This post, from Mike Shatzkin, originally appeared on the Idea Logical Blog on 7/11/10.
Upton Sinclair famously said that “it is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon his not understanding it.”
I keep putting facts about publishing’s commercial realities that I think most of the smart people running things accept together with forecasts for the future that I think most of the smart people running things accept and coming up with a view of where we’ll be sometime pretty soon that I find very few people will accept.
We have definitely passed what Michael Cader has dubbed “peak bookstores” in the US. Shelf space for books is probably dropping faster than the number of stores as book retailers look for other items to keep their customers more satisfied and give those items space previously devoted to books. And shelf space available for publishers who don’t own bookstores is dropping faster than that because Barnes & Noble, the leading provider of bookshelf display space, is aggressively sourcing their own product both to improve their margins and to develop proprietary product not available to their competitors.
The fate of bookstores is an existential question for today’s book publishers (not to mention today’s booksellers!) Although it isn’t often stated this starkly, the core value proposition for the biggest trade book publishers is that they can put books on shelves. All of the rest of what they do (and often do quite well) — selection, editing, development, packaging, and marketing — is fungible. And usually not scaleable.
A big publisher and an agent would add to this list the “banking” function: putting up the money in advance for the author to write the book. But I’d argue that is also fungible (there’s lots of money out there looking for investment opportunities) so the publisher’s opportunity to be that banker is also dependent on the publisher’s ability to put books on retail shelves.