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Bookish Diversions: Publishing Boom and Bust
The Redemption of B&N, Publishing Layoffs, Bogus AI Improvements, Short Books, More
¶ The redemption of Barnes and Noble. Ever since You’ve Got Mail, B&N has played the heavy in narratives about bookselling (or did at least until Amazon showed up and knocked them down). Given the chain’s size and propensity to disrupt local markets, the villain characterization proved convenient. But as both a consumer and publishing executive I never really agreed with it. And I’m delighted to see the company’s recent turnaround; after years of struggling, B&N is poised for a significant comeback.
A surprising hero anchors this narrative, the company’s new CEO James Daunt. The Wall Street Journal has an insightful feature about Daunt and his vision for the chain—one that maintains the best of its megabox retail might while injecting individual locations with newfound indie-style freedom and energy.
What differentiates Daunt from his recent forebears? He actually loves books and understands what bookstores are for: discovering them. And he’s overseeing a strategic expansion of the chain. With stores freshly optimized for display, customers are flocking to new locations in, for instance, New York’s Upper East Side and Brunswick, Maine. And in an enjoyable irony B&N will take over a Marina de Rey location in suburban Los Angeles. The prior tenet? Amazon Books.
¶ But seriously, is publishing okay? Earlier this month Penguin Random House announced buyouts of key staff and layoffs of others. The buyouts—paying older editors to leave—affected legendary talents who worked on some of the company’s most prestigious authors: Robert Caro, Joan Didion, Elizabeth Gilbert, Alice Munro, Joyce Carol Oates, Anne Rice, Amor Towles, and Elie Wiesel. The layoffs included other editorial, publicity, and sales roles, about 60 positions in all. It could be worse; it might get worse.at has an interesting, multifaceted take. This is, she says, primarily about cutting costs, not edging out the old guard. As the Times reported, after its failed Simon & Schuster acquisition, Penguin Random House had to eat at least $200 million in fees accrued for their unrequited troubles.
These or other layoffs, says Schmidt, would have likely resulted regardless of PRH’s success in the case. Layoffs likewise began last year at HarperCollins and continued through winter and into the spring.
Beyond these particular cases, the industry shows financial, cultural, and operational signs of unease. This is not surprising. Whether at the macro or micro levels, publishing is essentially an institutionalized, intellectual gambling habit with up times and down times. It’s bust follows boom all the way back to Ashurbanipal and Nehemiah. The trick is having enough cash to ride out the dips.
The big issue? Cash, says Schmidt, is running low at the moment:
Consumers are spending money—they’re just spending it on specific items: Olive Garden, Crocs, Levi’s, and Build-a-Bear have each seen double-digit revenue growth this year. Books, streaming services, and the box office? They’ve each seen a decline in sales/subscriptions. Here’s a theory: You can go to Olive Garden wearing Crocs and Levi’s, and you can go to Build-a-Bear with your kids. Neither of these experiences can be replicated by watching TikToks or scrolling through another social media platform for free. Conversely, suppose you had a choice between watching free TikToks or YouTube videos or paying for a book or streaming service. In that case, you’d choose the former (I realize most subscribers are readers, so I don’t mean “you” specifically). . . .
All of this matters when we look at book sales. Why? Because during the pandemic, there were limited choices of entertainment. We all watched Tiger King because there was nothing else to do. We weren’t spending money on commuting, student loan repayments were put on hold, and many of us received cash infusions from the government. People also bought many books at the time because there was nothing else to do. It is now 2023, and everything has changed. Interest rates are high, food is expensive, student loan repayments are due once again, and despite unemployment remaining low, many people are out of work. Again, money is being spent, but very specifically.
When money is tight, people are looking for better tradeoffs, and marginal readers can fill hours watching YouTube and TikTok cheaper than the latest hardback. Sure enough, though fiction is marginally up, overall book sales this year are down, according to Publishers Weekly. Frontlist sales (that is, new books) are down 4.2 percent compared to this period in 2022, and backlist sales (that is, books published in prior years and which sustain publishers in lean periods) are also down, though not as dramatically, just 2.1 percent.
All this is happening, says Schmidt, while—and to a degree because of—changes in marketing, thanks to fragmentation in social media.
Does this tumult bother me? Not really. For the foreseeable future there will be people who cherish long-form reading: authors who wish to write it, readers who which to read it, and publishers who wish to profit from it. And where there’s a profit, there’s a way. The business will undoubtedly change in response to changes in the marketplace, but it will persist.
¶ Romanticizing publishing’s past. The allure—or horror—of decline narratives is always wrapped up in nostalgia for the past.at warns readers about falling for the trap when it comes to publishing. I find publishing’s history inspiring, but like all history I wouldn’t want to relive it. Trubeck offers several reasons why, especially noting the exclusivist nature of the old model. “The past was no place for most of the best writers of today to succeed,” she says. I agree. Besides, the future is as interesting as we want to make it. It’s already diversifying in intriguing ways.
Who’s to say publishing won’t improve over the next many years? I can see it. But there’s one thing I can’t see—at least at the moment.
¶ Bogus AI innovations. When the Kindle came out in 2007, it launched a tsunami of nonsense about improving books. I was in publishing at the time—vice president of editorial and acquisitions at Thomas Nelson—and, were I paid a dollar for every reference, could have retired on the mentions of how traditional publishing was suddenly dead. After all, hadn’t the digital revolution destroyed the music business?
Instead, enthusiastic prognosticators told us that unproven wonders such as video books would soon save the industry. If publishers wanted to stay relevant, we’d have to experiment with games, on-demand digital content, or Mad Libs–style gift books customizable to every customer. Anything but long-form, immersive reading.1
That lamentable spasm passed soon enough, and the industry resumed what it does best—producing books for people who love them. But the twitch is back, thanks to generative AI.
Wired writer Elizabeth Minkel recently explored the hype, beginning with a weirdly familiar-sounding tweet. “Imagine if every Book is converted into an Animated Book and made 10x more engaging,” said Gaurav Munjal. “AI will do this.”
Am I trapped in a time loop?
Munjal isn’t alone. Investors are dumping money into literary-inspired AI ventures that supposedly will transform books, including using generative AI to create familiar characters that talk back to readers. But do readers actually want that? Or animated books? Or anything else? Developers are free to try, and more power to them. But Minkel explains the fundamental disconnect between these innovators and the readers whose experience they promise to upgrade.
“One reason books haven’t been particularly disruptable,” said Minkel,
might be that many of the people looking to “fix” things couldn’t actually articulate what was broken—whether through their failure to see the real problems facing the industry . . . or their insistence that books are not particularly enjoyable as a medium.
Crazy to imagine, but readers actually enjoy books roughly as they are. Munjal and others forget the book is a technology with hundreds of years of refinement already invested in its user interface. I’m a techno optimist and assume there are always ways of improving the tools we use. But making an “animated book” isn’t improving an existing technology; it’s offering an inferior replacement.
Does that mean that some of these possible innovations won’t grab the share of attention that could otherwise go to books? Of course not. Per Kathleen Schmidt‘s point above, that’s already happening with TikTok and other forms of social media. And if these forecasted animated books and interactive characters actually emerge I might enjoy them from time to time. It’ll be fun to see what the innovators come up with. But there’s tremendous cultural inertia around the habit of reading, and those who enjoy deep, immersive reading experiences are not going go trade it for something that fails to scratch that itch.2
The bigger play, regardless of what one thinks about it, is likely in content creation, not new formats. But that’s another fight and books don’t need that kind of fixing. Besides, in a world where different activities compete for our scarce attention, simpler solutions might emerge.
¶ Short books. It the middle 1990s, conservative pundit David Frum published a slim book entitled Dead Right. Elder statesman of the punditocracy George Will deemed it “slender as a stiletto and as cutting.” I’ve never forgotten that description almost thirty years later. Why? I love short books. And they may be having a moment.
“The digital age brought a huge increase of various types of content fighting for people’s time and attention,” says WordsRated researcher Dimitrije Curcic, referring to the same sorts of competitors for focus Schmidt mentioned. One solution? Books that demand less time and attention—that is, shorter books.
“Why can’t a grown-up have a really good-looking book with a story she or he could read in about an hour and a half from start to finish?” asks writer and translator Gini Alhadeff, who started the Storybook imprint at New Directions, described as a “new series of slim hardcover fiction books” that “aims to deliver the pleasure one felt as a child reading a marvelous book from cover to cover in an afternoon.”
Authors and editors do a service to the species by delivering books no longer than necessary. How long is that? There’s no one right answer to the question. It depends on the writer, the subject, the intended audience, and other variables. And the success of those decisions is ultimately validated by the market. But a clear shorter-is-better trend seems to be emerging.
Bestselling books are getting shorter and shorter, according to a study of almost 3,500 New York Times bestsellers from 2011 to 2021.
And the trend is manifesting in other ways as well, including new imprints specializing in shorter reads. Esquire recently reported on several, including Picture Books, “an imprint focused on hardcover fiction under 100 pages,” and McNally Editions “which are often quite slim.” These and other efforts join existing short-form publishers, including Notting Hill Editions, which focuses on exquisite clothbound essay-length texts.
There’s something deeply appealing about a handy book, one that slips into a bag or is easy to carry on its own, one you can pick up on a whim and finish in a sitting or two, one that feels like an easy decision instead of a long-term negotiation with all of life’s demands.
Such books make great impulse buys, a pleasant side effect already buzzing cash registers. Says Miwa Messer of Barnes and Noble, “Two hundred pages is a beautiful, beautiful thing.”
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One rhetorical trap into which some proponents tumbled was insisting publishers see themselves as “content providers,” which offered no useful differentiation from magazines, TV, games, or much of anything. Whereas content is whatever fills a bucket, books are primarily long-form texts designed for immersive reading.
Audiobooks provide a useful case study of successful innovation, not by changing books but by amplifying what they do well. Besides, there’s a long, long history of books as aural media, so it’s more like a new application of an existing feature of the technology.