Book publishers, R.I.P.?

This piece, by Novella Carpenter, was originally published on, the online arm of The San Francisco Chronicle, on 2/24/09.

In this bad economy, it’s tougher than ever to sell books

I had always thought that books were recession-proof…

…that most people facing a night at home due to budgetary constraints would gladly curl up with a mug of hot water, put on extra socks to keep the nip of their unheated apartment at bay, and read. While the rest of the world frittered away money on outings to movie theaters and bars, surely the frugal-minded (whose numbers are increasing) would choose to spend pennies on the hour soaking up the pages of a good novel?


That’s what I thought, but if you believe panicked grumblings about the book publishing industry, I must be totally wrong: Holiday book sales were abysmal, and most of the major publishing houses have announced job losses in recent months.

One publishing behemoth, HarperCollins, lost 75 percent of its operating income during the first six months of 2008. Over all, the publishing industry has struggled as bookstore sales — and the economy — have slowed drastically.

I feel terrible for those who have lost their jobs in publishing, and I fear for bookstores. But to be honest, the reason I’ve been watching the slow demise of book publishing with an ever-increasing sense of dread has to do with my own personal circumstances. You see, almost two years ago, in the flush of a strong economy, I booked a flight for New York and sold my first book to a major publisher. I remember looking at the publication date: June 2009, and thinking it was impossibly far away. Now, with June just around the corner and galleys of my book out to reviewers and book buyers, IÕm sure my book (my baby!) will suffer horribly.

In the last few weeks, I’ve been investigating the damaged state of publishing, seeking out advice from a wide spectrum of editors, authors and bookstore owners to gauge whether my fears of failure are substantiated. Their advice does not bode well.

"There’s a lurking fear here," said Kate, an editor at a mid-sized publishing house in New York who asked to remain anonymous. "Big accounts aren’t taking as many books. What we’re seeing is people don’t impulse buy books anymore. There’s less pleasure buying now."

Slower book sales mean less money for publishing houses, who then may be forced to downsize the company, laying off editors who acquire books and other positions that aren’t deemed crucial for day to day functionality. Kate, who has worked in book publishing for eight years now, has friends who work for Random House, one of the hardest hit houses. "They have been holding their breath," Kate said, "worrying about whether the axe will come down on them."

Kate went into publishing because she loves books, sharing ideas and working with eccentrically intelligent editors. The pay — she started at $28,000 — is notoriously lousy, especially after factoring in the high cost of living in New York City. But the economic crisis has made her "very glad to be employed," she said.

And yet, her anxiety is unmistakable: She knows that if her books don’t sell, her job security may be compromised. She is confident other cost-savings will be implemented before job cuts take place. Instead of hours-long lunch meetings at high-end restaurants, for example, editors, authors and agents now settle for coffee or in-office meetings. As for the future, Kate’s publishing company isn’t going to be acquiring any frivolous titles.

"None of us know when the market will recover," she said. "But right now, I’m very worried about my books — books that I believe in. They are going to be selling into a terrible climate."

I shyly mentioned my own (probably doomed) book, and asked her for advice.

"The best advice for today, and really in any financial climate, is to be fanatical and motivated to promote your book," she said. "Do as many events as possible. Become a shameless self-promoter."

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