An as-told-to interview with a Chicago publishing whiz, for our Spring Books issue.
"Changes in the publishing industry are happening more and more quickly every year. It doesn't have so much to do with what people want to read as with how they find it and the means by which they read it. For publishers, the choice is between traditional ways of offering books and trying to figure out how to make the new ways—particularly e-books—work in terms of economics.
When I first got here we were talking about e-books, but not a lot was really happening. We've made that leap now and are set up to sell e-books.
There've also been a lot of changes in the way that libraries go about purchasing their books. Libraries have traditionally been the largest audience for university press books. But as their budgets have been cut, they've had to make different decisions about the books they purchase—and that has forced us to think differently.
Borders going out of business was a blow to every publisher. Having only one big brick-and-mortar player left puts us in a more difficult position. Barnes & Noble isn't in the greatest shape, either, so we have to hope that they'll figure out how to at least stay on the scene.
Everyone was afraid that all the independent bookstores would disappear, and that didn't happen. There are far fewer than there used to be, but they still exist and some of them still thrive. I don't think it's that people are reading fewer books. It's simply that their habits are changing. When the publishing, selling, and reading of e-books evolves, bookstores will have to adapt. I think they'll exist in some form, but it might be a quite different form than what we have now.
It's important for publishers to remember that they're not technology companies. Their business is finding good books that people will want to read. Those that thrive in the current environment will be the ones that keep this as their primary goal and also manage to ride the wave of technological change. Readers will find a good book if the publisher can take advantage of whatever means are available for getting it out into the world.
There's a lot about the book business that hasn't changed. I still go out and decide whether I want to publish a book based on whether I think people will want to read it. I'm still just as excited when I read a novel or a play script or a very insightful scholarly book and want to find a way to share it with its potential audience. There's a great deal of coverage of the volatility of publishing at the moment, but the essence of reading and what the publishers are trying to do will, I think, stay the same regardless of the particulars of the transactions."