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2009: A Watershed Year in the History of Publishing

Make a note of it: Dec. 25, 2009, marked an inflexion point in the history of publishing.  That's the date online bookseller Amazon.com reports that its retail sales of e-book downloads exceeded its orders for hard copy books for the first time. Since nearly every "bricks-and-mortar" bookstore in the United States was closed for the Christmas holiday, Dec. 25 represents the first day in the history of print culture that retail sales of traditional hard and soft cover books were eclipsed by their digital equivalents. 
 
Amazon has never released actual sales data on its Kindle reader, or the number of e-books sold (as opposed to downloaded free) onto it, but sales figures obtained independently by MasterCard's SpendingPulse survey, which tracks all retail spending (including cash transactions) during the holiday season across the American economy, confirm that Amazon sold a record number of Kindles (which retail for an easily identifiable $259) during the month of December.  It is certainly plausible that recipients of those devices as Christmas gifts might spend the day purchasing their favorite titles from the Kindle Store.
 
Even as Amazon touted its corporate triumph, and shares of its stock shot up on the NASDAQ, a tremor was felt on the event horizon.  A leading tech blog reported on Dec. 23 that an Israeli hacker known as Labba claims to have broken the encryption code on the Kindle's proprietary e-book format making it possible to read downloads from the Kindle Store on other e-readers and wireless devices.  Since many market analysts believe that Amazon is actually currently losing money on its digital download business, any development that might undermine the exclusivity of the Kindle as a e-reader platform would jeopardize the entire business model Amazon has for it.
 
That's how quickly the ground shifts in the world of e-commerce, and with the rollout of the Nook -- Barnes & Noble's long delayed e-reader -- and the much awaited Apple Tablet device (something between an iPhone and a MacBook) sometime in late January, there is much seismic activity ahead.
 
Stories about e-publishing drove the news cycle in 2009, with the effects of the deepening recession forcing further layoffs and consolidation in the world of traditional publishing, which seemed on the defensive for much of the year.  Through the end of the third quarter of 2009, the Association of American Publishers tracked net sales as up approximately 2% for the year.
 
With many publishing industry observers convinced that digitization will do for the book business what it has already done to the business models for the music and newspaper industries, in December Simon & Schuster announced it would join MacMillian and Harper Collins in delaying the release of the e-book versions of its leading new titles, including Don DeLillo's Point Omega and the new book by George W. Bush adviser Karl Rove, by four months so as not to undercut sales of its hard cover, highly marketed versions of those books, which typically retail for $24 to $28.  (E-book editions of best-sellers retail for $ 9.99 at Amazon.)
 
When Amazon responded by signing best-selling business and motivational author Stephen R. Covey, author of The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, to an exclusive agreement with its heretofore little known RosettaBooks division earlier this month, it signaled the dawn of an era when best-selling and celebrity authors will bypass the traditional mainstream New York City based publishing industry altogether, and strike up separate, more lucrative deals for the hardcover and e-book rights to their work. 
 
In anticipation of such an era, on Dec. 11 Random House sent a letter to the literary agents of many of the authors it has under contract -- including James Ellroy, Richard Russo and most of the authors it publishes under its Alfred A. Knopf imprint -- pre-emptively asserting that unless otherwise negotiated, it retroactively owns the digital rights to all books it published before the emergence of an active marketplace for electronic books. The response from literary agents, the Authors' Guild, and copyright experts (as reported here by the Wall Street Journal) was swift and unequivocal condemnation and the promise to litigate.
 
The Authors' Guild itself found itself the target of much criticism for the lead role it took in negotiating the Google Books Settlement, which after a delay and substantial revisions, was resubmitted in amended form for judicial review by United States District Court Judge Denny Chin on Nov. 19. Chin, who has been nominated by President Obama to replace Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor on the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit, has promised a final hearing and subsequent ruling  on the antitrust implications of the settlement on Feb. 18.
 
We've written a great deal about the Google Book Settlement in this space over the past year, and won't revisit those postings here, except to observe that regardless of how exemplary the project seems in its intentions, the more scrutiny the settlement comes under, the more support it loses from authors, librarians, intellectual property experts, privacy experts and other stakeholders to the agreement.
 
Recent developments regarding the settlement over the past month include: its rejection by the Writers' Union of Canada, a ruling in a Paris court that Google Book Search was guilty of copyright infringement under French law and must pay a fine of over 300,000 euros, or $430,000, and an additional 10,000 euros a day until it removes extracts of all French language books whose rights holders permission it has not obtained from its database. Just in this past week, we saw a high-profile condemnation of the settlement in Publishers Weekly by award-winning and best-selling author Ursula K. Le Guin , who called it "a deal with the devil" and has resigned from the Authors Guild,  for which she has served as an advocate and occasional spokesperson since 1972, over its role in crafting the agreement.
 
“There are principles involved, above all the whole concept of copyright; and these you have seen fit to abandon to a corporation [Google], on their terms, without a struggle," Le Guin wrote in her letter of resignation to the Guild.
 
Perhaps the saddest story of the year involves the demise of many longstanding independent bookstores and booksellers in various communities around the country. The recession has hit Main Street a lot longer and harder than it impacted Wall Street (which has returned to its seven-figure bonuses) and even the New York City-based publishing industry, with its ghostwritten celebrity memoirs and books by political ideologues and former governors. With the general fall in discretionary income, aggressive and even predatory competition from online booksellers and book chains, and virtually no share of the burgeoning market for e-books and sales of devices on which to read them, independent booksellers -- long the literary world's strongest advocates of cultural diversity and new writing in innovative forms -- face a difficult and uncertain future.
 
If the end of the bookstore as we once knew it is the most disturbing trend of the year, then the seemingly obligatory movement of all authors, journalists, indie publishers, booksellers and nearly every aspect of book culture onto Facebook, Twitter and the other social media is the most curious and arguably ephemeral.  As a relative newcomer to the social media, I'm thrilled to be in constant touch with many old and new friends and to learn of their literary activities, but as a profound skeptic of all sudden, largely technology-driven outcroppings of human group behavior, I'm doubtful of their potential to effect real changes in human consciousness as opposed to clever marketing innovations. If Tolstoy or James Joyce were alive today, would they be "tweeting"?  How about Virginia Woolf or Emily Dickinson?
 
A number of writer/professors (and their students), notably Charles Bernstein, the co-founder of the University at Buffalo Poetics Program who is currently at the University of Pennsylvania, have approached Twitter, in particular, as a medium for constraint-based (i.e., 140 character) writing exercises, some of which have incorporated formal aspects that suggest the nature of the technology itself. On the other hand, more than a few mainstream authors who've been advised by their agents or publishers to "tweet" their way through their book tours have, quite frankly, embarrassed themselves. 
 
As for the most encouraging development of the year, it would have to be the near exponential growth of so-called "print on demand" or POD publishing we discussed in this space in May and is documented in this report by R.R. Bowker, LLC, the official U.S. ISBN Agency, publisher of Books In Print,  and other compilations of information support for the publishing industry in the United States.  While the overall number of books published in the United States in 2008 decreased by 3.2 % from 284,370 to 275,232, the number of "short run" books that are published primarily by independent publishers to fill specific bookseller or author orders grew by an astonishing 132% over 2007, from 123,276 titles (2007) to 285,394 titles (2008), and by some 462% over as recently as 2006.
 
Anyone familiar with the remarkable publication catalogue of BlazeVox Books here in Buffalo will understand the literary market independent "print on demand" publishing serves, the digital publishing technology it employs, and the business model it operates under.  BlazeVox is one of singular success stories of "print on demand" publishing and a genuine aesthetic force in the fields of avant garde poetry and innovative fiction across all of North America.   One recent reviewer compared BlazeVox's influence on contemporary avant garde writing to Subpop Records' influence on the "alternative" music scene  in the late 1980's and early 1990's.
 
The entire "print on demand" (POD) publishing phenomenon is the most under reported story in literary world and, arguably, our arts and cultural scene as a whole.  “Our statistics for 2008 benchmark an historic development in the U.S. book publishing industry as we crossed a point last year in which [Print] On Demand and short-run books exceeded the number of traditional books entering the marketplace,”  noted Kelly Gallagher, a spokesperson for Bowker in her introduction to the 2008 publishing industry report. “It remains to be seen how this trend will unfold in the coming years before we know if we just experienced a watershed year in the book publishing industry, fueled by the changing dynamics of the marketplace and the proliferation of sophisticated publishing technologies, or an anomaly that caused the major industry trade publishers to retrench.”
 
Either way, this was the story the traditional mainstream media missed in 2009.  What are the cultural implications of such a decentralization of the publishing business?  Of such a proliferation of new titles and new authors?   Who's writing all these books and, more importantly, who's reading them?  And what does this all have to say about "literature," whatever that is or used to be?
 
These are the questions we will be asking ourselves as we read on into 2010.
 
--R.D. Pohl
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