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MELISSA BLOCK, host:
From NPR News, this is All Things Considered. I'm Melissa Block.
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And I'm Michele Norris. The publishing world is still trying to absorb this week's bad news. Several publishing houses announced layoffs or salary freezes, and two major players in the business were left without jobs after a major reorganization at Random House. As NPR's Lynn Neary reports, all this comes at an anxious time for booksellers.
LYNN NEARY: No one ever thought that publishing would be spared from the current economic turmoil, but when the fallout from the Random House reorganization was announced on the same day that Simon & Schuster and the Christian publishing company Thomas Nelson announced layoffs, it stunned the book world, says Publishers Weekly editor-in-chief, Sara Nelson.
Ms. SARA NELSON (Editor-in-Chief, Publishers Weekly): It's a microcosm of what's been going on in the real world, as it were, I mean, in the larger world. But I think, while many of these things were not unexpected, the kind of volume of them was just shocking and really sobering.
NEARY: Even as the bad economic news had been bearing down, most people in the book business were trying to be optimistic. Books, they said, are recession-proof because they're cheap. But Larry Robin, who's been in the bookselling business since 1960, doesn't buy that conventional wisdom.
Mr. LARRY ROBIN (Owner, Robin's Bookstore, Philadelphia): In today's world, it isn't cheap entertainment anymore. With the computer and with iPods and Netflix, I mean, you can get all sorts of other entertainment.
NEARY: Robin's Bookstore has been a fixture in downtown Philadelphia since 1936. But now, Robin is getting out of the business of selling new books and will sell used books instead.
Mr. ROBIN: If it was a matter of hanging on for a year, I could do that, but I don't see it changing. I don't see the economy getting better for a long time. I don't see that economic model of a retail store coming back.
NEARY: Independent bookstores have been struggling to survive ever since the advent of the chain stores. But now, even the chains are under threat, with competition from big-box stores like Costco and, more significantly, from the online bookselling behemoth, Amazon. Barnes & Noble, Borders and Books-A-Million all reported a decline in sales in the third quarter, and there's some concern that Borders may not survive. Bookstores around the country reported mixed sales over the Thanksgiving weekend. But there was good news for some, like Becky Anderson of Anderson's Bookshop in suburban Chicago. She says so far, business is better than she expected. It's next year she's worried about. She expects to pull back on everything, including book orders.
Ms. BECKY ANDERSON (Owner, Anderson's Bookshop, Chicago): There may be some of those books that might have been a smaller buy that maybe we won't - we're going to let go for now. And if it's something that we're hearing some buzz on after the fact, then we'll definitely pick it up. But there are some things that we, you know, we may not be buying as much of, or maybe skipping.
NEARY: The prospect of fewer book orders and tightening credit already led one publishing house to make a decision that set off alarm bells throughout the book industry. Just before Thanksgiving, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, a newly merged company, announced it was putting a temporary halt on the acquisition of new books. Ellen Geiger, an agent with the Frances Goldin Literary Agency, says the move made people nervous.
Ms. ELLEN GEIGER (Senior Agent, Frances Goldin Literary Agency): Because acquisitions are really the lifeblood of our business - it's the pipeline, it's the food chain - and if one company is halting their acquisitions, it's really a cause of great concern.
NEARY: Like other industries caught in the economic downturn, publishing is being forced to take a hard look at how it does business. Jonathan Burnham is CEO, vice president and publisher of Harper, an imprint of HarperCollins.
Mr. JONATHAN BURNHAM (Chief Executive Officer, Harper): We were already facing certain big challenges before the recession came along, and those challenges were connected to the traditional mechanisms of the book business.
NEARY: Burnham says the economic downturn means publishers may be forced to find an alternative to the system of returns, which allows stores to return unsold books to warehouses, resulting in books being shipped back and forth across the country at great cost. Beyond that, Burnham says, the industry must now truly grapple with digital advances, like electronic readers, that are already leading to dramatic changes.
Mr. BURNHAM: It's making us focus even more intently on how to make sense of a digital future and how quickly we should move towards it, given that publishing digitally will liberate publishers, and indeed, readers, from the costs and the problems of producing physical books.
NEARY: Burnham says book lovers will always be able to buy beautifully produced copies of books, but there could be fewer of them, as booksellers and book publishers search for a new way to do business in the new economy. Lynn Neary, NPR News, Washington.
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