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The Incredible Resilience of Publishing Fantasy

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In this month's Atlantic, you can find a piece by Peter Osnos, a former Random House editor, making the case that books, like the subject of a Gloria Gaynor song, will survive. He speaks of book publishing's "incredible resilience."

Not so fast, Peter. Incredible fantasy, or even denial is more like it.

Osnos lists some of the challenges that the traditional book publishing model has had to overcome in the past and in today's world: mall-based bookstores; discounting of the price of the bestsellers; monolithic Barnes & Noble superstores eating everyone else's lunch; and now Amazon and the Department of Justice's price-fixing charges against major publishers and Apple.

And yet, he notes, the mood at Book Expo America, the recent book publishing conclave, was "strikingly upbeat." Even independent bookstores, he suggests, are doing better. He concludes, "Book readers have proven their devotion to the written word for centuries. How they will do so in the years ahead remains uncertain in a variety of ways, but books are here to stay."

No, they aren't. At least not the ones published by the dinosaurs that are the major New York publishing houses. Their mood may be cheerful when they strike a public pose, but even on the Titanic, the band kept playing long after the iceberg had upended the ocean liner. That's what's happening now.

Book publishing as we know it is dying. I'm sure the mood at the last few conventions of buggy whip manufacturers were "strikingly upbeat" even as the horseless carriage gained traction in American society. Publishers, and those who defend them, simply don't want to recognize the reality of bringing out books in the Internet era, simply because they really can't imagine what else they'll do for a living once the publishing companies collapse. But collapse they will, and here's why.

Prior to the Internet era, publishers enjoyed a hammerlock on two key factors: the distribution of books, and the marketing of books. If you wanted people to buy your book, you had to get it into bookstores across the country, and only the major publishers had the financial clout to do that. Sure, you could always go to a local printer and then sell copies, one at a time from your garage. But you sure weren't going to develop a national following anytime soon. Authors who self-published their way to glory prior to the Internet era can be counted on the fingers of one hand.

Publishers also maintained a near monopoly on the marketing of books. In the good old days, the major publishers dominated the book review sections of major newspapers and magazines, because of the amount of ads they took out in those publications. Simon & Schuster Books wouldn't necessarily get good reviews, or get reviewed at all, in the New York Times Book Review, just because S&S spent a lot of money on ads there.

But pretty much all of their books would get consideration. Books published by independents, or even by the authors themselves, had virtually no chance of getting attention from book reviewers. Today, newspapers have shrunk or disappeared, and there are far fewer book review sections or even individual book reviews published. There are also far fewer newspaper readers, so the major publishers lost the monopoly they had on influencing readers as to which books to buy.

What's different today? In terms of distribution, anyone with a few hundred dollars and a dream can upload his or her book to a print-on-demand company, Kindle Direct, Smashwords, or a host of competitors, and be happily published within a couple of months for a physical book and for an e-book, within hours. The business world calls this process disintermediation, or the elimination of the middleman. In short, authors no longer need New York.

They no longer need the New York Times Book Review, either. That's because the Internet provides infinite methods to draw attention to one's own book without waiting for reviewers to pay attention. You can buy Google AdWords or other forms of paid search. You can game the Google algorithms through search engine optimization and have the website for your book come up on the first page for relevant searches. You can create a social media campaign using any combination of Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, YouTube, Pinterest, or a dozen other vehicles. You can blog about your book. You can target the niche market for your book far better than New York publishers ever did.

In short, New York publishers have lost the two things that made their business model work: the hammerlocks on distribution and marketing that the Internet has utterly destroyed. So how has New York responded to the challenge? First, by taking the approach that Osnos writes about in his Atlantic article: That all is well; that we've weathered storms before; that before we know it, we'll figure out the whole Internet thing and be back to making scads of money. Or as Michael Korda said back when the Great Recession was at its worst, "We've been through this before and before you know it, we'll all be going out to lunch again."

I'd hold off on those lunch reservations, Mr. Korda. Independent publishers are going to be eating your lunch. In fact, they already have. New York publishers today are no longer interested in the quality of the content of a book. All they're interested in is the marketing plan for the book. Unless you're Dr. Phil, it doesn't matter how great your book is. All that matters to New York publishers is how many people follow you on Twitter, how many friends you have on Facebook, how many people read your blog.

But this begs an important question: If you already have a robust social media presence, or a lengthy speaking schedule, then why do you even need New York at all? Why should you give New York publishers 85 to 90 percent (or more) of the gross income from your book when you can publish it yourself, either by print-on-demand or Kindle Direct or some other means, and keep all the proceeds for yourself?

As a result, the books that New York publishes today are a pale shadow of the quality of books a decade or a generation ago. You see the same thing over and over again. A consultant with a cool new catch phrase or buzzword, but a book that really is a magazine article stretched out over twelve chapters. A sports book about a team or coach that changed a town or a country or the whole planet. A diet book that lets you have your cake and eat it, too. A book on finding a mate, finding a job, or finding God that repackages the advice contained in every book that preceded it.

New York publishers like to pride themselves on the "curating" of information, as if they were Thomas Hoving at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, making the mummies dance. Sorry. They aren't curating anything. They're just looking for good marketing plans. As a result, there's an increasing sense of disappointment on the part of book buyers, who are discovering that the books literally aren't worth the paper they're printed on. And as a result, they're buying fewer and fewer books, which is why you see fewer and fewer bookstores. It's not just Amazon. It's the fact that the product itself is, by and large, lousy.

E-books only compound the misery. If you buy a physical book, even if it's no good, you can still put it on your bookshelf at your home or your office and look smart and imposing. But if you buy an e-book, and you find that all the information the author really has to offer is contained in the first chapter, and the other eleven chapters are just hamburger helper, you don't have anything to show for your purchase.

There's nothing to put on your bookcase. Nothing to make you look smart and imposing. And after a while, people will say the same thing about books that they said about records: Why did I buy the album when I only bought the CD?

Osnos says that independent bookstores are on the rise, but that sounds a lot like the housing recovery that everybody keeps talking about but isn't reflected in home prices anywhere in the United States. Independent booksellers will be the wave of the future, once they figure out how to make you get in your car and drive to them when you can download an e-book without budging from your desk at work or your sofa at home. I'd love to see independent booksellers come back to life, but I'm not holding my breath.

In short, publishing is in a collapse and freefall very much of its own making. New York publishers have had two decades by now to figure out what to do about the Internet, and their reaction has been to stick their heads in the sand and hope that the whole Internet thing will go away. Now they appear to be equating Amazon with the Walden and Dalton book chains of the 1980s. Please. Amazon is everything New York publishers aren't: a well-organized, strategic, future-oriented business. The New York publishers have simply got no game.

I write as one who loves books and who makes his living writing, co-writing, and ghostwriting books. But I'm dealing in reality. Books are turning into buggy whips. And the New York publishers have no one to blame for that but themselves.

The strange thing about the Javits Center, the location of BookExpo America, is that even though it's located in Manhattan, you still feel completely disconnected from the rest of the city. That's because it's all but impossible to catch a cab there. The area surrounding the Javits Center is a no man's land, if you're a suave, urbane midtown type. So the place is the New York equivalent of the Hotel California-you can check out but you can never leave.

Convention centers are not universally known for their attractiveness or warmth. The Javits Center gives you a sense of not only having been built by the lowest bidder but also having been designed by the lowest bidder. There's nothing really wrong with it, but there's not much right with it, either. It's just a big, empty space ready to be filled with and then drained of conventioneers of all stripes. If the structure still exists two thousand years from now, archeologists of the future will puzzle over its purpose, since the building itself will offer zero clues.

Again, how appropriate. Once there was an aesthetic guiding hand in publishing, but that hand is gone, replaced by a grasping mitt that reaches out to find someone, somewhere who will still pay hard dollars for a book.

The two most exciting developments at BookExpo America this year were a novel for adults by J.K. Rowling and the steamy, smut-filled 50 Shades Of Grey. The popularity of these authors was entirely unexpected, really just lottery tickets that publishers discovered in their pockets. That's the new business model of the publishing industry: publish stuff, do no marketing, and cross your fingers. But if that's your business model, you don't need an industry.

And if that's your industry, you don't need a trade show.

If you're going to have a trade show anyway, and have it disconnected from reality, have it at the Javits Center. But good luck catching a cab back to reality.