rainbow stripes, and then the title is in this bold, blocky white. I started noticing similar aesthetics on book covers pretty much everywhere. Really bright, splashy backgrounds. And just this fat text.
BROOKE GLADSTONE The trends in cover design reflect changes in fashion, most likely inspired by need — today's covers need to inform and entice readers in physical bookstores and on digital apps where they show up as teeny, tiny thumbnails. Boyer-Dry found in her reporting that the bright, Instagram-worthy book covers she was seeing in 2019, which later evolved into today's blobs, came out of Riverhead Books, a Penguin Random House imprint where Helen Giantess is the art director.
MARGOT BOYER-DRY And the way that she explains it is that a book needs to render well in every environment. If books are straddling digital and physical space, they need to work in both.
BROOKE GLADSTONE So if your eyeballs are burning from staring at all those neon jackets, you'll be glad to know that some of the newest hot fiction is leaning into a cooler, moodier palette.
MARGOT BOYER-DRY Look at the covers of Sea of Tranquility by Emily St. John Mendel or Young Mungo by Douglas Stewart or How High We Go in the Dark by Sequoia Nagamatsu. These covers are so different from the blocky, splashy thing or the blob thing in that there's intrigue. Nothing is screaming at you here. It's kind of inviting you to be quiet and take a moment with the cover, which might not draw your eye as readily from across the room or on a screen. But I think in its distinction from the aesthetic that's otherwise kind of dominating does set itself apart.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Back in the 1930s, the so-called Father of Spin, Edward Bernays, Sigmund Freud's nephew and a marketing genius, had a brilliant idea. He was doing work for a publishing consortium when the stock market crashed to keep the people buying books – he focused on the shelves. Where there are bookshelves, he is quoted as saying, there will be books. Bernays got boldface names to install bookshelves in their homes. House and Garden magazines began to feature homes with built in bookshelves as signifiers of class. And voila! The manipulative marketer gave rise to the personal bookshelf. As a mark of education, taste and cultural cachet for the masses. Fast forward to today when cable news hosts do countless Zoom interviews with experts on everything from vaccines to climate change to the Constitution. Celebrities have book stylists to make sure their books don't tell on them. More than ever books are signature accessories that you can, if you wish, buy by the color or by the yard. But I wouldn't advise it. People will notice. In the words of the brilliant Twitter account called Bookcase Credibility, which hilariously rates the contents of the bookshelves of big shots, What you say is not as important as the bookcase behind you.
Coming up, what really happened when a certain supply chain goliath entered the book business and the shape of books to come. This is On the Media.
BROOKE GLADSTONE This is On the Media, I'm Brooke Gladstone. The book is an old market and for centuries a relatively steady one. But according to Cambridge University sociology professor John Thompson, author of Book Wars: The Digital Revolution in Publishing, it was transformed by three key developments in the mid-twentieth century. First, the invention of the chain bookstores, initially in malls, and then as standalone literary oases. Next, super agents. Brokers of deals between publishers and authors who now fiercely prioritize the writers and their advances. And finally, the conglomeration of publishers from scattered individual operations into the powerhouses we know today. In America, anyway, the difference between 1900 and 1980 for books was stark. From first draft to final sale. But then it was overtaken by an even more powerful, irresistible force: the digital revolution. And at the intersection of leather and papyrus and paper and cloth emerged the stunning new dance of digital bits across glowing screens and a new kind of business was born. This conversation first aired in September.
JOHN B. THOMPSON Amazon began in the mid late 1990s as a new start up in the retail side of the publishing business. No one knew what was going to happen and how it was going to develop, but of course it became a major player within the retail space of publishing and then began to have an influence on other sectors of publishing as well.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Speaking of other sectors of publishing, let's talk about the rise of e-books. You say that Amazon didn't invent the e-book. Michael Hart at the University of Illinois typed the Declaration of Independence into plain text back in 1971. But at the time, Amazon started bringing out e-books. The assumption was that e-books would end up taking over the book market, right?
JOHN B. THOMPSON Correct. In the early 2000s, the digital revolution was beginning to cause chaos throughout the media industries, especially with the music industry. Between 2000 and 2010, revenues in the music industry collapsed. And this coincided with the shift away from vinyl LPs and CDs to digital downloads in the music industry. And if you were to go back to the early 2000, senior executives in the book publishing industry were looking over their shoulders at what was happening in the music industry and wondering if that was their future, too.
BROOKE GLADSTONE There's much to be said about the similarity of vinyl to the fall and rise of the paper book. There was a funny New Yorker cartoon that said, What I really love about vinyl is its expense and inconvenience. So the Kindle, just to put some dates on it, was released in 2007. The sales of e-books absolutely took off between 2008 and 2012. And then what caught everybody completely by surprise is what happened in 2012 and 2013, which is the sales stopped burgeoning.
JOHN B. THOMPSON And then from 2013 on, it actually began to decline. You see this pattern in other adoption of new technologies where you get rapid growth. You get saturation in the market and the growth stops. And then it begins to fall off slightly. When you drill down a bit deeper and you look at how different types of books have performed as e-books, you find that some types have actually sold really well as e-books and continue to sell really well as e-books while other types of books never took off at all.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Like what?
JOHN B. THOMPSON For example, genre fiction has sold very, very well in e-book format, most notably romance novels.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Hence 50 Shades of Gray, which is interesting for a lot of reasons. It was a self-published book, but we'll get to that in a moment. So that particular genre?
JOHN B. THOMPSON Romance erotica have sold very strongly in e-book, but also other genre fiction categories such as sci-fi, thriller, mystery and so on and so forth.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Because the fans consume them like chocolates in a box?
JOHN B. THOMPSON Because the narrative structure of genre fiction is such that it's quite easy to read on a digital device. Moreover, you don't necessarily want to keep your romance novel on a shelf. Once you've finished it, you finished it and you want to move on to the next one. So there is no desire for many people to have a collection of genre fiction. And thirdly, of course, you want it as cheaply as you can get it. And e-books are often priced more cheaply than print books. Now, at the other end of the spectrum, there are certain kinds of books like cookbooks and travel books and children's books that never took off in e-book format at all.
BROOKE GLADSTONE It really surprises me that travel books did not because you'd want to take them on the road. Cookbooks? Yeah. I've done a lot of cooking, bringing something up on an iPad, but it's nice to have a book. Children's books. People want them to be tactile, and they usually have lots of beautiful pictures that look better on paper. You've noted elsewhere that books like Biography, History, Self-help, that's about 20, 25% of the e-book market. But what about literature and classics and mid-list stuff?
JOHN B. THOMPSON With general fiction that is not genre fiction, but classic fiction and so on and so forth. The pattern tends to be lower than genre fiction, but higher than nonfiction. So it's in between. But the important point to emphasize here is that another reason why the overall pattern is misleading is because the data is from the mainstream trade publishers. But a great deal of e-book activity takes place outside of the world of traditional mainstream publishers. It takes place in the world of self-publishing, for example.
BROOKE GLADSTONE You begin early in your book with the story of Andy Weir, famously the author of the blockbuster book and movie The Martian. Is there a way to quickly summarize his story and tell us the lesson learned?
JOHN B. THOMPSON So Andy Weir was someone who had always wanted to be a writer, but it never panned out. And so he became a software engineer, but he kept on writing as a hobby, and he would post things on his website. And he was working on this story about a spaceship that landed on Mars, and someone got left behind when they had to make a quick exit and people were following it. And then he came to the end and somebody said to him, Gosh, that was a great story. Why don't you turn it into an e-book? Because then it would all be together, etc., etc.. So he decided that he would upload it to Amazon to Kindle Direct as an e-book. And then out of the blue he got a phone call from an agent who said, I've read your e-book and would really love to represent you. And Andy Weir took the book off the Amazon website. It was published by Random House, first as a hardback and then as a paperback. And it went straight to number one — became a bestseller.
BROOKE GLADSTONE So his was an astonishing success, but exceedingly rare – no?
JOHN B. THOMPSON It's the story of one of the tremendous consequences of the digital revolution, which is that it creates pathways into publication that are very different from the traditional pathways. Of course, this particular story from blog to bestseller is exceedingly rare, but there are more successes in the world of self-publishing than many people like to think. If you actually scrutinize Amazon's e-book bestseller lists, you find a surprising number of self-published books. Now, having said that, most people who self-published their books find that sales are very, very low.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Well, for the majority of books of all kinds, sales tend to be pretty low. Someone told me the other day that self publishers are losers because it meant they couldn't get a regular publisher. Do you think that attitude has changed?
JOHN B. THOMPSON Completely changed. The story of self-publishing is in itself a fascinating and complicated story. It's not new. It goes back to the 1920s when we saw the emergence of a group of publishers, which became known as vanity publishers, because the author would have to pay to get their book published. And it was expensive. It could cost anything from $5000 to $25000, maybe more, depending on how many copies you wanted. That was the traditional model that continued right through the 20th century up until the 1990s, early 2000s. But then with the digital revolution, something changed. You could create a platform that would enable authors to upload their content, and they wouldn't have to pay anything to do that. So the platform would earn money only if and when those books sold, and if and when they sold the platform would take a percentage as a commission. This turned the old model of self-publishing on its head. The world of indie authors is a large community of people who actively identify with this. They don't think of themselves as losers at all. They think of themselves as independent authors who take responsibility for their own publishing.
BROOKE GLADSTONE I'm going to tell the person who said that to me that answer. Now, given how much power Amazon has, I've become accustomed to thinking that it's a bad thing for the publishing industry, and that's a bad thing for writers and readers, although I'm starting to feel that about the publishing industry itself, too. Would I be wrong?
JOHN B. THOMPSON I don't think you're wrong. I want to stress again, there are many very positive things about Amazon. We as readers of books know that the availability of books is greater now than it has ever been. However, Amazon now represents the most powerful organization that the book publishing industry has ever seen in its 500 years of history. For many publishers, Amazon now accounts for maybe 50% or maybe more of their sales. And the more power it has, the more it also acts as what in legal terms is called a monopsony, an organization which has overwhelming power in relation to its suppliers. And this distorts the marketplace. And so to answer your question, it's this kind of distortion of the marketplace that is the danger.
BROOKE GLADSTONE You observed in your preface that the prognosticators were wrong, especially earlier in this century, about how new technological ways to consume culture would invariably prevail over the old ways, because they based far too much of their analysis on the technologies themselves. What were they missing?
JOHN B. THOMPSON They were missing the people. Technologies don't exist in a vacuum. They thought that the mere fact that these technologies had certain affordances to use the technical term here that is that they made certain things possible would lead inevitably to the preference of those technologies over other modes of consumption. So the mere fact that an e-book reader enables you to carry a hundred or a thousand books around with you rather than one would lead inevitably to people preferring it because it offers more. And what they fail to take account of is that for the individual consumer, being able to carry 100 books around with you is neither here nor there because you're only going to read one at any point in time. So it doesn't really matter unless, of course, you're going on a very long holiday. What you really need to look at is what people value when it comes to a reading device. And it turns out that the old fashioned reading device of the print on paper book delivers certain things to people that they highly value. With an e-book, you can't put it on your shelf. You can't give it to someone as a gift. Books have a certain role in people's lives that the technology and e-book reader on e-book doesn't have.
BROOKE GLADSTONE You wrote that books are part of culture and that could be seen as part of the larger culture war. But what you call book wars, the title of your book, and you note that war in that context may seem a little hyperbolic. That kind of war is of an entirely different nature.
JOHN B. THOMPSON For those players in the industry itself who were living through these changes and engaging with the conflicts. It was a war. Google and Amazon looked across the book publishing world as a domain, which they could transform. And the first major attempt to do that was, of course, the Google Library Project, which was aimed at digitizing all the book content that existed in many large libraries. Publishers suddenly realized that traditional laws of copyright under which they had run their businesses for centuries were being called into question here. And this was a ferocious battle between publishers on the one hand and Google on the other. And it led to legal dispute that went on for many, many, many years. And that battle had not even finished when the new battle with Amazon broke out over the pricing of e-books. That also ended up in a long legal struggle because it was subjected to investigation by the Department of Justice. So the phrase book wars is perfectly warranted by the scale of the conflict that was brought about by these transformations.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Are you worried about these transformations, these disruptions, or do you exult in the idea of plunging into yet another brave new world?
JOHN B. THOMPSON I don't worry about them because I think that the way that it has panned out has been very different from the way that many people feared. This is a space of constant change and disruption, and I think it's an exciting time for the publishing industry. But it's also a very, very challenging time. And it does require, I think, everyone involved in publishing to be thinking very hard about what they're doing and who they're doing it for.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Or too.
JOHN B. THOMPSON Or too. Exactly. Publishers can't rely on old practices. They have to be thinking creatively about how to position themselves in a rapidly changing world where books remain important. But they're only part of a much more complex and varied conversation that increasingly is taking place in an online environment.
BROOKE GLADSTONE John, thank you very much.
JOHN B. THOMPSON You're very welcome.
BROOKE GLADSTONE John Thompson is the author of The Book Wars: The Digital Revolution in Publishing.
[JAUNTY SONG ABOUT BOOKS PLAYS]
BROOKE GLADSTONE That's it for this week's show on the Media is produced by Micah Loewinger, Eloise Blondiau, Molly Schwartz, Rebecca Clarke-Callender, Candice Wang and Suzanne Gaber with help from Temi George. Our technical director is Jennifer Munson. Our engineers this week were Andrew Nerviano and Andrew Dunn. Katya Rogers is our executive producer. On the Media is a production of WNYC Studios. I'm Brooke Gladstone.