Companies & Industries

The end of the book business


(Photo: Charles Sykes/AP)

I loved the ’90s. In the new digital age, everything was going to be possible, and everything was going to be awesome. Sure, some industries would be disrupted, but the resulting utopia would be more than worth it. “Have you ever sent a fax from the beach?” asked Tom Selleck in those AT&T commercials. “You will.” And he was sort of right, except for the fax part. Miracles were indeed nigh.

There are a few memorable change-themed books from those years that defined that time for me. One of them was Frank Ogden’s The Last Book You’ll Ever Read, notable not just for its breathlessly loony take on what the next century held for us, but also for including a complete digital copy of itself on a floppy disk stuck to the inside back cover. “On a cold, wet Canadian night,” he once told the Los Angeles Times, “there’s nothing like crawling into bed with your laptop and curling up with a good disk.” He got that one right, except for the disk part. In a future where so much information was being created at such a furious pace, it would indeed be awesome to liberate it from the medieval prison of ink and paper. When publishers were finally free of the atom, pundits agreed, content would be king.

But as is often true of utopian futures, this one hasn’t gone as planned, and autumn brought us a fresh crop of glum proof. The book business continued preparing for its own extinction, as another independent Canadian publisher, Douglas & McIntyre, entered bankruptcy protection while two of the remaining global giants, Penguin Books and Random House, pondered merging—if only in the vain hope of standing up to Amazon. The periodical business was no cheerier, as revenue-starved Canadian newspapers and magazines prepared to launch paywalls with the kind of enthusiasm usually reserved for a colonoscopy. You’d have thought that the people who own all that royal content would be lighting cigars with hundred-dollar bills by now. Instead, the whole business of selling ideas has acquired a whiff of desperation. Nobody reads anymore, publishing insiders say, and if they do, they aren’t willing to pay for it.

Blaming the consumer is only the media and publishing industry’s most recent mistake. Purveyors of the written word are languishing in a bed that they themselves have been making for almost two decades. Each of them screwed up the future in their own special way, mind you. Book publishers fetishized the physical object, and then offset the risk tied up in all that paper by taking no chances with whose words they printed on it. Magazines and newspapers, meanwhile, became obsessed with counting links and eyeballs, the words on the screen being incidental except as bait for mouse clicks valued in thousandths of a cent (and, journalistically speaking, often overpriced even then). One denied the future while the other got distracted by the box it came in. But both of them made the same tragic mistake: they failed to see where their real value lay. Consumers didn’t decide content wasn’t worth paying for; they learned it from observation.

It’s a cautionary tale about coping with a disrupted marketplace. The secret isn’t to heroically defend the status quo, nor is it to mindlessly embrace the shiny and new. And it certainly isn’t to passively wait and see what happens. The secret to coping with disruption is an urgent, honest appraisal of why you exist, of what you have that cannot be replaced or synthesized. Ogden’s warning was that his was the last book we would ever read—not the last written word. All those years ago, when everything was still possible, book publishers might have sold authors instead of books, and magazines and newspapers might have done the same with journalists and commentators. Back then, only a few loony early adopters would have objected to paying to read. The rest of us would have learned that the value of content is independent of how it’s delivered, while the marketplace identified quality and made it profitable. And that really would have been awesome.

Bruce Philp is a brand strategy consultant and author of Consumer Republic, winner of the 2012 National Business Book Award