The demise of traditional publishing: truth or exaggeration?

Much has been written and debated about the economics and future of book publishing. Last week, former Borders chairman Luke Johnson presented some radical views on precisely this topic in his excellent weekly column on entrepreneurship for the Financial Times. 

Johnson argues that the publishing community must act purposefully if it wishes to survive and prosper in the digital era, and makes several instructive points on the increasing importance of online marketing techniques and the publisher’s brand.

But he also makes a number of sweeping statements which overlook some of the essential qualities of a book publisher.

Johnson despaired that it has taken his forthcoming book seven months to go from manuscript to bookshop. He said: “I will never write another book in this traditional way.” This downplays the vital roles that publishers play in both the physical and digital worlds (editing, cover design and layout, proofing, final checks, advance marketing, and so on). The fact is that some books take longer to bring to the market than others because of their inherent complexities. Illustrated works, translations and books with multiple contributors, for example, require significant labour and effort during the prepress stage.

Many, including Johnson, argue that the gross margins are much higher for e-books than they are for physical books because they do not involve printing and freight costs. But, I would argue that the other costs incurred during the book publishing process – from editing and design to selling and marketing – remain unchanged and together represent the lion’s share of the total cost of a title.

Publishing is one of the world’s oldest crafts and e-books represent just another stage in its evolution. The so-called “digital revolution” is nothing to fear as long as publishers embrace modern technologies. Contrary to doomsday predictions, I believe these are exciting times to be a publisher. Provided we remain committed to meeting the reader’s appetite to consume books in various forms, the death of traditional publishing will continue to be an exaggeration.