A Lesson in Foresight and Planning

January 14th, 2005 · No Comments
by Booksquare

Richard Curtis continues his series on publishing in the 21st century with a review of how the paperback industry imploded in the mid-1990’s. What many perceived as streamlining and efficiency actually adversely impacted the entire publishing industry. As they say, not bad for a day’s work.

Curtis details the previous manner of distributing books to illustrate the impact the change in distribution procedures had. What was once a personalized-for-your-community business became a numbers game — high score won. The industry thought the change would affect genre titles (those expendable little creatures), but:

Although a growing number of traditional bookstores stocked mass-market paperbacks, it was the wholesale distribution network that fueled the huge growth of the book business in the last quarter of the twentieth century, spawning a thriving industry and a generation of bestselling authors. Even when those authors graduated to hardbacks, paperback reprints of their books drove sales overall. In the late 1980s and early ‘90s, mass-market paperback revenue made the difference between feast and famine for hardcover publishers. Income from romance fiction alone contributed 25% of the cash flowing into the trade book industry.

Smart publishing executives recognized how heavily they depended on mass-market income for their profits. But that message did not always filter down to their editors. Many of them, possessing only a hazy idea of where the money for their acquisitions came from, spent profligately and ended up taking a bath on books and authors that flopped miserably. Or they simply acquired whatever they pleased without giving much thought to the bottom line, failing to realize that they were indulging in a luxury largely subsidized by paperback book revenue. Many lived in denial that their beloved first novels, short story collections, poetry anthologies and other elevated forms of literary endeavor were financed by romances, westerns, thrillers, horror novels and space operas.

The industry still hasn’t recovered from this downturn, and the impact on authors has been clear. So clear that we won’t belabor the obvious. Besides, we’ll be talking more about that subject later.

File Under: Square Pegs