Frankly Speaking: The Publisher-Retailer Tug-of-War
Stumbling Out of the Past
I worked with publishers and printers on how to typeset books with new technology as we phased from hot metal to phototypesetting, desktop publishing, and then on-demand printing. Then came computer screens that displayed typography, and the Internet as both a content-delivery channel and a retail channel for print and electronic content.
Over time, all of these technologies merged and became portable, enabling us to carry a bookstore in our pockets on mobile devices. This is one of the fundamental changes in the book world, and it has adversely affected traditional bookstores.
As the world of bookmaking changed, so did the world of bookselling. First, though, other bookselling outlets evolved—books could be acquired in pharmacies, convenience stores and other non-book retail locations. Now, just as the superstores killed off most of the independents, so the online bookstores are killing off the superstores. There was a gigantic B&N at Jack London Square in Oakland, Calif. I was there recently, and it is shuttered and silent.
Now we are into the age of the electronic book, and our bookstore is the screen. Our book is the screen.
Add to all of these trends the mechanisms that allow individuals to self-publish their own books in any form.
It is self-evident that most book publishing models are part of the past, and as publishers wrestle with the present and future, they are stumbling badly.
Publishers have long had intermediaries between them and book consumers, and much of the confusion in the book market comes from these relationships. Different channels price books differently and demand higher percentages of those prices, just as the publishers are seeking higher margins. Publishers think that consumers will seek out their own websites to buy books—this is like having bookstores that only sell one publisher's books.