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Publishing's Conventional Assumptions Fail

February 26, 2009

If publishing hopes to save its collective, long-term butt, it better set its sites on the tens of millions who don’t get all warm and fuzzy at the thought of reading.  

222 million adults live and buy in America.  Last week, the nation’s top 100 best selling books combined sold to only .6% of the that population–and that’s assuming that the sales figures represent one adult per book (which isn’t even remotely likely).  That’s not quite “Rambo III” on opening weekend.  Even if we bounce out of a recession and that number doubled, will publishing really be making progress?

Sara Nelson, formerly of Publisher’s Weekly, recently editorialized about the future of books, valiently holding out hope that book publishing will survivethe spectre of the current economy…and couldn’t have been more wrong.

readers in America

We may need to change the format or the frequency or the style of what we publish, but people will not stop publishing or reading, no matter what.  We have to keep finding new ways to reach the thousands of people who feel the same way we do.  Book people are book people are book people, after all—and no amount of recession or depression or worry will ever change that fact. (PW, January 26,2009, page 3).

Ms. Nelson, who is highly respected and is often quite right, missed it here.  If we publishers get through this economic drought, which is costing many of us jobs, what do we do when it’s over?  Go back to 3% growth (in a good year) and be happy about it?

As long as our target audience is the same target audience as the one before the recession, the answer is: Yes, we can probably expect 3% in a good year because we keep making babies, but the whining will continue.  

The fallacy of Ms. Nelson’s thinking starts with bad assumptions:  in fact, lots of people have stopped reading and that list gets longer every year.  That’s publishing’s present and future customer base evaporating with the graduation rates.  Publishing as we’ve come to know it will certainly NOT survive if we keep trying to reach “book people”–the people who love to read and can’t be held back…who “feel the same way we do.”  All the “thousands” of them.

Only if the book industry creates a new base of readers–rather than continuing to compete for a bigger slice of the same market pie–can it hope to come out of a recession prepared for the next era.


© David P. Leach and Consequential Value, 2009

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