Wednesday, June 01, 2005

The Wal-Martization of America's Book Industry

Two disturbing statistics in the current (May 30) issue of Publishers Weekly magazine (available by subscription only):

(1) Since 1995, membership in the American Booksellers Association, the organization comprising the nation's independent (i.e. non-chain) bookstores, has shrunk from 4,496 to 1,703--a shocking 62 percent decline.

Why does this matter? Because the increasing concentration of book retailing in a few corporate hands (chiefly Barnes & Noble, Borders, and leads to a troubling imbalance in the industry analogous to the dominance of Wal-Mart in general retailing. The middleman has such a powerful chokehold on distribution that he can dictate business terms to suppliers, who have no choice but to comply. That's bad enough when the merchandise in question is jeans, detergent, and groceries, but when it's books, we're talking about a potential long-term impact on the level of national discourse.

(Wal-Mart itself, by the way, plays a growing role in the book business, accounting for sales of up to 20 percent of the most popular commercial titles.)

(2) Since 1999, the number of new books published in the US has increased from about 119,000 to about 195,000 (64 percent)--while book sales have increased only from $23.9 billion to $26.4 billion (just 10 percent). In other words, more and more books are competing for a virtually unchanging pot of book-buying money . . . which means fewer and fewer copies sold of most books.

And why does this matter? Partly because it means that books--including the handful of truly important books published every year--are finding it increasingly difficult to attract readers and affect the broader culture. And partly because it reinforces the other trend described above, in which a highly fragmented and relatively powerless collection of "producers" (publishers and ultimately authors) must struggle to force their products through a constricted distribution bottleneck.

There are some hopeful counter-trends, including the growing effectiveness of book distribution and publicity via the Internet. But on the whole, the evolution of the publishing industry doesn't bode well for the promotion of vigorous cultural, political, and social debate through books--at a time when such debate is more essential than ever.
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