Saturday, July 28, 2012

The Crossroads

The printing and publishing industry stands at a crossroads at the time of writing.

Major book retailing chains in Australia and the United States, are trying desperately to “trade out” of what could amount to receivership. Many blame the changing face of publishing brought about by the computer age and the internet in particular and there can be no doubt that the public's buying habits have changed dramatically.

Our lives as readers have changed. Whereas in the past I would spend my afternoons ensconced in the local library or buying comics from my local newsagent, now I am more likely to find my reading material online. In the not-so-distant past my only option for buying books would be a bookshop, either the small local shop or one of the specialist stores in the city. Today, the physical limitations of getting my reading material have all but disappeared. Book not available locally or in Australia? Out of print? With the click of a few buttons I can search for and buy a far wider range of books, in most cases at a more competitive price as well.

I love books and reading. My house and every available storage space in it is filled with hardbacks and paperbacks ranging from a family heirloom, Sunday School prize of my mother-in-law's to a new hardback best-seller I bought for my birthday.

I have a lot of sympathy for the printing industry and I feel that they are the victim of being dependent on the publishers who are now abandoning them in favour of new manufacturing and distribution practices. Authors need to think outside the square and avail themselves of the myriad of options that are open to them. Publishers are no longer the omnipotent Gods of the publishing pantheon! The tyranny of scale that made them the sole providers of mass produced books for the common folk have been broken by new technologies and business models.

On the one hand we have seen them all but replaced by the new leviathans of online commerce – Amazon and Barns & Noble. Shopping from home, I can browse a catalogue that not only holds the latest best-sellers but the obscure titles of an author's back-list. I can order a copy in any format it has been released in: hardback, paperback, audiobook, video or graphic novel. I have to wait for it to be mailed out to me and freight is an added expense but if price is an issue I can often get second hand copies at ridiculously low prices.

This is the mass-marketing approach that is the equivalent of the 'convenience food' outlet, but when a Macdonald's moved into your town, did all the restaurants go out of business? No, they survived by focusing on the niche market, those who wanted an intimate, personal service.

I believe we will see the rise of specialist or "boutique" printers in the same way that small breweries, bakeries, and wineries have found that they can prosper by providing a quality, exclusive product rather than competing with the multinationals for the bulk, mass market.

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