Since I’ve taken on the rewarding task of acquisitions editor for Oak Tree Press, people often ask me, “What do you think is the future of publishing?”
I suppose I could look into my crystal ball if I had one handy, or I could get my alter ego Christy Bristol to draw up an astrology chart (what sign would books come under? Probably Libra). But, the fact of the matter is that this industry is in so much flux that there’s no telling where any of us will be in a decade.
Okay, let’s start from the beginning, but not with the Gutenberg Press. Publishing was once the realm of small outfits manned by people with a love and respect for books. Money was not a primary motive. They had wealthy backers and the publishing houses were passed down from one generation to the next.
In the 1920′s, referred to as the Golden Age of Publishing, people were getting better education via public schools and books were not just for the wealthy anymore. But, then came the Great Depression and books were again a luxury item. How to get more people to buy more books? Henry Ford’s idea of mass production took hold. An industry of love for the written word was now an industry of love for the almighty buck.
Publishing houses became corporations. The democracy of publishing now was more like a monopoly. Because publishers answered to corporate boards and stockholders, they began pushing out smaller presses.
Two more influences came on the scene. From Britain we inherited the idea of the literary agent. This miffed publishers because agents demanded higher royalties in order to make their own salary. Aggressiveness became part of the battle for publishing contracts. Then there
were chain bookstores, not just accepting what booksellers had to sell but actually dictating what they should publish. Because big bookstores controlled sales, Big Publishing danced to their tune. The game was fixed against small publishers and independent bookstores. They never stood a chance.
My personal history started in the late 1990′s. I was finishing my first book, excited about the possibility of publishing. The crash came when I went to a conference and heard that of the Big Six publishing houses, five had been sold overseas. Not to China or Japan, but to Germany, England and France. The only American-owned house was Simon & Schuster.
The new owners took mystery imprints and combined them to make one line, keeping the big names and discarding the rest. I watched as many mid-list authors writing terrific series were suddenly left without contracts. I don’t know how other genres weathered the storm, but mystery took a hit. Some authors tried their hand at creating their own publishing houses, even bookstores like Poison Pen stepped up to the plate. Perseverance Press salvaged many careers. PublishAmerica, I Universe and others came on the scene, for better or for worse. Print on Demand technology was developed. Amazon debuted. Kindles and I Pad’s changed how we read.
What do I see in the future? Authors in control of their own futures. Small bookstores making a comeback as large outfits go under. Smaller houses, which now publish 78% of books on the market, getting the respect they deserve. Writers looking for publishers who still love the written word. And readers learning to discover good books on their own, not through the manipulation of the the marketplace. That’s a future I’m willing to invest in.