I just wrote this as a mile-long comment on Stellar Four, and I decided that I liked it so much that I wanted to post it here, too . . .(somewhat abbreviated).
I worked in publishing for more or less the past twenty years, book publishing for the last eleven. I’m cool with hating B&N: the rise of B&N meant the slow but steady demise of the independent bookstores and the proliferation of copycat books.
The book buyers for B&N had incredible, terrifying, horrifying power to determine what books people read. If the B&N buyer, God forbid, didn’t take a book of ours, then there was no point in publishing. We couldn’t sell enough copies of a book to make it worthwhile to print the book if it wasn’t going to get on the shelves of B&N. When I started in publishing, we had a sales force for the indies, people who spent their days wandering from one independent bookstore to the next. Over the course of the last decade, those people all lost their jobs as the indies died. The only places that mattered were B&N and Borders and Amazon, and really, that meant B&N and Borders, because Amazon was happy to include any title.
At the same time, as a person earning a living from publishing, I had to be grateful to B&N. Printing books is such a ridiculous business from a financial sense. A few hugely successful titles support dozens of unprofitable titles. The idea that publishers would lose money on many of their titles was almost a given when I started in publishing. That was just how it worked. Over my decade, though, more books became at least break-even because B&N and Borders could place such large orders. So yay, B&N.
Except, back to being a reader again, it was killing publishing. Publishers had to print books that were being churned through a mass market system. You look at YA publishing right now — it’s the most innovative and interesting area of publishing and it’s because Harry Potter and Twilight made it possible for YA publishers to take risks. And that creates a supply and demand cycle. B&N gives the books more shelf space, more readers see the books, more people buy the books, B&N gives the books more shelf space, and suddenly YA has rows and other areas lose theirs. Other areas of publishing — well, it’s always possible to find some good books. But innovation and creativity and diversity and quirkiness were being largely stifled by the need for a book to get into the shelves of B&N for two months. Basically, what I’m saying is that B&N was saving *printing* but killing publishing.
E-readers change all that. E-readers mean that little presses can spring up out of nowhere to publish quirky little books that a mainstream publisher could never afford to print. Yes, a ton of dreck is going to get published and for a time, the market is going to look like one giant slush pile, but a decade from now, acquisition editors aren’t going to have to say, “I love it, but I don’t know how I’d sell it, so I can’t take the risk” because the risk is going to be so minimal in a primarily e-book world. (And yes, I said that exact line more than once in my career. If we couldn’t figure out what shelf B&N would put the book on, there was no point in publishing it. It would never make the money to support the paper costs.)
I love paper books, I do. I’m quite sure that there will never come a day when there aren’t some print books in my house. But e-readers are going to save publishing — not necessarily the big publishers — but the part of publishing that is about telling interesting stories and finding interesting voices and sharing interesting information. That part of publishing was dying in the paper world, because paper, printing, shipping, etc. were so expensive.
Watching the independent bookstores die was heartbreaking. Watching the independent e-publishers rise is like seeing the phoenix. E-readers are the fuel.