Columns > Published on January 18th, 2021

What Would Books Look Like If Big Publishing Collapsed?

This last fall, Penguin Random House and Simon & Schuster merged, creating a mega publishing house, the ultimate Rat King of publishers, if you will, that could be putting out about a third of mainstream, published books this year.

When something this huge happens in an industry, it often means that the industry is either thriving or dying.

What if we woke up tomorrow and big publishing was gone? What would the world look like? Would there be books?

What would happen without big publishing?

Reviews and Reviewers Would Be Relevant

I like reading, and I, like a lot of people, don’t want to spend my reading time sussing out which books are moderately worthwhile and which are trash. Or, maybe I should say, I love trash, but only a certain kind of trash. Please point me towards your good trash.

If I don’t have the gatekeeping from big publishing, I need someone else to mine the vast self-published and indie offerings for the good stuff.

Reviews and reviewers are relevant now, but only to readers who are a little on the hardcore side. Readers who spend about as much time reading ABOUT books as they do reading books. But if we needed a reviewer’s help to sort through thousands of books that all looked the same? If book buyers for stores and libraries had only reviews to lean on, no big publishers out there to trust as that first line of defense? Reviewers would not only be useful, the industry would boom.

The Bookstore Experience

Browsing would be big again. Instead of coming to the bookstore knowing what they want, people would come hoping to find a type of something, but not a particular something.

Bookstores would have to section things differently. They’d have to make better use of display. Without the marketing and quantities that come from big publishers, it’d be harder to be certain what the “big books” are. Without the big publishers and their ability to refund unsold copies, bookstores would have to be choosy about ordering new stuff. The people who worked there would have to be on top of what’s new.

Maybe I’m just being nostalgic, but going to the bookstore on a Friday night, Blockbuster Video style, planning to be there a couple hours and to leave with something that looks good? Sounds like a party.

Awards

Awards would be far more relevant as a sign of quality. Without major awards having the simplicity of big publisher pipelines, they’d have to dig deeper, cast a wider net, and be more selective.

Especially your "literary" awards, your Pulitzer, Pushcart, Costa, PEN America. Who can tell the difference between one bildungsroman and another? How the hell am I supposed to know which of the dozen novels of a college professor in crisis and in love with a younger woman is worth pushing through?

The End of the Blockbuster Book

As publishing has changed, and as other media has developed, it seems like we might be having longer intervals between blockbuster books. Your Harry Potters, your Da Vinci Codes. With the collapse of big publishing and the tied-in collapse of big book marketing, the likelihood of having blockbuster books goes way down. 

In a way, this is a good thing. It means that more books are getting a handful of readers as opposed to a handful of books getting most readers.

In another way, it’s not such a good thing.

One challenge to book culture is that, unlike movies, few people end up reading the same books. There are too many books, and they take too much time and effort. I’m pretty sure most people I know saw Avengers: Endgame. Most people I know have seen some Star Wars. But most people I know haven’t read something as mainstream as Let The Great World Spin.

Blockbuster books did fulfill book culture’s need for common touchstones.

While I don’t think books like The Da Vinci Code are amazing pieces of art, they provide a link between people who read a lot and people who read one book every couple years. They provide an inroad for people who may not read a ton of books. Similar to how The Mona Lisa perhaps isn’t the most incredible, impressive painting, but it gets people into the museum and talking about art, blockbuster books get people in the door and talking about books.

Losing the blockbusters hurts book culture.

Books Might Be More Personal

The big publishing business model requires that books sell a high-ish number of copies to keep the machine chugging along. Arguably, this means that a lot of what comes from big publishing is homogenized, palatable for everyone, and that the books that end up getting the most attention are those that will please large audiences.

With small presses and self-published authors running the show, it’s entirely possible we’ll see a huge variety of stuff. Without the need to support a large system, books can afford to be more niche, pleasing a smaller number of readers in a deeper way. 

We May Lose Some Great Books

Big publishing's collapse...won't be the complete end of books. But when a big ship sinks, a whole lot goes down with it.

In the collapse, I assume that most publishers would sell off those properties that are no longer generating income. Out of print books, books that were never super popular.

Who these would go to and what those individuals would do with them is a complete unknown. However, it’s very likely they’d end up in a lot of hands that never re-released them, either because they didn’t have the drive or the means.

Many a great book might end up lost.

We May Miss Out On Talented Authors

There are some very talented authors who are not talented marketers, graphic designers, and self-promoters.

A world without big publishing will require that authors be good at these sorts of things.

A person can be a talented author and a talented marketer, but what becomes of the author who’s a great author and sucks at everything else?

Anthologies Would Be More Useful

I'll just say it, I'm not a huge fan of anthologies based around a theme or and intellectual property. I usually end up hating some of it, liking one or two stories, and forgetting the rest almost immediately. It's usually a waste of time.

But with the need to find new, talented authors worth following, I'm a whole hell of a lot more interested in anthologies, especially edited by people I trust.

It May Begin The End of Books

Stay with me here.

Big publishing collapses, and the money, power, and jobs in that industry go with it.

I don’t think big publishing is doing charitable work. But I think its work, power, and influence has the good effect of putting books into the hands of readers. Over 10,000 people worked for Penguin Random House in 2019. That’s 10,000 people who, one way or another, were driving people towards books.

Without a powerful industry pushing books, without those 10,000 people coming to work and getting books out there...do books fade into the background?

Sure, plenty of hardcore readers will remain. But maybe reading comes to occupy a space more like woodworking or candle-making or playing text-based adventure games. Some people do these things, and they love them dearly. But they're not common, everyday things for most.

Big publishing's collapse won't kill books right away. It won't be the complete end of books. But when a big ship sinks, a whole lot goes down with it. 


Get Let the Great World Spin by Colum McCann at Bookshop and Amazon

Get The Vintage Book of Contemporary American Short Stories edited by Tobias Wolff at Bookshop or Amazon

About the author

Peter Derk lives, writes, and works in Colorado. Buy him a drink and he'll talk books all day.  Buy him two and he'll be happy to tell you about the horrors of being responsible for a public restroom.

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