What’s Threatening Book Publishing in Canada?

By Gordon Lockheed | May 12, 2011

It is common knowledge that book publishing is in a state of poor health not just in Canada but across the world. There are hand-wringing reports from arts journalists about what this means, along with the predictably overconfident business analyses in the financial sections of the newspapers that talk up alternate technologies and crow about how the market will take care of everything. Most book publishers merely shake their heads and offer dark looks when asked what’s wrong, and what can be done. They simply don’t know what to do.

The common symptoms are decreased sales of books, and the threat of a radical shift to the Internet and electronic reading devices. Evidence suggests that book publishing is experiencing a more rapid-than-predicted technology shift to electronic reading devices (along with the relative improvement of both electronic and paper piracy techniques, generally coming from China). Matching this is an apparent sea change in public reading habits and preferences that has an uncertain trajectory, and has book-sellers and writers as well as book publishers in a state of panic.

Less frequently mentioned as a malady is the domination of the book market by chain bookstores that demand profit-killing discounts and exercise overly swift turnover of titles, often while imposing fees for giving books face-out exposure. Largely because of the chains, book publishers have experienced increased problems in predicting which fiction titles will succeed, along with a general narrowing of “acceptable” subject matter; a non-fiction focus on “celebrity expertise” that shortens shelf life (because celebrity is inherently short-lived); a merchandising-induced pressure toward rigidified genres;  and marketing departments that arrogate editorial choices. These risk-averse mercantile behaviors each, in different ways, promote editorial risk aversion, which in turn suppresses creative courage amongst writers, along with the public and expert cultural discourse which is the lifeblood of book culture. Sounds like a crisis to me.

While all of these global difficulties pertain to Canadian bookselling and publishing, Canada’s book publishers face special conditions.  The most important of these conditions is the existence of Chapters/Indigo, which has managed to secure an unprecedented share of the book market. The effect of Chapters/Indigo’s extreme and sometimes capricious trade practices (discussed in a recent dooneyscafe.com article here) has inflicted an intensified version of the current global malaise on Canadian writers and publishers.

Canadian publishing, particularly its cohort of small and regionally-oriented publishers, survives only with subsidies and trade protections that level the field with American and British publishers, which enjoy larger markets and the major economy-of-scale advantages that go with size. Today, Canadian publishers are experiencing, along with subsidy erosion, a weakening of governmental will that has undermined vital copyright and market protections while offering little help in dealing with technology change. The small, regionally-based publishers are now more or less shut out of conventional sales avenues by Chapters/Indigo trade practices and by the destruction and/or demoralization of independent bookstores across the country. One can foresee the disappearance of a sizeable percentage of regional publishers in the next five years: they simply have no way of selling their books in sufficient quantity to survive.  Several larger publishers, meanwhile,  have closed (or are threatening to) their doors or contracting operations, sometimes as victims of Chapters/Indigo’s trade practices, and sometimes as a result of their offshore or American corporate owners simply choosing to close branch plant editorial and distribution operations as a cost-consolidation measure within what they see as a shrinking market.

1.) Technology Change:

The greatest single difficulty book publishers face in the arena of technology change lies in how to respond to electronic reading devices. The reality is that this is a technology that already works and will see substantial improvement in the next several years, and is likely to eventually subsume anywhere from 30 to 70 percent of book sales as the reading devices improve and become ubiquitous.  It seems logical to suppose that the changeover will be particularly rapid amongst younger readers, and that within a decade, educational reading, at all levels, will be shifted (by youth preference and by the institutional economies of scale possible) to electronic reading devices. The savings possible in the public education sector alone dictates a certain inevitability, even in primary and middle schools, given chronic budget shortages within the school system and the growing political acceptance of the philosophy of user-pay: Parents will be forced to buy electronic readers for their children, and to download school textbooks instead of having them provided free.

The difficulties that this will present to publishers over the next decade are substantial. Key issues include the possibility of market consolidations by the existing major retailers in capturing download portals for electronic readers; the erosion of conventional editorial and distribution economies of scale; the possible emergence of both pirate and “Indie” distribution networks;  and a price structure on electronic books that is economically untenable to both publishers and writers.

How the advance of electronic readers will proceed isn’t assured, nor is where its uses are going to be most attractive to consumers, whether private or institutional.  Mass-market fiction, pulp fiction, How-To, Self Help and reference materials would appear to be logical candidates for quick transition, although it is probably worth remembering that a sizable percentage of self-help book buyers don’t actually read, and get whatever help they want from the conspicuous placement of their self-help volumes on the coffee table. But there are significant data on the other side: the Oxford English Dictionary, for instance, is no longer published in a paper edition, and there are contradictory theories about the adaptability of very young readers.

It doesn’t all have to be bad news for book publishers, however, provided that they’re willing to act decisively. Much of the electronic market has yet to be settled, and opportunities exist if book publishers adapt swiftly and accurately. Differing formats and download platforms haven’t yet been firmly settled as the electronic reading devices proliferate and improve, and ground-floor opportunities remain open. What is clear is that sellers completely dominate the download platforms and electronic formatting, it will be catastrophic to book publishers and writers, particularly if equitable pricing structures don’t emerge. Given the myopia of contemporary business practices, there’s no reason to believe that such a structure is likely to be created.

2.) Cultural Change:

The cultural changes that are occurring in the book trade involve reading habits and preferences, and are largely, but not entirely, driven by technology “advances” that may or may not be reader-friendly. For instance, it isn’t conclusively established that people are reading less than they were 20 years ago. What clearly is changing is what they read, and how, where and why they read, and how reading preferences break down demographically. Common sense suggests that younger people more readily read more on video terminals than their elders, and that generally, reading habits are becoming more myopic and topical. But the seeming corollary conclusion—that paper is the preferred reading medium of an aging and shrinking demographic, and that their cultural reading habits are doomed—likely isn’t as certain as the Internet futurists predict. The reality is almost certainly far more complex, but since the generalities seem to pertain, nobody really knows what to do about it, and anxiety therefore reigns. The rapid and enormous industry built around electronic gaming—already larger in dollar value than the book publishing industry—is a cultural and economic wild-card that no one really understands either as a cultural or economic phenomenon, and its relationship to reading and education has yet to be examined except by dismissive partisans on both sides.

Another barely-examined cultural change has been the withering away, over the last decade, of book reviewing—as most dramatically reflected in the disappearance across North America of stand-alone book review sections in major newspapers and the complete disappearance in Canada’s newspapers of full-time staff book reviewers. That’s only the tip of the iceberg. Newspaper review sections have shrunk, and the reviews that are published are usually truncated. Key long-form review magazines like Books In Canada and Saturday Night have folded, and while some of what they once did has been replaced by online sources, most are unedited, and more than a few are little more than blogs. Trying to replace the longstanding discursive ecology with merchandising and the sort of half-baked fan reviews that appear on Amazon.com simply hasn’t worked, and won’t. The breakdown of reviewing has damaged the book publishing industry far more than is generally recognized: it has pushed books to the margins of cultural discourse, and this is a problem that book publicists simply do not have a practical answer to.

3.) Mercantile Change:

Also poorly understood are the intangible changes that the risk-averse merchandising habits of the bookselling chains have wreaked on both book publishers and book writers, and how much more damaging they are in Canada because the virtual monopoly permits Chapters/Indigo book buyers to effectively dictate what books will be published. It can be argued that the situation has led to a de facto “prize culture” which I examined recently here.

The reality is that with the current trade and merchandising practices in place, both prize-focused and culturally “responsible” publishing are  suicidal in the long term. Prize culture is a pyramid scheme, and thus not viable for long, and if present trends intensify, there will be no way to sell books that “merely” have cultural value. This is not an invitation to roll over and let the market decide. Trying to predict what the market wants instead of figuring out what ought to happen with a realistic view of what the circumstances permit will merely delay the suicide point. Book publishing has been a culturally central activity in modern civilization, but it may well be in the process of being transformed into a very minor market segment within the entertainment industry. Any book publisher unconcerned about such a transformation probably ought to get out of the business now, because he or she is going to lack the energy and élan to effectively resist what is occurring, the pressures for which will accelerate in the next decade.

Can Anything Be Done?

Sure.  But nothing is going to work until publishers, writers and booksellers admit that technology and cultural changes have already occurred, and that “business as usual” is not an option.  All three groups need to make an active commitment to figuring out the new parameters they’re going to be working with, and not merely the purely commercial ones. The impetus, if they need one, is that this is a situation in which publishers, writers and booksellers all stand to lose their livelihoods if they don’t get it right. As it stands, neither the recognition that a mutual crisis exists, nor the will to cooperate has emerged.

In the February 10, 2011 New York Review of Books, longtime Random House editor Jason Epstein provided a useful history of how the present predicament evolved in the U.S.  Most of what he says is applicable to Canada.  Epstein outlined the dysfunctionality of American publishing, comparing the current practices of book publishing (generously) with the ritual potlatching of the aboriginal peoples of the Northwest Coast, which he identifies, correctly, as a highly organized form of economic and cultural hysteria. A more apt but less generous comparison could have been made to the cargo cults of Micronesia.

“Despite this irrationality,” Epstein optimistically concludes, “writers continue to submit and editors continue to publish season after season the normal quota of distinguished books, which readers buy and read as they always have. That this ancient activity survives under difficult conditions testifies to the persistence of storytelling as an indispensable human activity, one that has outlived far worse hazards—the burning of the library at Alexandria, the bonfires of Hitler, Stalin, Mao, and others…

“Today’s publishing industry,” he continues, “including its major retailers, did not incur these distortions by rational choice but by adapting under pressure to external conditions, while the industry’s mainly passive response to the rise of digital technology over the past quarter-century has blocked innovation. Should the retail market deteriorate further, publishers may at last be forced to heed the digital imperative, consolidate their lists, and sell directly to consumers. Some publishers may experiment by setting up their own freestanding digital start-ups but my guess is that a separate, self-financed, digital industry will coexist with and over time replace many functions of the traditional firms as the logic and the economies of digital technology increasingly assert themselves. For example, the rapidly growing self-publishing industry, relying on print-on-demand technology, has created infrastructure that groups of sophisticated editors might adapt to create their own lists for worldwide sale online while arranging with traditional distributors to market physical inventory to traditional retail accounts.”

That, alas, is the optimistic view.  Epstein takes the grand view: that the great river of human expression may change course, and that its flow may ebb and surge, but, well, it’s a great and permanent river. Jaron Lanier, in You Are Not a Gadget, suggests that fundamentalists of the digital economy don’t see it the same way. They see human expression as a granular ocean of data, and individual authority and believe that books are obsolete, about to be transformed into a collectivized noosphere, and with a “global book” replacing both writers and individual books.

I’ll come back to whether that’s a threat—and what the dimensions of the threat are—later. Here, let’s make two provisional assumptions: a.) that individual expression and understanding can’t be replaced without a vast penalty in specificity and, yes, understanding, and b.) that the cultural purpose of book publishing is to clarify individual expression and understanding (or, in plainer English, to edit books so writers make sense, and to then format the books, print them and disseminate them to the interested public). If we accept those two assumptions, then we must also accept that between the eclipse of  “cultural” development by purely market-grounded decision-making, shifts in reading technology and alterations in reading habits, book publishing is in trouble, and that the trouble isn’t minor: this is an economic crisis for book publishers and writers, and it is a cultural crisis for all of us.

Responding to this proactively will require courage. Publishers and writers need to accept the eventuality of a 50-50 or greater split of electronic to paper, remembering that the important question is when it will happen, not if it will. In late January 2011, According to PC World “Amazon announced that digital books were outselling their traditional print counterparts for the first time ever on its site, with an average of 115 Kindle editions being sold for every 100 paperback editions.” Whether or not this is a planted piece of semi-information doesn’t really matter. If it isn’t true now, it will be with the next year or two at Amazon, and eventually across the entire bookselling sector. Sony has sold out its PR650 e-reader 6 months before the next generation is due, and third party sources estimate the sale of Amazon’s Kindle are in the 4-5 million range, and that even though only 650,000 book titles are available for download within Amazon’s proprietary format, that number will grow rapidly. It would appear that Amazon is the current leading player, and that they will likely remain so for the foreseeable future. On balance, their dedicated e-reader is superior to the competition, and its major flaws (such as the inability to reference page numbers from the printed version, thus making it useless for research and reference purposes) are likely to be corrected in future updates unless Internet fundamentalists hold ascendancy. Most e-readers are being improved on a more-than-yearly basis.

Since electronic books don’t require a bookstore or warehouse, the critical points are the formatting of the books, and the sales portal and/or download platforms. One thing is abundantly clear: whoever controls the electronic portals will eventually end up controlling 50 percent of the book trade, and probably the most profitable portions, given the direct absence of overheads—no paper and no bookstores. Whoever controls the download portals will also end up dominating—and dictating to—the publishers and writers in much the same way that Chapters/Indigo now dominates and dictates to conventional book publishing in Canada.

At the moment, there are a half-dozen major download portals, each with varying numbers of titles available. About 20 download formats exist already, most of them proprietary, and all with flaws. In the best scenario the number of portals will grow and the number of formats will shrink, but neither eventuality is a sure thing.

Book publishers, in cooperation with writers and their organizations, should jointly investigate the feasibility of bypassing the retail electronic chains by setting up a Canadian Internet Book website that can sell all Canadian titles: Call it The Canadian Electronic Publisher, or whatever. Understanding the various existing formats to determine which is best is a vital part of this investigation, along with a clear understanding of what problems need to be solved by the format to make it dominant. Figuring out how to retain pagination and formatting from the original print publication would be a given because ensuring the cross-reference compatibility from electronic to paper format would be a serious advance on existing formats, as would text-capture software that would permit the capture of blocks of text for quotation that coincides with existing standards for scholarly and journalistic activities. (2 paragraphs, or 300 words). Current arguments that allow such a technology will invite piracy are nearsighted and silly.

Writers and publishers should also lobby government to help finance the cost of creating uniform electronic versions of both backlist, present and future titles for the entire range of Canadian publishers.  The impetus for this is that this could become a vital lifeline for the survival of regional publishers, and a way to avoid control of Canadian cultural publishing by offshore multimedia corporations. This may precipitate a skirmish with Chapters/Indigo and Amazon and thus should be done by a covering organization to avoid personal retaliations.

One possible way to make this venture both politically and economically palatable is to set up the backlist formatting and download platform as an adjunct to the National Library, which would split the proceeds with publishers and writers on an equitable formula to be determined.  If the program is vigourous enough it could constitute a major contribution to the funding of the national library, and provide a simila bonus to Canadian literary culture.  Given current government attitudes, this venture is unlikely to be successful, so private sector alternatives need to be investigated, and quickly.

The impermanence of electronic data, and rapidly changing database formats likewise need to be addressed. Books have existed in relatively stable formats for more than 500 years. No electronic format has yet to survive two decades, and the recording mediums employed are inherently unstable, unable to resist decay for even a single decade.

Not doing something innovative about these and other issues now will almost certainly be catastrophic in the long run and quite possibly in the near future. The most pressing issues—and opportunities–are purely economic: if a portion of the book trade is going electronic, the surest way to profits in that area is to find a way to cut out the non-essential middlemen. The joint publisher/writer committee should also prepared to petition government to seek other ways of leveling the economic playing field in the incoming technology shift toward electronic book publishing.

Below is a very short checklist of needed actions. It is not meant to be comprehensive:

1.)    Everyone involved in the production side of the book trade needs to get their heads around the new technologies to a degree of sophistication that won’t be comfortable or easy to achieve.

2.)    Writers and publishers—and their support organizations—need to learn to cooperate. Key points of necessary cooperation are:

a.) lobbying coherently for specific improvements to e-reader technologies that will protect the integrity of the original publication and make reference and scholarly use possible;

b.) developing technology/software solutions to reduce and/or prevent piracy. As it is, if a publisher gets a best-seller, it can now be cloned and reproduced within hours of publication, whether in print or electronic format;

c.) developing encoding formats toward a.) standardization, and b.) copyright protection;

d.) developing inexpensive methods of backlist formatting (there’s substantial profits to be made here, even if all that’s used is PDF formats);

e.)  developing economic scenarios for a 30-70, 50-50 and 70-30 kindle/paper split and understanding their consequences.  For instance, with a 50/50 split, editorial costs stay the same, formatting costs increase either slightly or a lot (depending on how many download formats have to be produced);  production and shipping charges drop substantially. Currently, no one has a clear notion of where the break-even points lie, how to prevent the new structure from sacrificing editorial quality, and what price structures are possible for electronic versions that guarantee adequate income to publishers and writers;

f.)  investigating the possibility of creating and publicizing an independent  web-based Canadian review journal that actually pays its reviewers properly, and instead of going the B.C. BookWorld local booster route, makes the website content open to controversy and contrary ideas. One way to fund it might be to tie it to the Canadian book download platform–again, at arms length.

Then there’s the issue of what digital fundamentalists call The Global Book, and its implications. Digital fundamentalists, first of all, do exist, and their numbers and their economic and cultural influence are no joke.  They have a plan for literate culture that is worth articulating, because it isn’t science fiction and it does have hugely transformative implications. Digitals have already radically altered both the economics and the culture of contemporary music in ways that have impoverished individual musicians and sharply limited their creativity—while enriching a single corporation: Apple, with it’s I-tunes.

The best source I’ve found on digital fundamentalism is Jaron Lanier.  Lanier is a virtual reality pioneer and musician who has held prestigious and often cutting-edge posts across the digital industry since the 1980s. At a glance, he might seem like an odd choice to be defending books and singular authorship, but he is perfectly positioned to elucidate the apocalyptic elements of the digital “revolution”. For the purposes of the subject I’m treating, his warnings about cloud computing, the emergence of a “global book” and his view of the internet controversy over “open culture” are as relevant as they are articulate.

Cloud computing, for those not yet familiar with the term, is both an already-accomplished fact and a self-serving myth.  The engineers of Internet2 have found ways to create dynamic databases that have extension and speed barely dreamed of in the 1990s. These “clouds” are quasi-virtual, created in part by multiple servers, and to a lesser extent by the linking of individual PCs. It’s why, when you’re accessing a public website, you’ll see it accessing multiple data sources: one for the data you want, another for advertising, a third to link them together in the website. Depending on your bias, it signals the enhanced security (notwithstanding the Sony Play Station database catastrophe) and efficiency of decentralized and enlarged databases, which mainly serve commercial purposes, or is a response to the growth of data complexity and the growing insecurity of smaller scale computers. Internet fundamentalists see it as moving things closer to what they call “The Singularity”: the apocalyptic takeover of reality as the cloud becomes alive and makes human beings and their individual intelligence at once immortal, infinitely connected to every other intelligence (provided that they’re online)—and obsolete.

Where all this arrives on the shoulders of writers and book publishers lies in the cloud’s connection to the “noosphere (the so-called hive mind of the Internet,  which is said to be greater than the sum of its parts. Lanier argues that it is simply a totality, similar to that of medieval Christianity or Maoist China, governed by ideology, likely to be less than the sum of its parts, and a leaden curb on human creativity.  “A fashionable idea in technical circles is that quantity not only turns into quality at some extreme of scale, but also does so according to principles we already understand. Some of my colleagues think a million, or perhaps a billion, fragmentary insults will eventually yield wisdom that surpasses that of any well-thought-out essay, so long as sophisticated secret statistical algorithyms recombine the fragments. I disagree. …quantity can overwhelm quality in human expression.” (p. 49, You Are Not A Gadget)

He’s even more precise about the implications of the noosphere on books:  “The approach to digital culture I abhor would indeed turn all the world’s books into one book…It might start to happen in the next decade or so. Google and other companies are scanning library books into the cloud in a massive Manhattan Project of cultural digitization. What happens next is what’s important. If the books in the cloud are accessed via user interfaces that encourage mashups of fragments that obscure the context and authorship of each fragment there will be only one book. This is what happens today with a lot of content; often you don’t know where a quoted fragment from a news story came from, who wrote a comment, or who shot a video. A continuation of the present trend will make us like various medieval religious empires, or like North Korea, a society with a single book. …Any singular, exclusive book, even the collective one accumulating in the cloud, will become a cruel book if it is the only one available.” (p. 46)

I invite you to read Lanier’s book and decide for yourself whether he’s overestimating the threat. What concerns me here are two civil institutions of Western Civilization that the noosphere and Global Book will profound affect, if they aren’t already doing so: The rules of evidence in science, scholarship and civil and criminal justice, and the Rule of Law.

A Global Book will not, by definition, operate by the rules of evidence, which demand logical argument supported by citation to any and all corroborative evidence and/or conclusive supposition and statement. If John Doe is a rapist, physical evidence and corroborating testimony must be profferred under strict rules: a mashup of uncited suppositional testimony will not suffice unless what we want to achieve is a lynching. Keeping evidential sight-lines and pathways regulated and accurate is the basis of not just intellectual life, but of both Western science and its judicial apparatuses. Without the rules of evidence to guide thought, we have ideological science and the insane political economies that convulsed the twentieth century: Nazi Fascism and Soviet-style Bolshevism. Without the Rule of Law we’re more likely to get the Spanish Inquisition with 500 channels and free Internet porn to opiate us than evolution toward deeper and freer being.

Let me bring this swiftly back to one of the practical implications we’re already seeing: Amazon.com’s reluctance to retain pagination and to impose reference software for its Kindle, and whether or not this is a software weakness soon to be rectified or an ideological stance deriving from its programmers’ belief in the desirability of noosphere and the Global book. I don’t know which it is, and I’ve been unable to get anyone at Amazon to clarify it. That Jaron Lanier calls Internet fundamentalists “Internet Maoists” tells you which way he thinks this is likely to go. At very least, it suggests that there are deeper currents to the crisis in book publishing than meet the eye, and that they are not going to be solved by refining business plans, improving sales and distribution apparatuses, and meeting the challenges of incoming technology with better widgets.

4600 words, May 12, 2011


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