Speaking of Obscene

June 6th, 2005 · No Comments
by Booksquare

Every now and then, we feel an overwhelming urge to state the obvious. We beg your indulgence for a moment because now is one of those times.

It is 2005.

If the publishing industry wants to remain viable (and there have always been questions on that point), it needs to think like a real business. This might mean addressing the issue of advances. It means addressing the issue of print runs. And it means addressing returns. Most of these things should be done sooner rather than later. By sooner we mean the year 1999.

Returns are the dark side of the book world, marking not only failed expectations, but the crippling inefficiencies of an antiquated business. It’s a problem that’s only getting worse. The industry’s current economic model pushes publishers to generate a small number of blockbuster hits. But picking winners is a quixotic enterprise, and as publishers ship an ever-increasing number of books to stores, hoping to hit the jackpot every time, stores are sending an ever-increasing number back.

We think it’s fair to say that the current method of distribution in the publishing industry stopped working in about 1975. Give or take. Let’s face it: the whole system is inefficient.

“The most expensive thing we do in our warehouse is process returns,” says John Sargent, chief executive officer of Germany’s Holtzbrinck Publishers, which owns such imprints as Farrar, Straus & Giroux; Henry Holt and St. Martin’s Press.

The Wall Street Journal article suggests that some publishers are seeing the problem and coming up with revolutionary solutions: raising prices. Yeah, that’ll increase sales. Why not try lower print runs with faster turnaround. We have the technology. Why not try printing and warehousing schemes that don’t require thousand-mile trips to ship books? Why not come up with a better method of discounting books while they’re in the stores?

For those who haven’t been paying attention, the cost of shipping is risely steadily. Fuel, cardboard boxes, labor. Hand-wringing is fun and feels useful, but it doesn’t really lower costs. Driving heavy books back and forth across the country seems like a waste on so many levels. it seems to us that the time has come to invent something along the lines of a print-on-demand technology that allows for small, rapid print runs.

File Under: Publishers and Editors