State of the business

One of the great things about being published by Tom Doherty books, is that, while the house is still a major publisher, it's small enough that the publisher himself not only knows who you are but even will go out and have a beer or two with you when you're in town.

Admittedly, that cuts both ways, especially in my case. But let's accentuate the positive . . .

One of the things that you end up talking about, inevitably, is the state of the business. We hear a lot about how people don't want to read, how computer games and the web are seducing readers, etc. But Tom pointed out that we almost never hear about the biggest problem with the industry right now - over the last few years, we've lost literally hundreds of book distributors and thousands of book stores. Everyone knows about the demise of independent stores, but the contraction or outright disappearance of book chains has had just as much of an impact, and in terms of sheer numbers, maybe even greater, on the number of books sold, especially at the mid-list level. His point wasn't that people don't want to read any more - they're not getting as much of a chance to buy books as they used, and that's really what's hurting us.

Now Tor/Forge is doing a lot to deal with this - and obviously it's working, since they've had a string of best sellers this past year. But listening to Tom and Bob and some of the other experienced hands talk about how selling at the wholesale level used to be done, you can't help but feel a huge amount has been lost. When those guys (and gals) broke in, they had to forge relationships with literally hundreds of different distributors, jobbers and others responsible for getting books in stores. Those middlemen knew an enormous amount about their individual markets.

Maybe computer information systems can replace that human knowledge. But it'll never replace the camaraderie that came from riding with a guy at four or five o'clock in the morning, with only a cup of coffee to keep you warm as you picked his brain about what people really wanted to read, and just as importantly, how to design book covers and marketing campaigns to get those books in front of the customer.

The internet is fantastic for bringing readers to writers; I "talk" with readers just about everyday through email and learn a tremendous amount every time. But there's no real equivalent for publishers, and I think the entire industry - writers included - have lost a bit because of it.

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