Relationships still the best chapter in the book industry

As book publishing undergoes a major shift, I've seen enough headlines heralding doomsday for the industry to make me, a lifelong book lover, a little queasy. A glance around the subway in New York City tells me books are far from dead; even if more people are holding tablets instead of paperbacks, they are still reading.

As book publishing undergoes a major shift, I've seen enough headlines heralding doomsday for the industry to make me, a lifelong book lover, a little queasy. A glance around the subway in New York City tells me books are far from dead; even if more people are holding tablets instead of paperbacks, they are still reading.

What worries me, though, is the potential loss of personal connections between readers and authors, writers and editors, and readers and booksellers.

Random House said in October it would merge with Penguin, and the following month news broke that HarperCollins was in preliminary merger talks with Simon & Schuster. Both deals would reduce the six big book publishers to four and could give them more leverage in competing with Internet giants such as Amazon. Elsewhere on the digital publishing battlefront, HarperCollins, Hachette, and Simon & Schuster settled an antitrust lawsuit earlier this year that alleged they colluded with Apple to fix e-book prices, while Macmillan said it would fight the charges.

Meanwhile, the number of independent booksellers continues to shrink. Even large chains such as Borders (which went bankrupt) and Barnes & Noble (whose Nook and retail sales slipped last year) are struggling to compete with the likes of Amazon.

For those communicators called upon to help navigate firms in this uncertain landscape, here is a simple truth I heard during PRWeek's Corporate Reputation Roundtable: "People don't trust institutions. They trust relationships."

As publishers get bigger, they should heed the relationships at the heart of the industry to maintain trust among readers and writers. Readers often form powerful connections with their favorite books and authors, becoming louder advocates for those works than any publicity campaign. Writers create and share their best work with the nurturing and guidance of editors and publishers. Yet trust in the industry will erode if companies trying to monopolize the marketplace leave less room for diversity and creativity.

At the roundtable, I was also reminded that people still crave personal interaction. Books can live beyond their pages. I want to get to know the authors behind the stories I love and be assured that publishers will provide authors with opportunities to share more of those stories. I want to have conversations about books with friends and the bookseller. These truths don't hold the answers to every challenge confronting publishers, but they point to the kind of communications that can help an evolving industry tell its story.

Brittaney Kiefer is the corporate reporter for PRWeek. She can be contacted at brittaney.kiefer@prweek.com.

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