We've all heard the doomsday prophecy of the publishing industry before. Back in the 90s, along with every other industry that was embracing the digital age (TVs, photography, communication, education, etc.), it was a dead certainty that we'd all be curling up this Christmas with a cozy little e-book in our laps while a roaring fire keeps out the bite of the winter's cold, presumably fueled by the paper books that once occupied our shelves. Obviously, we have not been brought to that point yet, and not just because we've been having unusually warm winters, but "the numbers" still don't paint a rosy picture.
Ever since the publishing-houses-of-old decided it would be a good idea to leave off their mission of finding and developing real artists and to play at monopoly (the actual practice, not the game) by consolidating into imprints upon imprints under ever more powerful houses, it's been a game of Jenga. How many publishers can we buy-out or consume before the whole industry gets put at risk and the downfall of one means the destruction of the entire House of Cards? Well, we're about to find out and for a whole slew of reasons. Amazon. E-books, a.k.a the little widget that could. A declining economy and stagnant sales. Bad bets. REALLY bad bets. Ever changing allegiances between editors and publishing houses. A dwindling reading public. All of these are legitimate reasons that the book industry is floundering. But there's got to be an underlying reason that connects these seemingly disparate hardships. Could it be that the reason that corporate publishing is ailing is because of its very nature—that is, that it is corporate?
The novel (let alone the book of poetry, the memoir, and various other non-fiction types) is an art form but it has be hocked as any normal commodity. True, it's a more accessible art form than, say, a Van Gogh, but the process that goes into producing and refining it is no less rigorous. It's a tightrope walk trying to answer the demands of a commercial market without completely forgetting that the product is something that was made with the intent (however small it might be) that it would survive for posterity. The blockbuster hit is just cream on the cake to the work that survives twenty years, let alone fifty or a hundred. But the mindset of the last thirty years or so has been just the opposite and so the quick-and-dirty sale is held above the works that might last longer but won't bring 'em to the check out counter in droves today. As such, many people see the novel as a get-rich-quick scheme rather than the product of countless hours of writing, editing, and revisions meant to create something of lasting substance. Could this also be the reason that readership has declined in recent years—that their intelligence has been affronted and their taste has been left hungry for something more?
In the end, it's unlikely that the book will ever completely die off, but the e-book (and Amazon) will probably be the big kid on the block. Perhaps after this storm, the only investors in the industry will be there primarily for the cultural importance that books serve, rather than the gads of money to be had. Making a profit is not a sin, as long as it's also not treated as the only virtue. As long as the Story survives, we should be okay. A rose, after all, by any other name would smell just as sweet.