Simon & Schuster vs. Barnes & Noble

The current dispute between the book retailer Barnes & Noble and the publisher Simon & Schuster has caused much handwringing and worry. But the dispute is one that has visited all changing industries fighting a rear-guard action against newer, more visionary competition.
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The current dispute between the book retailer Barnes & Noble and the publisher Simon & Schuster has caused much handwringing and worry among those whose livelihoods depend on such organizations. But the dispute is one that has visited all changing industries fighting a rear-guard action against newer, more visionary competition. Think of the horse-drawn wagon, say, or the eight-track tape.

Simon & Schuster is upset because Barnes & Noble wants to pay the publisher far less than before for the titles the bookseller carries from that publisher. Barnes & Noble also wishes to charge Simon & Schuster a higher fee for prominent display of their titles, those which the shopper sees upon first entering the store. Both bookseller and publisher agree that this placement results in increased sales for the titles so ordained, and therein lies the rub.

Because Simon & Schuster is balking at paying what it sees as unjustified and insupportable new charges, Barnes & Noble has cut way back on its orders from the publisher.

Barnes & Noble is the last major book retailing operation left standing after so many others have gone under in the last decade or so. One might wish to accuse the company of monopolistic activities in this current dispute, dictating terms to poor, victimized Simon & Schuster. But this would be a mistake. Barnes and Noble has provided books to an avid reading public for many, many years, and done so admirably. But it is now in the same hot water as all those other chains that have disappeared, and whether Barnes & Noble will even exist in ten years is a very open question.

Simon & Schuster, itself a major and important publisher for years, is to some degree in the same boat. Bookstores no longer are the only game in town for readers. Indeed, bookstores are becoming a very much smaller game, as the internet, Amazon and others, ebooks and print-on-demand technologies continue to make major inroads on the book-reading market.

Self-publishing, once a pariah industry and the worst possible vehicle for getting published for any serious writer, is now quite acceptable, even a sought-after solution. The major problem there is one that also plagues the sea of blogs that is forever rising to inundate the reading shore. Lacking good editors and publishers who care about the quality of the work, the book market -- like blogs -- is now awash with bad work by bad writers, a great many of them self-published.

But of course bad writing was a commonplace in traditional publishing too, especially when it was the only game in town. The difference now is one of pure numbers. There has always been plenty of bad writing. Now, there is simply quite a bit more. But bad writing never has been the problem for good writers, and self-publishing your book no longer ensures that you are ipso facto a bad writer.

For any writer, a major problem has always been the hierarchy of traditional literary agents, publishing companies and major corporate book retailers. Especially now, when traditional publishing has been almost entirely corporatized, the bottom line and return on investment reign as determining factors in what gets published. Sales matter big time. If you're an unknown writer, you have a major problem. If you're a well-known writer whose most recent title proved to be a dog in terms of sales, your problem is almost as big. What circulates around in your dreams, and the struggle you face late at night every night writing those dreams down, accounts for very little if your sales suck.

But new publishers are springing up everywhere. Because of the new technologies, the costs of book production have gone down precipitously. No longer does a publisher have to print long press runs, warehouse those books, and distribute them to bookstores that insist upon ruinous return practices (i.e. sending unsold books back to the publishers for refunds). All of those difficulties, and their accompanying costs, disappear when a reader orders an ebook or a print-on-demand book online. The book is produced as a single copy and provided immediately to the reader in the case of the ebook, or in a few days in the case of the printed book. No runs of 5, 10 or 100 thousand copies, no warehouse, no mass distribution, no bookstore.

One major advantage of this for the writer is that, because of such reduced costs, the writer can receive a much more generous royalty payment than ever was possible traditionally.

Good books that are printed, marketed and sold in the traditional manner will not soon disappear. But good books that may not have made it through the gauntlet of literary agents and mainstream traditional publishers and retailers are indeed being produced in greater numbers now, by new publishers who understand this new marketplace. Many of them care a great deal about the quality of the work they produce, and work closely with their writers to ensure that quality. An acquaintance of mine who is a major literary agent told me recently that the literature that defines the 21st century will be produced in this and other new ways. She went on to say, with a bit of a chagrined smile, that there is little reason for a writer now to even approach the bottleneck of traditional book publishing and production.

Novelist Terence Clarke is the director of publishing of Red Room Press.

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