Time for publishers and booksellers to get back to basics

This article was written by David Didriksen, owner of Willow Books & Cafe, Acton, Mass.,

These are hard times for our publishing brethren, and by extension, for booksellers as well. Large publishers have been placing a moratorium on new titles, laying off workers, firing executives and scrambling to downsize. The lay-offs are likely to continue and booksellers are the ones most likely to feel the aftershock.

Part of the problem may be evolutionary--an industry bloated by years of inefficiency, cranking out too many inferior products, while failing to leverage the best assets in its portfolio: backlist titles that continue to be ignored. Meanwhile, some publishers have commoditized themselves into a corner, trying to live solely off of imagined blockbusters, mostly for the benefit of huge mass market chains and Amazon. Over-reliance on bestsellers, which retailers have had to sell at near cost, worked fine as long as the economy was in good shape. Now, however, the world has changed.

It is indeed unfortunate that a number of jobs will be lost in the coming months, but perhaps there is a positive side to an industry undergoing a painful contraction. Just as a "shake out" of the retail sector a few years ago resulted in a stronger set of survivors, publishers could benefit from new efficiencies and creative new initiatives. Publishers might even rediscover the intrinsic value of backlist sales, a once robust segment, recently abandoned in the pursuit of the "big" book. There is still plenty of gold to be found there, if publishers ever decide to mine it. Real bookstores--both independent and chain--can sell backlist all day long. Mass merchants care only about what turns. And Amazon is getting so powerful, it may someday wonder whether it needs publishers at all.

Booksellers and publishers once acted as partners in the book industry, developing authors and promoting backlist titles, before the lure of quick bucks in mass merchandising channels changed the relationship. Now may be a good time to get back to basics and do business together again if we all want to survive. Mass merchants will likely cut back on book sections at the first signs of underperformance (or as soon as the co-op payments dry up). Bookstores will stay the course.

As the restructuring goes forward, we can only hope that publishers will return to their roots and work with booksellers to enhance backlist opportunities and develop new authors. If that could happen, it would be the best present our industry could wish for during this challenging holiday season.