Maybe the Mayans had the American publishing industry in mind when their calendar conked out. If you thought 2012 was a bad year for traditional book publishing, and it was, you'll be nostalgic for it by the end of 2013. How bad will it be? Real bad. Here are my 10 dismal predictions for the New Year:
1. Barnes & Noble goes bankrupt. The B&N chain has been on financial life support for years now and only averted collapse with the confluence of the collapse of Borders and the 50 Shades phenomenon. As economist Herb Stein said, "If something cannot go on forever, it will stop." If you can't compete with Amazon for variety, if you have customer service that makes used car dealerships look like the Ritz-Carlton, and if you're in a technological arms race with Amazon (Kindle vs. Nook), you'd best spend your time trying to sell your stores and not just the latest Lee Child. (By the way, didn't anyone tell Tom Cruise that Jack Reacher is 6'8", not 5'8"?)
2. Ebook prices plummet. It's increasingly hard to sell information when the Internet is awash in free info. As people's hard drives fill up with ebooks they've bought but haven't read, at some point they'll say, "Enough." And when they do, all the price-fixing conspiracies in the world won't be able to prop up collapsing ebook prices.
3. At least one mainstream publisher will wither and die. The urge to merge has struck the major New York publishers, but combining forces just makes it cheaper to stick with the failed business model of printing books without any marketing, trucking them to bookstores around the country, and taking them back for 100% credit if they don't sell (see, "customer service" issues in Prediction One, above). One of the multinational conglomerates that owns one of the Big Six publishing houses will come to this realization and simply close its doors.
4. There won't be any new Harry Potter- or Fifty Shades-level runaway bestsellers from the major houses. The stuff that sells the most these days percolates up from the world of self-published books. New York continues to publish tons of books that nobody wants to read, while waiting to see what books people are actually buying, and then giving the authors massive contracts. The one thing publishers can still offer authors is easy distribution into bookstores. Oh, wait a minute... when Barnes & Noble implodes, there won't be any bookstores. Oh, well.
5. More literary agents will leave the publishing world to sell residential real estate. It's hard to feed yourself and your family on 15 percent of zero to $5,000, which is the range that publishers are increasingly offering authors, even famous ones, for their books. Now that real estate is coming back, you'll see more literary agents at open houses than at publishing houses.
6. New York will publish at least 127 books in time for the 50th anniversary of the JFK assassination, and they will sell a combined 4,273 copies. Alas, Amazon already lists 6,115 titles on the subject, including Bill O'Reilly's Killing Kennedy and Stephen King's 11/22/63. What more can the 127 new titles from New York add? Nothing. And that addition of nothing will be reflected in their sales.
7. New York will also publish dozens of books about why Mitt Romney lost, just in time for people to ask themselves, "Who was Mitt Romney?" Newsweek folded because nobody needs the news a week after it happens. So why do publishers keep on publishing books about current events long after they ceased to be current?
8. Millions of books will become Amazon bestsellers by authors gaming the system. Amazon updates its bestseller lists and sublists hourly. Any book that cracks the top 100 of any sublist can claim to be an Amazon bestseller, for all time. Today, authors send notes to their email lists asking them all to buy a copy of their book at, say, next Tuesday at 10 p.m. Eastern. Sell 300 to 700 copies, and you'll break into the top 100. So if your book isn't an Amazon bestseller, shame on you. It doesn't mean you wrote a bad book; it means you don't have enough friends.
9. The publishers whose brands actually stand for something will do just fine. Regnery enjoys massive credibility with conservatives; Harlequin with women who crave romance. But what of the other publishers, whose brands stand for nothing? It's gonna be a long, long year.
10. Bill O'Reilly will run out of assassinations to write books about and will be charged with conspiracy in the planned murders of at least six major public figures. Okay, I made that one up. But if it does happen, you heard it here first.