Going back to go forward

Forbes has an interesting discussion with the guys behind the Espresso Book Machine.

A lot of this is tangential to our discussion right now. We’ll get more into the idea of digital versus offset printing in the future, but because right now, since Candlemark & Gleam is publishing as electronic-only, not in print, we’re more concerned with some comments later in the article.

Knowledge@Wharton: As the publishing business is transformed, how will the structure of the industry evolve? Will there be a few large global monopolies or smaller companies?

Epstein: It won’t evolve; it will devolve. It will become the way it was before these conglomerates were put together. You have to understand that these conglomerates were not rationally assembled. That happened out of necessity  because of certain kinks in the way the system worked.

Fifty years ago publishing was essentially a cottage industry. Each company was run by, effectively, a handful of editors with minimal management. Many services were farmed out. That’s how Random House worked; that’s how Simon & Schuster worked; that’s how they all did.

But when the marketplace changed from one based on large independent
bookstores that could carry extensive backlists to one with stores in shopping malls, where the backlist didn’t figure, bestsellers became a necessity. Publishers had to provide bestsellers for these shopping mall stores to remain in business.

The rights to potential bestsellers were then put up for auction. Smaller publishers could no longer afford to compete so they joined hands with larger publishers. Random House picked up a number of imprints–Knopf, Pantheon and so on. Even that didn’t work because even those proto-conglomerates–like Random House and Simon & Schuster back in the 1990s–couldn’t compete. They couldn’t put up these $1 million or $2 million, or $5 million, or $10 million risks, so they collapsed into the present conglomerates.

Conglomerates were not rationally assembled as the most efficient way of publishing books. They were assembled because someone had to be able to fund these auctions–these gambling situations–we got ourselves into. But these conglomerates don’t function. There’s much too much overhead and complexity. There’s too much unnecessary management. Lawyers get in the way of everything. That can’t last. Digitization, I think, will inevitably have to replace it.

This, right here, cats and kittens, is the nub, crux, and gist of it. It’s what  Candlemark & Gleam is about – taking publishing back to its roots while exploring the new frontiers that are opening up to us thanks to the digital revolution.

The Big Six publishing houses are good at what they do – they turn out a lot of blockbuster books, and they give us some great reads with great design. But they also overlook a lot of emerging authors…and we all know how hard it is for a new author to come to their attention.

Publishing started out as a grassroots thing. It was a bunch of guys smeared in ink, casting and recasting type on TrueType machines, setting plates, running paper through. That evolved into small houses that handled the design, printing, binding, and distribution. We went from there to having editors, art departments, etc. – and outsourcing the print work. It was still mostly small houses, a bunch of overworked, underpaid guys still smudged with ink, doing what they loved and getting some great stories out to the world.

And then the blockbuster hit. And, as the Espresso guys said, the industry contracted. Conglomerates sprung up, and for the most part, innovation went out the window. Management became key, marketing became key, and the idea of the story being paramount went “poof.”

Niche publishers, small publishers, micropresses – whatever you want to call us, we’re the past of publishing, and we’re its future, too. We’re smaller, sure, and don’t have the resources to put into marketing a book and making it a blockbuster on the level of a Stephenie Meyer Twilight series…but at the same time, we’re more nimble. We don’t have the layers of bureaucracy. We can experiment. We can take a risk on a new author, a new format, a new distribution model.

We can make a difference, even if it’s a small one.

That’s where we see publishing heading – back to its roots, with small, scrappy, ink-stained folks doing something they love.

It’s gonna be great.


  1. Tweets that mention New post on C&G blog: Forbes talks w/Espresso Book Machine guys; we respond to thoughts on publishing conglomerates: -- Topsy.com - May 7, 2010

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