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Will Publishing Survive?

A Symposium

February 25, 2001

The internal threat is that of new ownership by profit-hungry conglomerates some two generations removed from the "book people," the lovers of books, who operated a cottage industry on a modest gamble: the willingness to be satisfied with modest profits, unpredictable from year to year. The key question is whether today's servants of the new megamasters, under ever-increasing pressure, will produce enough profit to satisfy greed and, therefore, be allowed to continue doing for a living what they used to do for the pleasure of it.

Or will the demands for ever-larger money surpluses from the endangered cash cow reach a point of self-defeat so that the disaffected conglomerate owners will pull their dollars out and invest them elsewhere? After all, Alfred A. Knopf and Random House were making a profit when the Newhouse family sold them off; just not a profit enormous enough. To make a profit enormous enough to keep the investor-gamblers from pulling out their marbles and "stealing away" might be one additional definition of greed.

But if the conglomerates let the once-greatest super-moneymaking publishing enterprises collapse and fall apart will that be the end of publishing as we have known and loved it? Certainly not. That may be the end of bigness-extravagance for bestsellerdom; the end of bigness will bring a fresh start (it always does). It is already on its way. Smallness is viable; smallness is beautiful. Here is optimistic statistical evidence to support that proposition.

In its Book Review of Dec. 31, 2000, The New York Times reviewed 25 new hardcover books. Eleven of them had been published by major players, for example: Viking, William Morrow, HarperCollins, W.W. Norton and Simon & Schuster. But 14 of them had been brought out by new, small, commercial or subsidized presses such as Catbird, Algonquin, Kensington, Sun & Moon Press, Ivan R. Dee, Yale and the University of Chicago Press. The beggars will become the choosers.

The external threat to traditional publishing comes from the innovators of electronic technologies; they would replace the joy of reading by the speed with which information can be communicated. Their technology is much more important for buying an airline ticket (under pressure of time) than for almost anything else as it reduces the waiting time before passengers are located in their seats on the plane and can begin the old-fashioned novel they brought along for escape reading.

The external threat to traditional publishing is a phony threat, a make-believe Condition of Danger fabricated by the inventors and the would-be producers of book (and journal) substitutes which the big bad wolf says will blow your house down.

The threat is spoken of as a challenge, as in the dropped gauntlet-question: "Will publishers be equal to the challenge?" or "Will publishers be able to survive only if they adopt and adapt to the 'new technology"'? This is the rhetoric of confrontation, contentious and pugnacious. Where is the challenge other than in the minds of the would-be technology-robber barons, those "at war" with tradition (lusting for commercial success)? Pretty self-important stuff. Where are you, George Orwell, when we need you?

Will publishers be equal to the challenge? The old true answer is that nobody knows but no traditional publisher wants to throw his or her money away on this hardly perfected experiment. Their inventors are still trying to recreate The Book. Will they ever achieve that goal? My guess is educated by a short story of the ingenious Jorge Luis Borges. He once imagined the fate of a literary critic arrogant enough to undertake a critical interpretation of "The Divine Comedy." In the course of presenting his explication, he found that his quotations from Dante were growing longer and longer; and the more he quoted from Dante, the shorter his own explanations had to be. In the end, when his long-awaited critique of Dante's masterpiece was published over his own name, it consisted of a complete duplication of "The Divine Comedy," word for word, and nothing else.

My prediction is that the electronic book that will find huge market acceptance and the enthusiastic approval of the reading audience will so perfectly replicate all aspects of the traditional book as we know it and love it now that the two will be indistinguishable and, thus, the challenge will be successfully met.


Morris Philipson recently retired from the University of Chicago Press, which he directed for more than 30 years.


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