Homer, Hemingway, and the Palm Pilot: The Changing Business of Books

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By Peter Osnos, Senior Fellow for Media at The Century Foundation

The book is an eternal artifact of civilization. Sacred texts. Classics by a crackling fire; a great story; a library lined with the handsome bindings of favorites; a bookstore where browsing is a joy of reminiscence and discovery.

And then there is business: Time-Warner has just unloaded its venerable book companies on the French, an event so mundane that the New York Times put it well inside the business section. Farrar, Straus and Giroux and Alfred A. Knopf are owned by German conglomerates. Penguin (including Putnam, Dutton, and Viking, among others) are British. And HarperCollins (once Harper and Row) is a Murdoch-owned company that he tried unsuccessfully to spin off in the late 1990s. Simon & Schuster is a bit player at what is now called CBS and the proprietor, Sumner Redstone, has said repeatedly that he is prepared to sell it.

The point is that books are wondrous things but in the high-rolling world of American media, they don't compare to say, an exciting start-up or any of the mass-distribution products like movies and television. And yet, after over 20 years as a book person, I remain a believer in the durability of the book object and its enormous value to society.

We are at a crucial moment in the development of book distribution. Sony is about to release another version of the e-book, which it says has the quality of a fine reading experience and the convenience of a digital device. My Treo 650 handheld phone cum computer with Palm software has space for three digital books ( The Last of the Mohicans comes already installed). The Ingram Book Group's Lightning Source division offers thousands of print-on-demand titles and has sold over 25 million books on demand. "The popularity of the podcast and downloadable audio text means that books, like music, may no longer need expensive packaging. Google Book Search promises searchable texts from the world's libraries (which scares the daylights out of publishers because of the copyright problems).

And Amazon seems to have an initiative a week to make books more affordable, including selling them secondhand, which is great for consumers and another nightmare for authors and publishers who get nothing on the sale.

The challenge for writers and publishers, in particular, but also for booksellers and libraries, is to corral all these developments in a way that makes sense and begins to provide a business model for the future. One constant in history is content. From cave paintings through Gutenberg, from Homer to Hemingway and beyond, the role of stories and facts has been inseparable to the development of society. Music has had the same trajectory. From tom-toms to hip-hop, there is always a composer who provides the content and eventually a means of distribution that brings the finished product to the consumer.

The principal issue for now is how the chain from author to reader will develop. The author hands the book to an editor (often through an agent) who prepares it for publication and sale to a wholesaler and/or retailer and eventually to the customer. The warp speed of technological change is putting intense pressure on that chain. As it stands, and has for centuries, books are printed and shipped to purchase points. The key components of the process are publishers and booksellers (who also supply libraries).

But given the distribution breakthroughs of the past 10 years or so, mainly via the Internet, the author can easily skip all the cumbersome middle stages and head right to the sale. The publisher and printer are irrelevant in that model and the bookseller could be overwhelmed by Google, Yahoo, or Amazon, which control the channels of Web distribution. That possibility and many others still to be devised are what give everyone in the world of books the shakes. It is hard to imagine a world without real books, edited and properly presented, without bookstores and libraries.

So, if we go back to the beginning with books as artifacts of civilization and the reading experience as a profound element of comfort as well as knowledge, preserving the classic chain becomes a fundamental challenge. The current system is badly out of whack. Printed inventory has a wicked way of being inefficiently available. Publishers of hardcover books routinely get as much as 40 percent back unsold, a number that is untenable. As in other areas of modern life, we have to decide what should be changed, what should be preserved. And then have the wit to make both happen.

Peter Osnos is senior fellow for media at The Century Foundation and the founder and editor-at-large of PublicAffairs.

This column originally appeared on The Century Foundation website, www.tcf.org . Reprinted with permission of the author.