Imagine an industry where seventy percent of your products lose money. You knit ten different types of wool socks. Seven don’t sell enough to cover the cost of the wool, while the other three are so popular they’re capable of keeping the whole enterprise afloat. This is the basic math of book publishing, a business model that’s evolved over the course of the last couple centuries and has alternately baffled, unnerved, and outraged the long list of hugely intelligent people who have given their lives to it. The “worst business in the world,” Doubleday’s cofounder Walter Hines Page called it, and even in flush times, the refrain is usually the same. It’s hard to think of another industry so perpetually prone to grumbling and self-hatred. As early as 1896, Publisher’s Weekly wondered whether the book business was “A Doomed Calling”—a question that, by the late nineteenth century, had already become a cliché.
Recently, the doomsaying has reached a fever pitch over the threat posed by e-books. Publishers fear that companies like Amazon will erode their margins by setting unreasonably low prices for digital books. Even more frightening is the possibility that the handful of bestselling authors who keep the industry solvent will start self-publishing through digital platforms, leaving publishers out in the cold. The apocalypse of American book publishing, after a hundred or so years of false alarms, seems finally to have arrived.Read the rest at Lapham’s Quarterly‘s Roundtable.