This article in The Nation, by Elisabeth Sifton, senior VP of Farrar, Straus & Giroux, is an excellent, if depressing, look at the history of publishing and its still uncertain future. (Sifton also writes about technology and culture in a way that made me a little depressed about things even beyond publishing.)
But it’s a great piece, and something well worth reading if you’re a writer with hopes for a future. Sifton recalls trends in publishing and points out, as we’ve heard before, that despite all the changes in business and culture and technology, “the arithmetic remained unchanged” in the publishing industry — and money isn’t the only problem: “The unprofitable chaos of the book business today indicates, among other things, that slow, almost invisible transformations as well as rapid helter-skelter ones have wrecked old reading habits (bad and good) and created new ones (ditto).”
Perhaps these grim times will ultimately force the industry to make the huge changes it needs to, so that it might rise from the ashes into a thriving, sustainable business. This means embracing ideas that are still anathema to many — smaller advances, digital publishing, e-books — but better to adapt than to get left behind altogether.
Not even Sifton, an industry veteran, can tell us what’s ahead: “It is a confused, confusing and very fluid situation, and no one can predict how books and readers will survive.”