Is This Not Publishing?

A good article in the NYTimes today about Barnes & Noble. First, a few interesting facts:

  • B&N and Amazon apparently control 87% of the e-book market between them. Two-thirds of that is Amazon’s, but considering the relative size of the two companies, B&N’s not doing badly.
  • There’s another new Nook device due this spring, despite the fact that their latest refresh just happened in October. That’s a quick cycle for products of this nature.
  • They claim they’re on the verge of expanding outside the USA, which I consider good news all around.

But in my opinion, the most telling aspect of the article is the central thesis that B&N is seen by publishers as their last, best hope. Not for taking advantage of the exciting opportunities in e-books, but for holding onto their legacy dead-tree business, and all the legacy cruft that’s attached to those business models.

From my point of view – mostly on the outside, as a reader, but also as a bit of an author – it seems clear as day that the old publishing model has outlived its usefulness. This is why Amazon scares the crap out of the old guard; they’re changing how publishing works, and succeeding at it. And they’re hoping against hope that B&N, as the last bricks and mortar bookstore chain standing, can salvage the old model – never mind the Nook.

The best part is how they frame the debate in the article: that Amazon et al will be the death of publishing. But “publishing” is a larger concept that isn’t actually threatened. Undoubtedly it’s undergoing a transformation, but writers (of whatever stripe) will still publish. And for long-form works (as opposed to short-form, whose “publishing” has already been transformed by the web), there will still be a place for those who facilitate it. It just won’t involve the same structures that Random House is using now.

The echoes of SOPA/PIPA seem unmistakable: the entrenched legacy businesses know that they’re dinosaurs, but they’d rather deny that reality than evolve.

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