There is no shortage of articles that have been written over the last few years (and beyond) about the death of publishing. There’s little doubt that the industry has changed dramatically since I became an agent in 1999. Back then we had meetings to talk about digital books, and the consensus was it was not going to happen, at least not anytime in the near future and not in a way that would have a dramatic impact on the sale of print books. Well, we all know what a big impact digital publishing has had on the book market in recent years. The good news is publishers are still finding ways to maximize print sales as well as digital sales so it’s another revenue stream to mine that has cost benefit to publishers.
This recent piece in newrepublic.com speaks to a specific, if not new, concern for publishers and the book business – the potential demise of Barnes & Noble. Bear in mind, this has been a topic of conversation for many years and despite rumors, challenges and financial constraints, B&N is still in business.
Alex Shephard mentions in the piece: “In a world without Barnes & Noble, risk-averse publishers will double down on celebrity authors and surefire hits.” That might be true, but we’ve been seeing this for a long time. Same with his assertion that “Literary writers without proven sales records will have difficulty getting published, as will young, debut novelists. The most literary of novels will be shunted to smaller publishers. Some will probably never be published at all.” This has been a refrain we’ve heard on repeat for years.
My sense about the retailer’s impact on the book business if it were to shutter its doors is that it would be a significant and negative impact, but not an insurmountable one. No question, B&N has been a wonderful partner for bringing books to a wider audience. They provide some very nice opportunities for books and authors, from in-store events to co-op advertising (front of store placement) to their now 25 year-old Discover Great New Writers program. And while publishers still rely heavily on B&N’s feedback on many things, including covers (I’ve had several covers change at the last minute because B&N didn’t like it), the truth is that the number of books they purchase for their stores has dropped dramatically over the years. Yes, they still carry lots of copies of the big bestsellers, as do all the retailers, but they take a lot fewer copies of almost everything else.
This, in part, has resulted in smaller first printings for most books from years past with the hope that if the book starts selling, publishers can quickly hit the reprint button and fulfill market demand. But that doesn’t feel like new news to me. I hope B&N can survive and find a way to thrive in a very difficult market, but I feel strongly that even if that doesn’t happen, authors, publishers and agents will figure out a way to make it work, just like we’ve always done.