Are Books Obsolete?

Although you may have watched your house value decline and your rainy-day fund dry up, there is still the sweet experience of crawling into the pages of a really good book. Reading is one of the best—and cheapest—sources of comfort, entertainment, and escape around.

But the industry that produced that book carries a story of its own. As with every business in these recession-challenged times, economic, environmental, and technological forces are requiring publishers to come up with new ways of packaging ideas and launching them into the world.

Economically, the pain is evident in layoffs and reductions at publishers across the country, from behemoths such as Random House and Simon & Schuster to Christian publishers such as Thomas Nelson and Augsburg Fortress, the Minneapolis-based publishing arm of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. Thomas Nelson, in Nashville, Tennessee, cut 10 percent of its staff last December. Augsburg Fortress laid off 55 people, reduced the number of book proposals it accepts, and closed its nine bookstores.

The financial challenges are compounded by other forces bearing down on the industry. Our increasing consciousness about climate change means that the practices and products of the publishing industry haven’t escaped environmental scrutiny; the ways books are created, manufactured, distributed, consumed, and even discarded all impact the environment. Add to that our changing reading habits, as more and more people gravitate to Web sites, Blackberrys, and electronic readers to consume their reading material, and you have an industry in deep transition.

“Up until very recently, we would ask, ‘What does a publishing company look like in 10 years?’” says Mark Tauber, senior vice president and publisher of HarperOne, which publishes titles on religion, self-help, and spirituality. “That’s still a good question, but it’s more like, ‘What does it look like next year?’”

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Sojourners Magazine May 2009
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