Out of print

January 5, 2009 at 2:00 am Leave a comment

I told you recently that I was going to be self-publishing a book of my photos. Well, I have my head around the software but I’m still grappling with designs and themes, so I’m still a few weeks off publishing. But it got me thinking about the rise of the self-publishing industry and how this must be affecting mainstream book publishing and journalism. So I snooped around and discovered a few statistics, which led to a question about democracy.

Apparently, December 3 2008 is known as Black Wednesday in the book business. Random House, the world’s largest publisher of consumer books, folded five of its divisions into three and axed two top editors in the US. Simon and Schuster laid off 35 people; Thomas Nelson axed 10% of its staff; Houghton Mifflin laid off employees; and Penguin announced pay freezes. The Chairman of Barnes & Noble lamented in an internal memorandum that “never in all my years as a bookseller have I seen a retail climate as poor as the one we are in.”

The newspaper industry is also in serious trouble. The New York Times is mortgaging its own building to ease cash flow and raise $225m (£153m); whilst Tribune Co, the publisher of the Los Angeles Times and the Chicago Tribune, has filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection. Advertising revenue has dried up; online ads have declined; newspaper readership has gone south; and the internet has spawned many online newspapers such as The Huffington Post (which ironically repackage news originating elsewhere).

Meanwhile, the personal publishing business is booming. The particular self-publishing site I’m using boasts over 750,000 books published in 2008 and $300,000 in profits paid out to people who elected to offer their books for sale on the site’s bookstore.  Many of the books published on the site I’m using are personal books along the lines of wedding albums or mementos of personal travel but there are also a large number of books written by professional authors moving over from the mainstream publishing route (including a Time Life photographer). Obviously, you avoid the hassle of getting a literary agent or receiving your 200th gut-wrenching rejection letter when you self-publish.

But as newspapers and publishing houses trim staff and desperately try to ease cash flow, what effect will dwindling access to mainstream newspapers particularly have on democracy? Blogs and online newspapers of course are magic – they allow you and me to offer up our personal opinions. But few of us have the resources of a large newspaper or the investigative skills of a journalist. We can’t go trooping around the world to hot spots, reporting like international correspondents on torture or oppression.  We don’t have the funding or resources to dig, analyse, vet sources and expose.

And as much as I rant and rave about politics or society, I don’t have a readership in the millions (alas!), so for me, newspapers played a role in keeping the bastards (Government) honest and educating the citizenry. Politicians don’t like being exposed in public. With mass circulation, the general public could be kept informed. With blogs and online newspapers, we filter. I read certain blogs and online newspapers; you may read others. We filter according to our interests and worldviews. And let’s face it, most blogs and online resources sit in the Long Tail, so don’t get maximum exposure or readership.

Of course, I could argue that the blogosphere and the internet has changed what constitutes “news”. That Joe Bloggs can participate by leaving a comment under an online newspaper item or blog post and trigger a conversation. It’s user-generated stuff that may in fact be genuine democratic discourse.

But I think the New Yorker says it well: “Just how an Internet-based news culture can spread the kind of “light” that is necessary to prevent terrible things, without the armies of reporters and photographers that newspapers have traditionally employed, is a question that even the most ardent democrat in John Dewey’s tradition may not wish to see answered. ”

I admit I’m torn on this. Seems to me newspapers could shed light on the darkest parts of this world of ours and because of mass circulation, the public were kept out of the dark. With online resources and newspapers, some of us may still be in the dark because of our choice of what we read online. So the discourse is narrowed.

The New York Times, for example, could expose The Pentagon Papers and shed light on the full extent of JFK’s involvement in the Vietnam War and that Prez Lyndon B Johnson had ordered an expansion of the war at the same time he was telling the American public that there would be no expansion. The NY Times fought a tough legal battle defending the First Amendment right of the press to publish information significant to a citizenry’s understanding of their Government and its policies.

Could online newspapers do this? Would they have the investigative clout or funding? True, bloggers brought down Dan Rather and The Huffington Post went after the military and foreign-affairs reporting of the NY Times reporter, Judith Miller.

What do you think of the decline of mainstream journalism and publishing versus self-publishing and online newspapers? Is democracy threatened or emboldened by less print and more online media?

Entry filed under: Future trends. Tags: , , , .

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