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What will fundamentally change the publishing industry is not the rise of self-publishing or e-books but the rise of the non-reader.

One of my many useless theories about the future of mankind is that the publishing industry as we know it today won’t exist thirty years from now. Never mind for the moment that absolutely everyone, these days, is saying the same thing.  My theory is different.

First of all, I don’t keep quarter with those who believe Big Publishing will go the way of the buggy whip and the telephone booth.  On the contrary, companies like Penguin/Random House, Hachette, Harper Collins, and Simon & Schuster are robustly profitable today, and the rise of e-books has only added to their largesse.  Profits are mostly up and will likely head higher in the near term. But there is a demographic flaw in their business model, and as with all demography, over time it will increasingly declare itself.  When (or more accurately, as) that happens, big publishers will have to adopt a vastly different model in order to survive. Rest assured they will do so.  Some have already started. The changes ahead will be more qualitative than quantitative.   Here’s what I mean, and why:

Publishing has historically had more in common with the auto industry than, say, the business of making great art or fine wine. You can’t go down to the local dealership and buy a new minivan made by a guy in his garage. The design, tooling, manufacture and distribution of automobiles are processes too complex and costly to be accomplished on anything but a grand scale. So it has been with books.

Until very recently, publishing a new book and bringing it to market meant a substantial investment in design, layout, typography, printing, warehousing, distribution, shipping, and returns.  Printing the first book cost just as much as printing the first five thousand books, which meant that in order to recover those costs and make a profit you had to find a way to distribute, market and sell thousands of physical copies. If you were an unknown author—even a very good one—you were not only dependent on irascible bookstore owners to stock your book, you faced the daunting task of getting thousands of their customers to pay the same price for a book by an author they’d never heard of as they would for the blockbuster displayed at the front of the store. The likelihood of commercial success with any debut author was low to the point of despair. Henry David Thoreau, a few years after financing the publication of his first book and seeing most of the copies returned unsold, famously lamented: “I have now a library of nearly 900 volumes, over 700 of which I wrote myself. Is it not well that the author should behold the fruits of his labor? My works are piled up on one side of my chamber half as high as my head.”

For decades, big publishers have enjoyed economies of scale that individual authors and smaller publishers did not. The big publishers lost money on most books, but the few that did make money made enough to grow their business and build demand for those profitable authors who then became part of the publisher’s brand.  Authors needed publishers to reach readers, publishers needed bookstores to sell books, and bookstores needed books by popular authors to attract customers. Thus began the codependency among publishers, authors and booksellers that continues to this day.  So, why would this ever change?

If you are a writer or follow the publishing business, you’ve been hearing for the last five to ten years about how the revolution in e-books and print-on-demand technology is empowering authors to become self-publishers, transforming the bookselling industry, and “leveling the playing field.”  All that is true—to a point.  You can publish a professional looking book today in paperback and e-book format, sell it on Amazon alongside bestsellers for absolutely zero investment, and start making money off the first copy sold. Yet despite all the hype, don’t bet on David beating Goliath anytime soon.

Most of the revolutionary chatter comes from the cottage industry in “author services” that has grown up like kudzu around the new self-publishing technologies. These are individuals and companies whose survival depends on stoking the demand for book design and layout, copyediting, marketing and promotion, writers’ conferences and workshops, editorial reviews, distribution, and publicity. Yet despite all the hopeful talk about a proletariat revolution in publishing, it seems to remain stubbornly “just around the corner.” The average self-published book still sells only about 50 copies—mostly to longsuffering friends and family.  Unless large numbers of readers are searching for it specifically, one book among the twenty million for sale on Amazon can be even less visible in the digital marketplace than a single copy shelved spine-out on the bottom shelf in the back of a bookstore. What is it, then, that threatens the hegemony of big publishers in the trade fiction market?

Um, nothing.

Sorry—if you were expecting a vision of the future in which the president of Hachette sells books out of the trunk of his car while limousines full of self-published Kindle millionaires cruise past him on Fifth Avenue, you’re lost and looking for Hugh Howey’s latest book in the science fiction section. That’s not the kind of revolution I’m talking about. What will fundamentally change the publishing industry is not the rise of self-publishing or e-books but the rise of the non-reader.

Publishers in general and big publishers, in particular, thrived in the past because a substantial portion of the public was interested in what they were selling, which by and large were works of serious literary or artistic merit. Books by writers like Sinclair, Steinbeck, Hemingway, Faulkner, Wilder, Orwell, Conrad and Fitzgerald did not become classics because The New York Times decided they should be. These books sold millions of copies because everyone from professors to housewives to plumbers to truck drivers to policemen to schoolteachers to welders wanted to read them—and did. For the post-war generation, the “viral” books were works of meaning and importance like Catcher in the Rye, A Separate Peace, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, Catch 22, and Trout Fishing in America. The publishers who signed these writers gained not only profits but, more importantly, the literary street-cred that attracted the most talented new authors to their fold and the next bestsellers to their catalogs.  This model is now shifting in response to fundamental changes in American readership or, more to the point, the rise of the American non-reader.

The grim statistics are everywhere:  In 2011, SAT reading scores for American high school seniors reached the lowest point in nearly four decades. (That’s forty years for you recent graduates.) According to a study entitled “To Read or Not to Read,” released by the National Endowment for the Arts in 2007, the average American spends two hours a day watching television but only seven minutes reading. “Nearly half of all Americans ages 18 to 24 read no books for pleasure,” the study found, adding: “Even when reading does occur, it competes with other media. This multitasking suggests less focused engagement with a text.”  The rise in non-readers is not confined to the adolescent years. The same study found a 7 percent decline between 1992 and 2002 in the number of 18 to 44-year-olds who had read a book for pleasure.

All of this bad news seems to be a function of a broader coarsening and dumbing down of American culture. The examples of this are depressingly numerous, but this one suffices for me: In 2006, a survey by National Geographic found that half of Americans between the ages of 18 and 24 could not locate the State of New York on a map. (If one excludes the survey respondents actually living in New York, the percentage must be quite a bit more than half.)  In January of 2014, the Pew Research Center reported that 23 percent of Americans had not read a book of any kind in the past year. In 1990, that number was 16 percent. In 1978, it was 8 percent—a steady three-fold increase in 36 years.  The Atlantic reported the story in an article entitled, “The Decline of the American Book Lover.” If this trend continues, by the time the last Baby Boomer turns 80 in 2044, more than half the country will be non-readers.  (I realize that the trends I have briefly noted, here, pose far more serious and worrisome consequences for American life than the decline of the publishing industry. This article is written solely from the viewpoint of those who might wish to sell the country a good book to carry in its hand basket on the way to perdition.)

Big publishers that built their bones on such meaty fare as The Good Earth, The Yearling, For Whom the Bell Tolls, and Gone with the Wind are are increasingly forced to subsist on cotton candy like Fifty Shades of Grey.  These thinly drawn works, populated by two-dimensional characters who serve mainly as props to drive the relentless plot-action, are (not surprisingly) similar in content and pacing to the video games the majority of younger readers grew up playing. The authors of these books dare not risk exceeding the reader’s ever-shrinking attention span by spending too much time fleshing out the inner lives and motivations of characters before moving on to the next explosion or seduction scene. The result is a book as mindlessly enjoyable as a stick of Double-Bubble and about as memorable after you’re done with it.

I am hardly the first person to notice this phenomenon. In an article entitled “The Death of Literary Fiction?” posted in September 2012,  IndieReader.com reported on several recent Pulitzer Prize winning novels that were struggling to stay in the top 100,000 in Amazon’s rankings. Forty years ago these books would have been in the top 10. In May of this year, an article by Will Self in The Guardian entitled, “The Novel is Dead (This Time It’s For Real),” reported, “Literary fiction used to be central to the culture. No more: in the digital age, not only is the physical book in decline, but the very idea of ‘difficult’ reading is being challenged.”  The writer’s pessimistic conclusion? “I believe the serious novel will continue to be written and read, but it will be an art form on a par with easel painting or classical music: confined to a defined social and demographic group, requiring a degree of subsidy, a subject for historical scholarship rather than public discourse.”

If you don’t believe these doomsayers, go to the Random House website and use the search interface to generate a list of that publisher’s all-time bestselling fiction. Books in the Fifty Shades series claim the top three spots and six of the top ten.  Still not convinced? Go to the list of the “100 Best Novels” compiled by Modern Library—a Random House imprint. These are the most respected works in western literature according to editors who should know. There is not a single novel published later than 1983 on the list.

What I believe will become of venerable, old school publishers like Random House, Simon & Schuster, and Harper Collins is something comparable to “thermal inversion.”  In its common usage that term refers to the process of lake water “rolling over” as the layer of cooler surface water from melting ice sinks and warmer bottom water rises.  The forces that cause this—seasonal changes in air and water temperature—build slowly, but once they reach critical mass the process of inversion occurs all of a sudden. To people visiting the northern lakes during the spring thaw, one day the air will inexplicably smell of rotten eggs. Natives know that the sulfur gas once trapped in warmer water deep below the ice has risen to the surface.

How and why will a kind of “thermal inversion” happen to Big Publishing? Currently, telling someone that your next book is being published by Random House is akin to saying you lettered in crew at Harvard. The name alone says something about a writer’s intelligence and talent because of the kind and quality of books published by Random House.  However, big publishers must make money to survive. As the years wear on and demography demands its due, “survival” for big publishers will require them to devote an increasing share of their catalogs to novels about alien invasions and women being abused with whips and chains, because that apparently is what the next generation of adult readers is most eager to buy. Smut and banality will float to the top of the market and thrive; works of meaning and originality will sink to the bottom and languish there, mostly unseen and unread. As this trend continues and grows, it will become harder for publishers to justify spending the money needed to purchase and publish serious novels. Even more importantly, serious novelists will be less interested in becoming associated with their brand.

Something very similar has already happened to the film industry. Today, you’ll hear excitement about a new film of serious, artistic merit coming soon, only to discover that it’s not being released in your town, or if it is, it is being shown for only a limited engagement at a few art house theaters. If you’re over fifty, you remember the days when major Hollywood studios regularly produced  phenomenal works of artistic merit for the silver screen nationwide.  The Bridge on the River Kwai, 12 Angry Men, Peyton Place, and Witness for the Prosecution were all nominated for Best Picture in a single year—1957. All of these films are regarded as classis of the genre. Today, we are surprised if the major studios produce a true classic every five or ten years. Great dramatic works are still being produced, but more often by smaller, indie filmmakers and for niche audiences on television. Cable TV has created a market for theatrical content that is balkanized according to the income, education, religion, race, creed and class of the consumer. When Hollywood wants to make money selling something to wide swaths of the American public, today, it gives us another sequel to The Hangover and Jackass.

As it has become with serious theater, so it will be serious literary fiction. The authors who once flocked to big publishers for the prestige and the money will flock elsewhere once the prestige and the money are gone. These authors will give self-publishing and indie publishing cache similar to indie filmmaking, artisanal cheese making or craft brewing, either because traditional publishers are less interested in them, or they are less interested in traditional publishers, or both. The revolution will come full circle when the National Book Award goes to a self-published title that Barnes & Noble initially refused to stock in stores and that previously sold only 189 copies on Amazon.  It could happen.

Why won’t the rise of self-publishing, generally—including novels like Fifty Shades, which was originally self-published—spell doom for big publishers?  The fact that Fifty Shades has since made millions for Random House provides the most obvious answer to that question, at least in part. Big publishers will offer to buy the rights to the few self-published works that break out, go viral and sell. Most of these emerging authors will be happy to take their money, because a traditional publisher’s bigger megaphone can only magnify the viral nature of their success.  When you see a phenomenally popular book and hear that it “used to be self-published,” this is why.

But what about the continued attrition of brick-and-mortar bookstores? Barnes & Noble’s own projections call for closing 20 percent of its stores in the next ten years, and the percentage of smaller stores without BN’s deep pockets that will close in that time is likely to be much higher.  Once bookstores are removed as gatekeepers to the distribution of physical books and big publishers have to compete entirely online, won’t that be the beginning of the end?  Not likely. Regardless of the sales arena in which big publishers are forced to compete for readers’ attention, they will always be bigger and better funded competitors than you and me. What they can’t control, however, and what is likely to change their culture if not their profits, is the evolution of the American reader.  Bubba don’t read F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Big Publishing needs Bubba a lot more than it needs Gatsby, no matter how Tender is the Night. What Bubba wants Big Publishing is sure to give him, because what Big Publishing fears most is becoming Small Publishing.  And it’s likely to smell a little funky in the end, just you wait.