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No happy ending for publishing?

New York magazine’s feature by Boris Kachka about the current state of the book business lays things out like a fractured fairy tale, more Alice in Wonderland or Bluebeard than Cinderella, and rife with poisoned apples. Corporate heads are consolidating their kingdoms, or losing them altogether; solid writers are shuffled aside in lieu of trendy, marketable ladies-and-men-in-waiting; the fairy dust of traditional marketing isn’t working; Borders is on its deathbed; Amazon is the future. Kachka says that “some publishers will transform, some will muddle through, some will die.” And of course, dear reader, the end to this story can always be downloaded on a Kindle.

The demise of publishing has been predicted since the days of Gutenberg. But for most of the past century“through wars and depressions“the business of books has jogged along at a steady pace. It’s one of the main (some would say only) advantages of working in a mature industry: no unsustainable highs, no devastating lows. A stoic calm, peppered with a bit of gallows humor, prevailed in the industry.

Survey New York’s oldest culture industry this season, however, and you won’t find many stoics. What you will find are prophets of doom, Cassandras in blazers and black dresses arguing at elegant lunches over What Is to Be Done. Even best-selling publishers and agents fresh from seven-figure deals worry about what’s coming next. Two, five years from now“who knows? Life moves fast in the waning era of print; publishing doesn’t.

As for how to solve the problems currently plaguing the industry, Kachka says:

[….] As a series of interrelated challenges, they constitute a full-blown crisis“a climate change as unpredictable as it is inevitable. And like global warming, it elicits reactions ranging from denial to Darwinian survivalism to determined stabs at warding off disaster“attempts not to recapture some long-lost era but to harness new, untapped sources of power. That is, if it’s not too late.

(Cue ominous musical soundtrack…)