Loans from Big Brother: There’s Hope for Small Publishers

“Publishing is a dying business” is the mantra I’ve been trying to ignore since the seed of working in publishing was planted in my idealistic brain. “People don’t read anymore,” people say—and without an audience, how can an industry survive? In the capitalist United States, how can a business thrive if demand for a product is at its lowest?

In “The Novel is Dead (this time it’s for real)”, Will Self asserts that the great literary fiction novel is falling from popular demand and will only continue in society as a source of entertainment for a select few. History preserved in the present, like “easel painting or classical music . . . a subject for historical scholarship rather than public discourse.” In a world where big publishers absorb smaller publishers at an alarming rate, I’ve started thinking perhaps he’s right, but what is an aspiring publisher to do?

According to Clark and Phillips, the focus on the bottom line is fairly new in the publishing world. The change in publishing culture from being product-led to being market-driven happened at the turn of the twentieth century. Alan Bartram speaks to this as well in his book Making Books: Design in British Publishing Since 1945, where he talks of the prestige and morality book publishing used to have, wherein publishers would take a hit financially if they believed the book important enough to publish. He even goes on to say that this moral high road was considered normal practice in its day, and now it’s almost disappeared.

The old soul in me is crippled by this assessment of the publishing world, mostly because I know it to be true. It will continue but in a different, most likely digital or multimedia form. Then again, how could the industry not adopt this dog-eat-dog mentality when Amazon, the leading retailer in the industry, uses the bottom-line model?

Joe Wikert blames the failing traditional business model of the publishing world and publishers’ continued dependence on Amazon, the industry leader, to create technological innovation that would revamp the industry. Wikert says that smaller publishers simply wait, paralyzed, for the next big thing (such as ebooks and ereaders), too afraid to try something new because they are struggling to “survive revenue shortfalls and staff downsizing” while trying to avoid “doing anything that might be perceived as a threat to the key retailers.” They don’t have the time, money, or staff to dedicate to innovation, so they wait and imitate newly released publishing technology instead of getting ahead by investing in research and development themselves.

However, in their article about research and development in creative industries, Benghozi and Salvador say this is the problem. Technological innovation is the key to industry growth in the digital age; without it, companies can’t keep up with a dynamic and global economy, and smaller publishers can’t compete with larger publishers. Because of this, Niel de Young of Hachette Book Group has developed a digital team outside of Hachette’s traditional publishing sphere. By embracing a startup mentality, they focus on experimentation and finding new ways to meet consumer’s needs.

This is easy enough for a company like Hachette, one of the Big Five, because they have money and resources to spare, but what about smaller publishers? They’re left to fend for themselves or be rebranded as a Big Five imprint. That is, until 2015 when Ingram Content Group, an industry leader, mustered up some of that pre-20th-century publishing altruism and decided to start their 1440 Accelerator program.

The program is dedicated to “accelerating” the success of promising startups in various areas of publishing, offering them fourteen weeks of intensive courses designed to train them for success in business and then fully financing the start-ups Ingram deems most likely to be useful to them and the publishing industry as a whole. Since their first cohort, Ingram decided to halt the experiment, but their example led to another accelerator program run by Börsenvereinsgruppe (The Group of German Publishers and Booksellers Association) called “CONTENTshift”.

This is something that rarely happens in business, but Ingram considers it an investment. These companies are trying to revitalize the publishing world, redefine it. Why not have a bunch of techies on your side, especially when your biggest competition is coming from technology companies like Amazon, Apple, and Google? I guess what this all means to me is, perhaps Will Self is right, but that’s what an aspiring publisher can do.

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