Smaller May Be Better For Publishing

Harbour Publishing | BCBusiness
Home Truths, one of Harbour Publishing’s many B.C.-focused titles.

The publishing industry isn’t dying; it’s simply changing. The “mass” model may be under attack, but new, more convenient business models are replacing it.

The recent bankruptcy filing by Vancouver’s D&M Publishing, best known for its Douglas & McIntyre imprint, last October was seen as another blow to a publishing industry in turmoil.

A shift to e-books and the reading on tablets were seen as factors in the publisher’s downfall, as it has been for the publishing industry in general.

After all, everybody knows that publishing is a dying industry, right?

But this week’s purchase of Douglas & McIntyre by Sunshine Coast company Harbour Publishing makes us question much of that conventional wisdom.

Harbour co-owner Howard (Howie) White, who’s been in publishing since 1974, says people are just as interested in buying books as they were 20 years ago.

And it seems that’s what’s at the crux of all this industry death talk. People are buying books, but maybe not in previous quantities and maybe from different suppliers like self-publishers or smaller, more specialized publishing houses.  

The industry has been dominated for some time by giants—huge manufacturing corporations whose product is books, but could just as easily be power tools or widgets. Their bottomline involves ever-increasing sales to please the stock market.

That line’s been wobbling lately so the giants are invoking the Pareto principle, also known as the 80-20 rule. They’re concentrating on where 80 per cent of their profits come from: the 20 percent of books that are million-plus sellers.

But as we’ve seen in other disrupted industries, there’s such a thing as the long tail—that other 20 per cent of buyers. In this case, we’re probably talking about those who aren’t interested in the mass-produced sludge that passes for big-publisher offerings and who can provide a living for self-publishing authors or smaller and more agile (and often regional) publishers like Harbour.

In the long tail, the individual rules instead of the masses—and these individuals together may be the salvation of publishing.