Authors Innovate, Publishers Lumber Along

Barnes & Noble is trying to make inroads in the British market with its Nook e-reader. Although the chain doesn’t have a significant brick-and-mortar presence there, it sees the future of book-buying and that involves e-books. That’s a good thing.

I’m still surprised that it’s taken so long for traditional publishers to embrace e-books in all their forms, and in capitalizing on digital trends.  Instead publishers still worry about how to price books (they’re too expensive), try to extract money from libraries (as if libraries are the enemy) by allowing only a digital copy of a book to be loaned only a set number of times, and consider technology to be something that makes life and business more difficult.

I remember when publishing-industry friends of mine would read manuscripts on e-readers, in particular the Sony e-reader. The editors thought it was great, not having to lug around heavy manuscripts in their canvas tote bags. You’d think that might have given publishers the idea that such devices would be the wave of the future for public. But no. Publishers are slow to move, slow to react (consider that it still takes at least a year for most books to be published once a manuscript is accepted). Instead, publishers worried about competing with brick-and-mortar stores, in particular, the almighty Barnes & Noble, the nation’s largest physical bookseller. They chose not to innovate, but to react and to fear.

But Barnes & Noble was slow, too, reacting with its Nook devices to Amazon’s foray into e-readers with its Kindle. Sony, too, might have considered making its e-reader more tablet-like, and less dependent on a certain format of e-book. But Sony has had its own share of problems innovating.

That’s the thing with large companies: they’re slow to move. Amazon, which is certainly a large company, still acts in some ways like a small one, seeing the long-term and not relying so much on quarterly returns, much to the dismay of short-sighted investors whose only criterion for success is usually earnings reports every three months.

I hope Barnes & Noble’s Nook succeeds overseas. The more people read, on whatever platform, the better for authors everywhere. And the more people who read on an e-reader, the better for the growing legions of self-published authors, those more likely to rely on their own platform to promote their work than on marketing from a publisher. Now that Random House and Penguin plan to combine forces, there’s likely to be even less of a chance for most authors to get published by the remaining “traditional” publishers, and certainly a less innovative way of looking at authors, that is, of choosing writers with a fresh point of view. It’s up to authors themselves to drive that innovation, now that technology is providing them a powerful alternative to traditional publishing.

Bob Hughes
Author: Bob Hughes
Robert J. Hughes ("Bob") was a staff reporter for The Wall Street Journal for over a decade, specializing in culture reporting. He was the paper's theater reporter, wrote on publishing, the art and auction markets, television, music, film and philanthropy, and reviewed books.