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Publishing: A Dying Industry?

For this issue we decided to dive into the culture of the book and publishing industry rather than that of an English speaking country. We, Hanne and James, decided to interview Jorine – someone who has worked in publishing for years – to hear what her thoughts were on the impact of the crisis, the introduced eBooks, and what the actual cause is of the decline in this branch.

As with most declines of businesses, it all started with the notorious crisis we hear about on nearly a daily basis. The first crisis hit in 2008 and at first it seemed as if the book industry was not affected by it. People spent less money on holidays, cars, and other luxury items. They would go on cheaper holidays for example. Books were not considered to be a luxury item so people still bought books regularly. Sometime in 2010 it, unfortunately, did hit the book industry.

People tend to think that the decline has to do with the introduced eBooks but this is not the case we hear. In 2010 more and more people spent their free time on social media such as Facebook and Twitter (though Facebook has been around since 2006, it has really taken off in the last 3-4 years). According to Jorine, it only got worse as the iPad was introduced. People would not grab a book in their spare time anymore – they would go on Facebook, or play Wordfeud, Angry Birds or any other game that was available within arm’s reach on that clever device. It escalated. The book industry was now facing a completely new and unknown competition without knowing how to compete with it on the leisure market. Sales went down with a few percent, but it had a huge impact on the Dutch book industry.

With the introduction of items such as the eReader and iPads more people started reading eBooks. The number of eBooks sold increased considerably as the eReaders became more affordable too. Many people also downloaded illegal versions of the books and that is something which cannot be stopped. In the Netherlands it was not considered worthwile to invest in protecting the digital content as it would be hacked in no time anyway – people will find a way to do it. Even older generations are using eBooks which had an impact on the book industry as well as they are a large chunk of the readership.

When the eBooks first came out, publishers decided to only deduct the costs that are needed in making a physical book (printing, binding, and paper). In essence these costs are quite low and are usually around €5,-. If the book itself then costs €20, the eBook would cost €15. But who would pay €15 for a PDF file?! These are the prices the first eBooks were sold for – many customers were lost this way as they would simply download an illegal version. No matter how cheap you make it after this point, those customers are lost forever as they already found a way to get the books for free.

Another change in the industry was that not as many books were ordered and bought by the bookstores at the trading fairs1. At a trading fair, the publishers show which books they have to offer and bookstores order a certain amount of the books they are interested in, or they believe their customers would be interested in. Jorine tells us it is an oldfashioned and cumbersome system which has not been able to develop with modern times. Whereas some 10 years ago bookstores would order larger quantities of books they are more careful now and will only order a few copies of even lesser titles. Bookstores also have the possibility to return the books which were not sold, creating further instability for the publishers as they cannot say beforehand how much money they will be making from that initial sale. It is getting too expensive for the publishers to print many different books as they do not know whether or not it will be sold at all. Because the number of books they can offer gets quite limited this way, they are bound to sell only bestsellers. Very many new titles are discarded due to this new way of looking at books, as they are not deemed profitable.

The majority of the publishers in the Netherlands are not independent but part of one of three large corporations. The publishers are bound to the corporation's requirement to surpass their profit of the previous year, with as result that a lot of pulp gets published to meet this quota. Due to some book series hype such as Harry Potter and Twilight, they are also very keen on publishing trilogies which may not be as good as a single book as they sell better. There are also independent publishers2 which are not bound to these criteria and decide to publish only the books and poetry they believe in, but these are around in smaller quantities. They may have one best seller per year, or even only one best seller every two years, but they retain their integrity.

This new development in book publishing does not only affect bookstores and publishing companies, but also translators, (book) printing companies, proofreaders, editors, bookbinders and distribution houses.

Authors are also affected by this as they are often not able to live off of book profits alone. They will, for example, give lectures or write an article or column for a magazine to make a living. However, authors are often not good at orating – their skills lie with writing rather than public speaking. This brings use to a new type of author: the commercial author. Publishing is becoming more and more about the appearance and marketability: not only of the book itself but also of the author. The authors need to be able to speak well in public and have a pretty face to look at. It is not about what you are selling and the content anymore but that you are selling. The profession of writing is changing.

For editors and proofreaders it is also not about the content anymore – they do not get to change it or improve it much at all. The quality of books goes down because of that.

Translators do not get as many tasks as before either. We were told a sad story about a translator who had been in the business for 40 years and who needed to take a part-time job as a bus driver as he was not able to live off of translating books anymore.

The future of this industry is uncertain and when asking Jorine how she would like for it to look like, she tells us that there might be a silver lining in this whole fiasco. She expects that much will change. Many publishers are reaching their end and are forced to restart or merge with others. She hopes it will stabilize and offer smaller quantities of pulp and more books of substance. Hopefully the smaller bookstores also remain – they do know a lot about the books they have in the store and can tell you more about them unlike a cashier or worker at a larger store like AKO who is busy selling cigarettes and pulp fiction. People are still interested in reading, but they just read less. Everyone is holding their breath to see which road we are heading down.

We learned a lot from talking to Jorine and hope that we were able to inform you more about this industry. I (James) know that the next time I am heading to the bookstore to get my next dose of reading material, I will be looking for the smaller, independent bookstore (such as the Mayflower at the Hogewoerd) rather than the larger retailer and hopefully be able to contribute to keeping this important business alive.

By Hanne Kouwenberg and James Lokas


1. Trading fair (or ‘beurs’) is a place where publishers can sell the books they are planning on publishing to interested bookstores, bookstores order their books through such fairs. These fairs are held three times a year.

2. Some examples: Van Oorschot (now run by van Oorschot jr.), De Harmonie (bought the rights to the Dutch translation of Harry Potter before it became the giant success it is now), Athenaeum, Van Ditmar, Podium (publisher of Kluun), and De Geus (located in Breda).