A sign of the times? A comeuppance? A respite? A new wave?
Whatever you want to call it or classify it, clearly the recent boom in on demand books and printing on demand is what will keep the publishing industry alive through The Great Recession.
Of course authors, writers and readers will never become extinct, (even blogs promote all three of these and are nearly antithetical to the 'sit down by a window and read independently, silently, for hours and then reflect individually') but the industry is hurting. This is precisely why printing on demand works so well and, in my opinion, is a welcome respite to the traditional means the publishing industry has gone through for years.
Is there a reason to print 5,000 copies right off the bat and then market a book with $15,000 if no one will read it, half the copies will end up being recycled, and the author might not be invited back to sign a contract for the sequel? No. Market a book with half that money, utilizing the internet, new media enterprises, and other books/magazines, conferences, and publishing house newsletters (sent across new and traditional media outlets). The result is of course broader exposure with limited cost. This saves the company money and opens up opportunities for growth and more authors to publish.
Many websites offer authors the chance to pay a small amount to publish their book legitimately online, gain an ISBN, market it themselves (or with some small help from the publishing company for an additional fee), and then wait for reviewers, readers, etc. to weigh in on their book. The better the book, the more buzz is generated and the larger it grows. The result: printing more books, which comes as a profit to the companies after all. Seems like a win/win to me. Now all we have to do is convince publishers to go this way entirely.
Sure, it might mean waiting an extra five or six days for your follow-up to last year's crime thriller to arrive in your mailbox or bookstore (after all, book stores will be given a much smaller shipment), but it also might just mean that that same author to last year's crime thriller will be given the financial and supportive means to continue writing and creating for your enjoyment, their livelihood and the betterment of the world and society in general. A literate society is a productive, intelligent, and entrepreneurial society.
Lulu.com and iUniverse are just two of the on demand publishers featured in several articles and stories circulating around the news media recently. Mainly because of the success of 'Still Alice,' by Lisa Genova. Constantly rejected for two years, she decided to publish online and print on demand with iUniverse. 6 months later, her book (without much marketing, without a major contract, and with her doing little more than promoting it in her community and with her new media friends) had earned her a half year's traditional working salary and had been picked up by Simon&Schuster for traditional print. It is now on the NYTimes bestseller list (check it out at your local Borders or on Amazon).
I think this makes a ton of sense for poetry, too. If only online publishing can gain more legitimacy, poets will be given the accolades they deserve. The US population reading contemporary poetry is scarce (if even a percentage), so the incentive for publishing houses to choose a book of poetry is virtually non-existent. It's more a labor of love to print a book of poetry than it is to turn a profit--to paraphrase a Norton executive. Imagine getting your book of poetry e-published and receiving great acclaim, without having a publishing company essentially berate you for costing them money because of your writing niche. Ah, what a wonderful (publishing) world that would be.
Back to Ms. Genova. That's a success story if I've ever heard one. And, by the sounds, of it, much cheaper, more streamlined, and proven for success. If a publisher can take fewer chances and has proven results and demand, that spells profit for them, which is success and happiness for an author.
A more literate society because of the internet? Now that's progress.