Tuesday, March 3, 2009

The Future of Publishing

I'm back from four days in the eastern part of the state, where I dropped O at her National Young Leaders State Conference in Tarrytown, spent a night on City Island, met PZ in the Bronx and traveled north two hours to his house in East Chatham, and returned the next day for lunch on the Upper West Side with S and C, two editors I've known for nearly 30 years apiece. Now I'm battling the Cold of the Century, but I wanted to get down in print some of our chat about publishing before I forget it.

First, a little background. C and I started at McGraw-Hill back when it was in the McGraw-Hill building on Sixth Avenue. He was a lowly copyeditor, and I was a lowlier assistant editor on grammar and phonics books. After time away at a variety of houses, he's back at MH, now located above Penn Station, where he runs a division that sells to the trades rather than to schools. I work for him on about a project per year.

C would be unable to make his numbers nowadays did he not sell so many books to China. Booksellers in China purchase, for example, six times more TOEFL (teaching of English as a foreign language) books than do booksellers in the U.S. C is busily thinking of new ways to sell books--through agencies and organizations rather than through bookstores, which he feels are rapidly falling by the wayside. Look for Borders to be the next to fold, says C. (I'm saddened by that--I like them so much more than I like Barnes & Noble.)

I met S when she was my direct supervisor at Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, back when it was in the HBJ building on Third Avenue. She followed HBJ and then HB down to Orlando (C did, too) but later moved to the midwest to work for the company that once published Dick & Jane (but which has been renamed so many times that I won't bother to name it here). Now she's back in NYC, heading up the NYC branch of a company that is based out of Chennai, India, one of India's two high-tech hubs. We've all been used to having our materials printed and bound in India; that's been standard for the past five years at least. This, however, is something new.

The question everyone faces is: What is the future of print/paper? The symptoms we find most troubling include the decision of the Christian Science Monitor and others to print only weekend editions; the choice of certain small colleges only to provide textbooks digitally; the massive layoffs at TIME or Houghton or HarperCollins. That last is most troubling for me: When people leave inhouse jobs, they naturally look for freelance jobs. I figure the stable of potential freelance writers/editors has grown by 150% in the last three months alone.

S has been told by some of her bosses that all textbooks will be digital by 2010, but she sees no way that can happen logistically. C says that the new testing market is in Saudi Arabia--they have tons of money but want Americans to write their tests (I assume in English, to be translated, but who knows).

The picture above shows Gabe, age nearly 6 months, enjoying a book. He can chew it, fold back its pages, hold it upside down. When he reaches school age, will he learn to read on a Kindle? Stay tuned.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I wonder if candle and buggy makers felt the same way about a century ago. (I use those examples rather than hoop-skirt or running-board makers because we've tended to think of publishing as somewhat of a crucial underpinning to our civilization [although that's really only been true for 500 or so years]).
Damn cute baby though!