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Publishing, Education and "How A Book Is Born"
January 9, 2012 - 8:30pm

If you work in higher ed, you fall asleep every night asking yourself the following questions:  

  • Will we suffer the same fate as the record industry, the bookstores and the newspaper business?
  • Is higher ed another example of a physical, as opposed to a digital, information industry - and therefore ripe for disruption?
  • If the core business model of education is built on scarcity, will we survive this transition to information abundance?

I imagine that these questions also haunt the dreams of people who work in publishing?

All these questions, and more, make reading How a Book is Born: The Making of The Art of Fielding a worthwhile investment of our time.  

The barriers to reading this book are actually amazingly low.  This Kindle Single is only $1.99.  At 62 pages, it will not take much time.  And if you have read Harbach's The Art of Fielding (a terrific campus novel), then description this backstory is probably irresistible.

One thing we learn from How A Book Is Born is that publishing is very big business:

"……total book sales in the United States last year were $13.9 billion — and twice that if you include textbooks and other educational materials. Random House, the biggest of the so-called Big Six publishers, brings in about $2.5 billion a year in revenue; Hachette Book Group, at the smaller end of the Big Six, brings in about $700 million. Michael Pietsch’s Little, Brown, which sold 21 million books in 2010, accounted for more than a quarter of that. The vast majority of publishers’ revenue (100 percent, in the case of Little, Brown) is from the sale of books and subsidiary rights to books; for the moment, publishers really have no other way to make money."

The question is, will e-books change not only how books are read, but how they are published? Traditionally, one of the major roles of the publisher has been to place books in bookstores.  Will the place of publishers in the reading ecosystem be threatened if (when?) most books are sold as digital files on the web, and consumed on e-reader platforms?  

Ask this question another way:  Would a book as wonderful as The Art of Fielding have made it to readers without the publishing industry? Reading How A Book Is Born provides a glimpse about the key role of the agents who champion books, the editors that shape the book, the cover designers who make the book appealing, and the publicists that get the word out.  Every book, at least in the traditional publishing model, has many parents.  

What happens if Amazon becomes the publisher of choice?  We may see many many more books get published, with little input from editors, aimed at a narrower slice of readers.  Less quality but more choice.  Lower book costs at the price of few great books.   

Are there any lessons in publishing for higher ed?

What are you reading?


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