A post I didn’t see coming: on the last days of the printed catalog

I was going to offer a roundup of book news today and started writing out a brief intro for it. Then the intro became the post, and well, the news roundup will come another day.

We’ve just received a few advances of our Fall 2009 catalogs, and will see the rest of the shipment arrive next week. As the person responsible for all the text wrangling for the seasonal catalog, the twice yearly delivery days usually feel sort of like my birthday, or Christmas, or something. Having a tangible product that represents months of hard work is gratifying.

The tough (and painful) budget crunching happening throughout the publishing industry right now coincides with new technologies that can allow us to do more online and less in print. Here at UNCP, we are not quite at the point of getting rid of our print catalog and going all online, as HarperCollins has done, but who knows what we’ll be doing next time around. Personally, I wonder, if I can’t hold it, will it still feel like a completed project? I’m talking about catalogs at the moment, which hold sentimental value only (if at all) to those who put their sweat into them, but then I start to panic: is a digital-only catalog the gateway drug to digital-only books??

The books! The comforting, comfortable books!

Enough people are blogging about the demise of publishing as we know it that I don’t feel the need to rehash what everyone is saying. But just as every crisis is also an opportunity (someone clearly spiked my cornflakes with a shot of optimism today), the end of publishing as we know it does not mean the end of publishing. It just means that a lot of stuff is going to be done differently.

It’s sort of the theme of this economic crisis: old industries having to learn new tricks and become new industries. In the auto industry, the banking industry, even retail, the old ways of doing things won’t cut it anymore.

Remember how, in the 1990s, the 2000s seemed so futuristic? Weren’t we supposed to be commuting by hovercraft by now? Well when the clock struck midnight and the year 2000 began, it was a little underwhelming that nothing huge and dramatic happened. “A new millenium” has such a lifechanging sound to it!

Well, I think we’re finally starting to see what some of this “new millennium” business is going to look like – or at least we know some of what it’s not going to look like. And these growing pains aren’t always so much fun to go through. New gadgets are cool. Obsolete skills are not.

Frankly – and I mean this in the best possible way – it tempers the fear a little bit to know that other industries are going through exactly what publishing is going through right now: evolve or die.

The worst part is not knowing what the new evolved version will look like and who will be part of it.

I suspect it won’t be long before the paper catalog is a relic of the past, a remnant of the old way of publishing, the “before.” The important thing right now is to recognize that we are in the “during” and if we welcome the right kinds of change, we’ll make it to the “after” of this publishing revolution.