The Evolving Business Of Books

In a wide-ranging essay on the history and future of publishing, Richard Nash illustrates how literature has always been subject to the whims of the market:

Books not only are part and parcel of consumer capitalism, they virtually began it. They are part of the fuel that drives it. The growth of the chain model in books offered everyone the opportunity to decry the groceryfication of the bookstore, utterly belying the reality, as [Ted] Striphas outlines in his excellent The Late Age of Print, that the bookstore is in fact the model for the supermarket:

In the history of shop design, it is bookstores, strangely enough, that were the precursors of supermarkets. They, alone of all types of shop, made use of shelves that were not behind counters, with the goods arranged for casual browsing, and for what was not yet called self-service. Also, when brand name goods and their accompanying packages were non-existent or rare in the sale of food, books had covers that were designed at once to protect the contents and to entice the purchaser; they were proprietary products with identifiable authors and new titles.

Meanwhile, Betsy Morais investigates digital publishers:

The world of digital publishing start-ups brings to mind blogging in its nascent stages. The guiding principle seems to be: if anyone can scribble on the Internet’s wall, anyone can become an author, and any text can become a book. Online, a book’s form warps into something more malleable, and fired-up digital publishers are trying to figure out how to turn that into a business—even if it means a proliferation of books that might as well have been blog posts.

She spoke with Peter Armstrong, who runs a serialized book company called Leanpub:

Armstrong suggests that a book and a start-up are each “a risky, highly creative endeavor undertaken by a small team, with low probability of success.” In either case, he says, you can go into “stealth mode”—which, he contends, will easily result in creating something that nobody wants. “To say you’re going to go off in a room and write the perfect thing without getting feedback from anybody is—I don’t want to say ‘arrogant’—but I couldn’t do it.” Editors, he adds, “function as a good proxy for readers”—but are not as effective as readers themselves. And so, it follows that the solution is to begin a project—in this case, a book—and let the people have at it. He calls this Lean Publishing, or “the act of publishing an in-progress book using lightweight tools and many iterations to get reader feedback, pivot until you have the right book and build traction once you do.”

Go here if you missed readers’ recent praise for Amazon’s digital business and its empowering of independent authors.