Book Publishing is Tabloid News

Book publishing may be in turmoil, but you have to admire all the publicity we're getting! After a few centuries of slow and steady change, the sober world of publishing is on a bender, and the tabloids are eating it up. Headlines appear in major newspapers almost daily, along with magazine cover stories -- even coverage on the evening news. It's no wonder. Who can look away from a massive train wreck, or resist watching a street fight? Here's an excellent article, The Bookstore's Last Stand, by Julie Bosman in the Jan. 28, 2012 edition of The New York Times about the smackdown between Barnes & Nobel and Amazon. If you haven't read it already, this will bring you up to speed:

"Like many struggling businesses, book publishers are cutting costs and trimming work forces. Yes, electronic books are booming, sometimes profitably, but not many publishers want e-books to dominate print books. Amazon’s chief executive, Jeffrey P. Bezos, wants to cut out the middleman — that is, traditional publishers — by publishing e-books directly.

"Which is why Barnes & Noble, once viewed as the brutal capitalist of the book trade, now seems so crucial to that industry’s future. Sure, you can buy bestsellers at Walmart and potboilers at the supermarket. But in many locales, Barnes & Noble is the only retailer offering a wide selection of books. If something were to happen to Barnes & Noble, if it were merely to scale back its ambitions, Amazon could become even more powerful and — well, the very thought makes publishers queasy.

“It would be like ‘The Road,’ ” one publishing executive in New York said, half-jokingly, referring to the Cormac McCarthy novel. “The post-apocalyptic world of publishing, with publishers pushing shopping carts down Broadway.”

'Shouldering the responsibilities of Barnes & Noble is one thing. Holding the fate of American book publishing in your hands is quite another. But William J. Lynch Jr., the C.E.O. of the company, says he is up for the battle. With all of three years of experience in bookselling, Mr. Lynch must pull off a balancing act that would be tricky even in good times. He must carve out a digital future for Barnes & Noble without forsaking its hard-copy past, all while his company’s profit and share price are under pressure, his customers are fleeing to the Web and Amazon is circling.

"It might come as a surprise, but Mr. Lynch says Barnes & Noble is, in fact, a technology company. Never mind that it has 703 bookstores and operates in all 50 states. To the delight of publishers, he has pushed hard into e-books and, with the help of the well-reviewed Nook, even grabbed a lot of market share from Amazon. But he is playing David to Mr. Bezos’s Goliath. Barnes & Noble’s stock closed on Friday at $11.95, putting the value of the company at $719 million. Amazon’s shares closed at $195.37, valuing Mr. Bezos’s company at $88 billion."

Read the entire article here.


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An 875-Word History of Publishing

From Gutenberg to eBooks and More

Have you ever wondered how the evolution of book publishing went from printing books one at a time in basements, to niche publishing houses in major cities, and finally to worldwide multimedia conglomerates? Look no further. With the help of several books and websites, my English major background, and of course Wikipedia (thank goodness that blackout only lasted a day), I present to you the highlights of the past six centuries of book publishing.

It’s difficult to imagine what life would be like without bookstores, Amazon, or even public libraries. But until Gutenberg’s printing press, few people were able to get their hands on books of any kind. Not only was the public quite illiterate, but they also couldn’t afford books, and there wasn't a large selection on the market. A religious text by Thomas à Kempis titled The Imitation of Christ was the first “bestseller” of the Middle Ages, and went through nearly 100 editions between 1471 and 1500. Not too shabby, but also probably not too interesting. By the end of the sixteenth century, printing presses had spread throughout Europe, though much of the publishing was still religion oriented and funded by wealthy patrons.

The 1600s brought about the rise of the novel, much to the dismay of the Church. While printing had been a wonderful way to get the Bible into more hands, the publishing of secular works was frowned upon. More and more regulations were placed on publishing, but this couldn’t stop the tide of printers and authors. By the 1620s printing became much cheaper due to new typeface technology and soon thereafter the publishers won the day.

Seventeenth and eighteenth century readers got maybe 3,000 titles per year, and at that time the Stationer’s Company of London had monopoly over British publishing. Founded as a guild of text writers, bookbinders, and booksellers (our humble publishing beginnings), the company reigned supreme for more than 300 years and brought about the first copyright law of Great Britain in 1709.  Around this time true bestsellers emerged, as people were able to afford books and publishers could afford to have large print runs (oh, how the times have changed).

The Romantic and Victorian Periods brought about an enormous increase in material, such as Byron’s popular poems and Dickens’ serialized novels. Improvements in transportation (think railways and steamships) made distribution and global publication a far easier task. Circulating libraries guaranteed readership and reasonable returns. Publishers were pleased with the popularity of the three-volume novel and created books published with flimsy paper covers meant to be rebound by dutiful readers. Making people buy more books and saving money at the same time – we were clever even then.

Across the pond, the Americans were the Blackbeards of publishing, constantly pirating content from European counterparts. Stephen Daye had begun the first American press in 1638, but it wasn’t until 1790 that America began to pass any copyright laws (more than 80 years after Great Britain). In the early 1800s, publishers such as Wiley, Collins, Harper, Hachette, and MacMillan were in their infancy as printers or small presses. And after partnering with Wiley in 1838, Putnam introduced what would become the modern royalty system (a 10% rate to authors).

The 1900s saw a shift away from London and Paris as the epicenters of publishing and thrust New York City into the limelight. In a chaotic century for publishing, these years ushered in the heydays of mass-market paperbacks, company mergers, bookstore chains, and the beginnings of digitization. The Great Depression hit small publishers and booksellers hard, eventually leading to a few companies coming out on top. Penguin made its mark by leading the trade paperback pack, and (ironically) warned publishers that paperbacks would destroy the industry by making hardcover copies obsolete. We certainly know that isn’t the case, and today eBooks are the cause for a wee bit more concern for traditional print publishers.

Powerful corporate houses, often owned by media conglomerates in the U.S. and abroad began the mergers of the mid-1900s. Combined with the rise of giant chain booksellers, these two factors changed the face of the industry forever. Just as independent booksellers had to compete with Borders and Barnes & Noble, indie publishers had to find niches, audiences, or books that would keep them afloat.

Then came the ‘90s and ‘00s, two of the most turbulent decades publishing has ever seen. In a very quick succession of years, the Internet, Google, POD, Amazon, eBooks, self-publishing, and the recession tossed our little world upside down. Online self-publishing has grown in numbers and in reputation and most houses have no choice now but to go digital. It is a very different game than it was 50, 100, or 200 years ago. I bet Gutenberg is rolling over in his grave, mighty displeased that his beloved press is sitting on the back burner.

Some say publishing is a dying industry, but looking back on the last six hundred years, I’d say we’re a far cry from that state. We are (to borrow from David Godine) "the gatekeepers of culture;" publishing has preserved and celebrated language since the first printing press. We’ve aided in the spread of education and literacy, found and published wonderful authors and works, and created links between authors, booksellers, and readers. Plus, we’re a lot of fun. We aren’t going anywhere.


1403: Creation of Stationer’s Company, London

1450: Gutenberg invents the printing press

1474: William Caxton begins publishing in England and prints more than 700 titles in lifetime

1500: Venice has more than 150 presses

1638: Stephen Daye and Mrs. Glover begin first American press

1640: The Bay Psalm Book is one of the first books printed in America

1709: Jacob Tonson (London) begins publishing Shakespeare

1709: Statute of Anne is passed: first copyright law of Great Britain

1724: Creation of Longman publishing company, London

1728: Benjamin Franklin opens his printing shop

1740: John Newberry begins publishing

1759: Voltaire’s Candide sells 20,000 copies in one month

1790: First federal copyright act passed in the U.S.

1807: Charles Wiley opens a print shop in NYC

1817: Creation of Harper & Brothers

1819: Creation of Collins Printing Company

1826: French publishing house Hachette Livre founded by Louis Hachette

1835: Bertelsmann AG media corporation founded in Germany

1838: Creation of Wiley & Putnam

1838: First International Copyright Act (Britain)

1842: Creation of Charles Mudie’s Circulating Library: purchases more than 1 million volumes

1843: Creation of Macmillan Publishers Ltd

1846: Putman introduces modern royalty system

1873: Charles Barnes (Barnes & Noble) begins a book-printing business in Illinois

1875: First literary agents arrive on the scene

1888: James H. McGraw founds “The Hill Publishing Company” (later to become McGraw Hill)

1891: International Copyright Act of 1891 extends limited protection to foreign copyright holders

1896: Creation of the Publisher’s Association in U.K.

1897: Creation of Doubleday & McClure Company

1917: Barnes & Noble opens in NYC

1924: Creation of Simon & Schuster, Inc.

1931: Albatross Books begins the mass-market paperback

1933: Creation of Waldenbooks

1935: Creation of Penguin Books Ltd.

1935: Penguin Books commandeers the paperback business

1948: Creation of Georg von Holtzbrinck Publishing Group

1952: Universal Copyright Convention adopted at Geneva

1966: International Organization for Standardization creates ISBN system

1968: Time Inc. acquires Little, Brown, and Co, the first house to become a part of the Hachette Book Group

1968: Longman acquired by Pearson Education

1968: Nigel Newton founds Bloomsbury Publishing

1970: Penguin acquired by Pearson Longman

1971: Borders bookstore founded in Ann Arbor, MI

1979: Rupert Murdoch establishes News Corporation

1989: Collins acquired by News Corp

1990s: The start of eBooks, mostly as PDFs

1995: goes online

1998: Bertelsmann purchases Random House

2000: U.S. home to more than 2,600 publishing houses

2004: Google Print Library Project goes online

2007: Amazon Kindle is introduced

2009: Penguin overtakes Random House as largest trade book publisher in the world

2010: Amazon Kindle eBook sales surpass paperback sales

2011: Borders closes

2012: About 1.2 Million books will be published (up from 290.000 in 2009)


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Jillian Bergsma is a writer and contributing editor for Independent Publisher. She graduated from the University of Michigan with a degree in English. She welcomes any questions or comments on her articles at jbergsma (at)