January 19, 2018

Unsinkable? | Peer to Peer Review

It turns out book publishing isn’t crashing and burning after all. A new report out from the Association of American Publishers and the Book Industry Study Group finds that over the past three years and during the worst recession since the Great Depression publishers are making money, even growing. This is a surprise considering everything I hear from the published – advances are down, midlist writers are being dropped, writers who have been doing well are getting less marketing support, and aspiring writers are increasingly assuming they’ll never be published the traditional way. It also is a surprise considering what we’ve been hearing from publishers, some of whom won’t let libraries loan ebooks until they can figure out how to make more money, even though an ebook already costs a library far more than the same book in print and loaned under the same constraints.

Of course, those rosy numbers were gathered before the collapse of Borders, leaving publishers holding the bag for tens of millions worth of unpaid invoices. Penguin, for example, let Borders rack up over $40 million in debt, but it’s different for small stores; a publisher suspended shipments to an independent bookstore when they neglected to pay an outstanding bill of $17.25 (subscription required). Borders, you may remember, insisted on paying leadership over $8 million in bonuses after laying off thousands of workers because you absolutely need top talent to steer the Titanic.

Okay, mistakes were made. But that’s the beauty of the passive voice. Nobody makes mistakes. They just happen, like the weather. Which is entirely out of our hands, right?

Back to school
The K12 market isn’t doing so well, with a decline of over 12 percent, because taxes are toxic these days, and this sector of publishing is the only one that relies directly on public investment. But wait until those kids get to college! The numbers are fabulous for college textbooks, er, “multiplatform course learning systems” – which have seen over 23 percent growth in net sales over the past three years, during which time students dug themselves deeper and deeper in college debt. But since students pay for their books, not governments, and students don’t get to choose their books, profits are protected from the “no new taxes” crowd and the vagaries of consumer choice. For now.

This brings to mind the academic publishers who go to Congress and to the courts to wail that peer review, accurate information, and the authority of knowledge built for centuries will crumble if the government doesn’t protect publishers from profligate sharing. If the federal government insists that the results of the research it funds is made publicly available, or if schools can get away with buying information and sharing it repeatedly in courses, their business model will collapse, and Western civilization will be shaken to its core.

It also brings to mind the news business, which is farther down the path of being driven right into the ground by its ownership. Newspapers have closed up shop (see what has happened between 1960 and today), newsrooms have shed 30 percent of their employees, and the quality of the news is reduced along with its audience-but newspapers aren’t losing money; they still have a profit margin of around 5 percent. Hedge funds now own seven of the nation’s top 25 newspapers, so they must think there’s still some cash to be wrung out of them.

The best and worst of times
This is a tale of two tales. One is an apocalyptic fable. We’re on the verge of collapse! If the state won’t act immediately to offer protection from freeloaders and pass new laws to lock down digital access, and if courts won’t crack down on schools that turn to libraries for e-reserves instead of paying permissions for coursepacks, all will be lost. The other is a rosy brochure for investors. Everything’s fine. Profits are up. There’s money to be made-at least for the next few quarters. Après nous, le déluge. Until then, dude, party on!

While all eyes are fixed on the ups and downs of the Dow, which everyone seems to agree is shaped more by emotion than rational economic analysis, the trend lines for jobs, income, and well-being of ordinary people are holding steady-headed in one direction, just like library budgets: down. Sharing of any kind just doesn’t seem to fit the way our economy works today, unless that sharing carries with it monetizable data dumps of personal information.

We need to figure out how we’re going to fulfill the mission of academic libraries-in which sharing is pretty much a key feature-without the help of profit-driven corporations and highly profitable non-profits. Their idea of how to sustain the advancement of knowledge is working fine-so long as there are profits. We’d better be prepared to row through the night when there aren’t.

Barbara Fister About Barbara Fister

Barbara Fister is a librarian at Gustavus Adolphus College, St. Peter, MN, a contributor to ACRLog, and an author of crime fiction. Her latest mystery, Through the Cracks (see review), was published in 2010 by Minotaur Books.
Photo by Debora Miller

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