Tuesday, 6 May 2008

The Dark Days Aren’t Coming, They’re Here

In a week which has seen a growing upsurge against traditional industry practices and a realisation by retailers and publishers that we cannot continue running the book publishing industry the way it has traditionally ran for the last 50 years, calls have been made from established figures for a change. The failure to embrace new lines of production and new printing methods and formats is hardly news in the publishing world, but now it would appear hands are being forced through other issues such as the rising cost of paper and escalating fuel prices. CEO Carolyn Reidy at Simon & Schuster has been reported as saying that the escalating prices have made Simon & Schuster “take a fresh look at the way we do business. Our basic costs are up dramatically." With estimates of rises in costs between 10 and 40% this year (so far) it is obvious that something will have to give. The question is what. Will these lions, these demigods of publishing finally address the way they do business or will they take the easy route and pass the charge down the line to the consumer.

Robert Miller, the founder of Walt Disney’s ‘Hyperion Books’ now heads up a new imprint at HarperCollins, he sees an area that is the bane for publishers, which is not only crazy but in this day and age, unacceptable environmentally mental. Figures from the US show that in 2005 there were approximately 1.5 billion books published and distributed to retail outlets. Out of these a staggering 465 million were returned as unsold. What does this tell us about the industry? It tells us that there is a cartel between publishers and the retail industry that is willing to absorb a system of waste and that something is drastically wrong with the process of buying books. Just for a moment stop and think about the sheer amount of energy spent in producing the books, transporting the books, having them sit around in stores being heated and cooled with air conditioning for months on end and then being returned unsold due to little or no demand. Sadly the story does not end with the books being returned. From this point books can then be shipped off to remainder outlets or pulped, both are practices which expand a heck of a lot of energy and resources.

Interestingly this week Faber also announced that it was going to reprint its ‘Classics’ line using Print on Demand (POD) technology. Is this a dry run for the shape of things to come? POD is certainly a leaner and greener method of getting books into store. Congratulations Faber, but what of this archaic returns policy. Why do retailers overstock and spend so much of its buying power leaving precious little left to experiment with indie publishers and small publishers. It is partly this short-sightedness which is leading to many shoppers turning to the internet. April Hamilton, author and publisher, describes the lamentable situation in the USA in her latest blog post – No,Mr. Murdoch : that was a movie, this is a book. “Thanks to over two decades of consolidation, the U.S. publishing industry is now lorded over by just six media mega conglomerates, Viacom, Time Warner and News Corp. among them. If these names sound familiar, it’s because they belong to the artistic visionaries who brought us The Moment of Truth TV show, virtually every Adam Sandler movie ever made, People magazine and much more of the same. They’ve made a lucrative science of cranking out the media equivalent of junk food: over-packaged, over-hyped, disposable distractions that never turn out to be quite as satisfying as they looked in the ad, and sometimes even leave you feeling a little guilty.”

Hamilton’s point is that this is an industry that refuses to face some harsh realities that it should be addressing. At present it is happy to churn out a billon point five books and see nearly 500 million returned and then bleat about rising costs. The responsibility lies with every single area within the industry to address over-stocking, address over-printing and address itself, before owning a book becomes a dirty habit, something to be ashamed of. Imagine, you are the owner of the latest hyped blockbuster, but in this green world word gets out about the carbon footprint, the waste of resources due to mass production, the gallons of fuel spent driving those books back and forth to the retailer only to see millions of copies burned or pulped in the greatest funeral pyre since the dark days of the Second World War. Maybe you would turn to an eBook rather than be seen holding a copy while sitting on a bus or travelling on a train, or you would open a Kindle and sneer at the person sitting opposite holding a carbon relic of the past. Books are a thing of beauty, a physical bond develops between reader and storyteller, but can the world and the industry continue to afford such a waste. POD provides a book on demand; it is as simple as that. If there is no demand there is no sales, which is sad but at least there is no waste.

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