I've always heard the phrase "may you live in interesting times" described as an old Chinese curse. Wikipedia scoffs, and the source of the phrase really doesn't matter now. It's firmly lodged in our lexicon as a curse, and it's the exact description of the last couple months here in publishing: interesting!
As I look back, I think the interesting times started in 2007 with the AMS bankruptcy, which rolled over PGW and caused a massive fallout that took Avalon down, among others.
Then came the Borders decision to cut back on stock. They called it turning books face out on the shelves. Publishing friends of mine called it 30% returns in a month.
The layoffs at MacAdam/Cage this summer turned out to be just a preview of the layoffs and restructurings that rolled through New York last month: Doubleday, Broadway, Touchstone/Fireside, FSG.
I felt a little bit like Madam Defarge knitting names, but I was just keeping a list of the people who were losing their jobs (but not their heads, thank god!)
I had my best year ever in 2008. I sold more, I sold for higher figures, and my clients sold more books than we did the year before.
Several of my colleagues said the same thing to me about their year. Much of it was said sotto voce, as though, if we said it out loud, we'd be tempting the fates.
There's a lot of reason to be worried about what may come, that's true. This economy isn't going to recover overnight, and when it does recover, there's no guarantee we won't be seeing some radical changes in how books are produced and sold.
My job isn't to sell work to hardcover publishers. My job is to represent authors for the sale of their work. Format changes, production changes won't put me out of a job. Someone needs to be there to make sure the contracts don't give the licensee the rights to your kidney, your kid or your next five novels. Someone needs to be there to make sure the royalty statements are right.
Authors won't be out of a job. Story tellers have been with us since we started communicating with each other, and that's been 50,000 years or so.
Booksellers won't be out of a job. What that job looks like and how/where it happens may change, but someone has to take the money, make the recommendation, keep track of the inventory, hand me my new copy of something wonderful.
Publishers and editors won't be out of a job. No matter how much easier it gets to "publish" there will always be a demand for the book which has value added by the art department (cover and book design), an editor, a marketer and a publicist. How all that looks, and how they operate may change, but those people aren't going away any time soon.
What is going to happen is there are going to be fewer of us. Fewer books published perhaps, but certainly fewer people doing the publishing side of things.
The kinds of books that get published will change too. There's going to be a lot more emphasis on "content" that can be "chunked" ie content that can be sold in different formats, different pieces and at different times. Novels aren't good candidates for chunking; non-fiction is much better and prescriptive non-fiction and educational non-fiction is better.
None of this is going to happen by remote control or by robots. Whatever happens, people who know and love books and embrace the excitement of living in interesting times will be needed.
I intend to be one of them. I hope you will be too.
It's certainly going to be interesting!