I just finished "The Business Of Books" by Andre Schiffrin, which was primarily interesting to me for one reason. The business of publishing that he describes growing up in is not the business that I write about, but then again, it's a publishing world that he's eulogizing. His conclusions about the new world of trade publishing being focused on the frontlist and the bottom line agree with my own observations, though he tends read politics into everything at the same time. I don't believe the publishing business has ever stopped evolving, or that there was ever a time that bestsellers weren't important for various reasons. But I do agree that publishing for backlist potential isn't in fashion at the big trades.
One of the remarkable things about the Internet is the speed at which evolution takes place. It's still a game of incremental changes and survival of the fittest, but the word gets around very quickly and to the winner belong the spoils. When I talk to publishers about working the Internet into their business model, I suspect my enthusiasm sometimes makes it sound like I'm asking them to give up paper books, or distribution relationships. So many publishers have made major commitments to the Internet and received little to show for it because their focus was on budgeting, rather than understanding how a web presence could compliment their existing business model. Evolution may come quickly on the web, but a publisher who tries to get to the finish line in one shot rather than testing incremental adaptations to their organism is just begging to become an evolutionary dead end.
Changes on the margins of any business lead to big effects over time. Positive changes to book margins (ie, the gross profit per book) when publishers face very similar costs for NYC office space, printing and authors may make the difference as to which publishers survive in the long run. Winnowing out the weaker publishers may be a process of a few percentage points on the margins, not spectacular blow-ups due to over-sized advances that don't pay out or huge bookstore returns of no longer promising titles. All things being equal, if two publishers are competing in similar areas with similar staff and cost structures, I would expect the publisher who adapts better to the Internet to be the publisher who survives. But bestseller obsessed publishers think, "If the Internet didn't work for Stephen King, how could it do anything for us?"
I believe, from multiple discussions with publishers whose Internet efforts are highly limited, that the stumbling point is the mental commitment to learning something new. Most publishers have no trouble coming up with a budget for web design and upkeep, but their desire is to write a contractor a check and not hear about it again. The website, for them, is like a space advertisement intended more for branding purposes than anything else. But those same publishers would be horrified if they found they'd spent fifty cents a book more on printing than everybody else in the business for the same quality product. Survival in the long haul is often a question of being a second faster or fifty cents cheaper. Publishers who don't spend any money on marketing, on title acquisition, on direct sales, peer reviews, focus groups and public relations can afford to ignore their websites as long as the e-mail works. Publishers who do spend money on those activities and hope to be around after the next meteor hits had better start evolving now, a little at a time.