Disney bought Marvel for over four billion dollars.
Four billion dollars!
In my lifetime I have seen a comic book company aimed at children go from being printed on rotten paper with the worst four-color printing and a rotten distribution system to something that became worth four billion dollars.
Marvel. Comic books. Adults were ashamed to work in comic books!
Marvel! Home of Spider-Man, The Fantastic Four, Thor, Hulk, Man-Thing, Ant-Man, X-Men.
Think about those characters.
How many people can say their lives were changed by reading a comic book?
How many people can say they recall issue X of title Z because it affected their lives forever?
How many can quote lines of dialogue of any significance from any of them?
I grew up reading comic books. I collected them. I was involved in fandom. I did a few fanzines.
And I can tell you that I sit here absolutely stewing that ephemeral Marvel came be to valued at five billion dollars while publishers of eternal books — books that have and do change people’s lives, that people have quoted and can quote lines from — are still heading down the road to suicide.
You are telling me an industry that has published Norman Mailer, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Napoleon Hill, Raymond Chandler, Harlan Ellison, Malcolm Gladwell, Bruce Sterling, Isaac Asimov, and many, many more cannot triumph over the perceived value of a single comic book company?
I think this is unprecedented in all of human history.
It’s a bigger disaster than the destruction of the Library of Alexandria.
Next week, Apple will unveil its iSlate (or whatever the hell the final trademark is they decide to use).
As Booksquare stated, The Unicorn Will Not Save Publishing.
I’ve sat here this morning contemplating that — and it is true.
1) The public has grown indifferent to reading. What is being done about this? Nothing. For all of the do-gooderism thrown at literacy for decades — beginning with and including noxious tripe such as Sesame Street — the pool of readers as percentage of population continues to shrink, not grow. The message that reading builds a life is nowhere to be seen.
2) Young people are excited by the illusion of mastery provided by games. Commodore was the only company to deliver any pushback to this trend, in a memorable TV commercial.
Has publishing done any counter-message against games? Ever? No.
3) Publishing thinks tarting-up storytelling with bells and whistles will save it. No. There is a big difference between a book that can be improved by enhancements — or one in which the extras are part of the narrative itself — and one that has things added to it merely to inflate its selling price. Publishing is going offer the latter, not the former. People will soon catch on to this and feel justifiably cheated. Also, it is not the job of a publisher to add things to a book.
4) No publisher is seeing books the way Google and other tech companies see books. And this is the self-inflicted poison, the suicide of the industry. The value in publishing does not lie in desperate measures such as protecting price or in adding makeup to inflate the price — it’s in the metadata, the connective information tissue, that only a publisher can create.
The six major publishers are each owned by large corporations.
Random House is owned by Bertelsmann. That’s a German company. How can any of this escape them? The Germans are famous for foresight and attention to detail. Have they become autistic?
Macmillan is owned by Georg von Holtzbrinck Publishing Group, another German company. See above.
HarperCollins is owned by Rupert Murdoch. This failure will be no surprise. Murdoch has the gross taste of the nouveau riche and has never understood the online world from the very start, with his acquisition of Delphi through to what he believed would be his Internet Shangri-La, MySpace. As he ruined them, he will ruin HarperCollins.
Simon & Schuster is owned by CBS. Yeah, how much bookish stuff have you ever seen on CBS?
Penguin (the curse of my life) is owned by Pearson, which also owns The Financial Times. They are not paying attention to the correct bottom line.
Little, Brown and Company is owned by French conglomerate Hachette. The French are more savvy towards the value of books than we Americans, but so far I’ve seen absolutely no evidence of any digital book leadership here, either.
Booksquare also stated. “Saving publishing is the job of publishers.”
They’re not doing so and will not do so on their current course.
I have zero confidence in an industry that favored handing over its heritage to Google.
And why should anyone else — especially the Boards of Directors of their parent companies?
Where are these Directors to put their foot down and finally ask, “What the hell do you think you’re doing?”
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Ah, welcome to the dark side. Wallow a day or so and then cross over to join the optimists. Redefine “publisher” and remember the rest of my mantra. The Big Six are not focused on saving publishing, they are focused on saving publishing as it is. Once you stop worrying about that, possibilities emerge.
If the public has grown indifferent to reading, I’m not sure it’s totally the publishing industry’s fault; surely writers are as much to blame. Of the authors you mention, Chandler’s a great name but the rest are often only barely worth their hype; The Great Gatsby, for one, certainly could have used a better editor, and Mailer was better at being belligerent than writing prose.
Marvel’s had a ton of great storytellers writing exciting tales. Lobdell’s X-Men run was as good as if not better than anything Ellison’s done.
Have you already made the Apple to Pixar to Disney to Marvel connection (I haven’t read every post)? If Apple does in fact announce a tablet reading device next week, Marvel comics might look spectacular on it.
I’m not sure I agree with you about wherein the value of publishing lies, but then that may be because I’m a writer and think that the most valuable thing in the world is still its stories.
Disney + Pixar + Marvel + Apple + iTablet
I figured you had. I couldn’t easily find it. I’m a little surprised you didn’t include Hyperion among your publishers. What does it take to be one of the big six? They have Mitch Albom, who was a Starbucks writer… They’re distributed but not technically owned by HarperCollins.
Part of me hopes there’s no tablet announced next week. Partly because I’d love to see egg on the NYT’s and WSJ’s face after years of breathless reporting of rumors, but also because I’d hate for you to end your blog. Will you start a new one?
Fortunes have been made not listening to me. But I think the very cream or curdles of publishing can be made to work with a possible Apple device. I think that books might be heard if not read. Software like Dragon Dictation on an iPhone or iPad reading the book or newspaper content might save the best newspapers. The public’s literacy may not save the best of books or essays; But books of some sort may do well.
Isn’t Marvel’s value based on using their IP for movies, not their actual publication of comics? Perhaps the issue is that publishing houses weren’t smart enough to demand movie rights in their contracts with authors, unlike the comic industry which has a long history of screwing over creators.
Well, there’s also the fact too many creations for comics are under Work For Hire contracts too.
A good post and enjoyable. A few thoughts!
As ever, I caution against ruling out Murdoch in any game that involves money!
On top of which, perhaps the most active and challenging imprint of a major house in the last while has been Harper Studio which, with it’s different author reward structure, is well placed to benefit from a changed industry.
I also wouldn’t underestimate Macmillan’s chops, after all they are behind one of the most impressive Big 6 community experiments, Tor.com
Hachette have made digital moves in France (and their UK Digital guy, George Walkley is very savvy) that are worth keeping an eye on.
As for the rest, I’d caution against suggesting they are done for. they’ll likely survive perhaps not as 6 and certainly with fewer employees and authors per house!
Sometimes inaction is a wise course, especially when committing one way has a direct and real cost!
Before giving up on publishing as short-sighted, I’d look at the innovative projects going on. For instance, O’Reilly adding RDF metadata, and now embedding RDFa–and supporting ePub tools like Bookworm. Or Random House opening a digital side, which has got several interesting projects. Plus innovation with sales and distribution models (e.g. Tor, as Eoin mentions).
We’re in the incunabula age of the networked book and the multimedia ‘book’. Interactivity is one direction books will go in the future. Hopefully enriched metadata is another.
Speaking of metadata, plenty of people other than publishers create metadata (like catalogers in libraries). Upstream, distributors (B&T) and bookstores (from small bookstores like the one I used to work at to the giants like Amazon) massage, manipulate, transform, or sometimes recreate and/or enrich the existing (ONIX) metadata.
Of course I’d love to see better metadata, from publishers and others! And I’d love to see more investment into innovation, and more empathy with customers (e.g. ebook pricing models, alternatives to DRM like the ones Eric Hellman suggests).
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