An Amazon Problem: The Book Is Dead, Long Live the Book

Even publishing executives not known for their pessimism, like Kiepenhauer & Witsch Publisher Helge Malchow, expect continued decline in the industry in the coming years. Others say that sales could even drop by more than 20 percent in the coming years. "For decades, the publishing business was pretty much the same," says Malchow. "It is now entering a crisis for the first time, and everything will look different after that."

For years, careful calculations allowed a marriage of intellect and money to persevere. Publishing houses sought to assure they could generate enough bestsellers that could be used to ensure profits and to subsidize the more sophisticated books favored by editors and publishers that also ensured a publishing house's cachet and literary reputation. It's a system that has guaranteed diversity in the books published for decades.

The publishing industry produces more than 90,000 new books a year in Germany. The Suhrkamp publishing group alone publishes about 460 new titles, each written, edited and expensively produced with an enormous amount of thought going into them. It's the very culture that Suhrkamp is famous for in Germany. But it also sells only 500 copies of some titles. The Dead Writers' Society

With this approach, the company has about €30 million ($39 million) in annual sales and a work force of about 110 employees. Its overhead is high compared with other publishing houses, especially in light of a wretched return on sales estimated at about 0.5 percent. A significant portion of profits is not derived from new releases, but from the sale of books on the so-called backlist, bestsellers by the likes of Hermann Hesse, Bertolt Brecht and Max Frisch.

This dead writers's society is like a life insurance policy for Suhrkamp. But once an author has been dead 70 years, the works enter into the public domain. Hesse died 51 years ago and Brecht has been dead for 57 years. In other words, these revenue sources are finite.

Nevertheless, Suhrkamp's reputation remains unbroken. Three Suhrkamp titles were on the shortlist for the German Book Prize last fall, and one of the best books, Rainald Goetz's "Johann Holtrop," wasn't even on the list. But as illustrious as all of this seems, it still doesn't do much for the bottom line.

The past, from which Suhrkamp and other publishing houses are just awakening, was a luxury situation that depended largely on one circumstance: that success was not possible without publishers. Without publishers, readers would have nothing to read, and without publishers, authors couldn't be authors.

That's changing. Nowadays, publishers are suddenly expected to explain and even prove their achievements and how they make money. It is no longer anything special to bestow the seal of the "writer" on someone when anyone can acquire the label on his or her own.

These changes are currently affecting all levels of the book business, as things become expendable. Even bookstores and the recommendations of their booksellers have become expendable with the rise of online booksellers like Amazon, whose platforms allow customers to recommend books to each other. With the emergence of self-publishing, traditional publishing houses themselves are becoming expendable. Meanwhile, e-books, which are significantly cheaper to produce, are making the printed book expendable.

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