Is this Really the Golden Age of Publishing? Ask Eddie Redmayne’s Brother

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According to Charlie Redmayne, HarperCollins UK CEO and half-brother of Eddie, the book business has entered its Golden Age. He said as much earlier this month at a garden party for writers and publishers on a “glorious summer’s evening” in London. Publishing Perspectives quotes Redmayne, who was previously the CEO of Harry Potter fansite Pottermore, exhorting his guests to hold their heads high. “I genuinely believe publishing is entering a golden age,” he exclaimed. “There are more people reading than ever.”

That same day, in an interview with Business Standard, Redmayne offered readers more Kool-Aid. “It is the golden age of book publishing,” Redmayne repeated, mantra-like. “The last two years have been fantastic for us, our profits have gone up. I don’t understand why everyone is so down and out.”

Is Redmayne correct? Are we really living in a golden age of publishing?

Well, we’ve heard this before, and it wasn’t necessarily a harbinger of good times. Talking to NPR in 2013, Hachette CEO Michael Pietsch sang the good news from on high. “I think we’re in a golden age for books — reading, writing and publishing,” Pietsch said. “And the ways that publishers can work to connect readers with writers now are the kinds of things that publishers have dreamt of doing since Gutenberg first put down a line of type.”

Cue two years of knock-down-drag-out warfare between Hachette and Amazon over ebook pricing.

Not to mention that Pietsch, at the time, was heading off the argument — made by Mark Coker of Smashwords and others — that “traditional publishers [will] become more and more irrelevant.” If that complaint sounds familiar, it might be because Matthew Iglesias made it again roughly a year later.

“Even in the brave new world of e-publishing,” Iglesias explainered at Vox, “authors are still making a crucial contribution to the industry by writing the books. Publishers are getting squeezed out because they don’t contribute anything of value.”

It’s either that publishers are useless and we’re living in a golden age of publishing, or we’re living in a golden age of publishing and publishers are useless. You can’t have one without the other. And notwithstanding Redmayne’s justifiable hereditary optimism, it would seem that most authors, independent or traditional, must look forward to stagnating growth in a crowded market. According to Coker (again), the industry will continue to slow:

[M]ost authors experienced a slower growth year [in 2014] – especially when compared against the go-go days of exponential growth from 2008 to 2012. The causes for this slowdown include a new equilibrium between print and ebook formats; immortal e-books published by publishers and indie authors alike that will never go out of print; the continued growth of self-published titles; and myriad low-cost and free non-book alternatives competing for reader time such as social media, Internet video and games.

So there you have it. We’re not in a Golden Age of publishing because the Golden Age of publishing might have disappeared after 2012. The fact that more people are reading more books now than they ever did before is somewhat immaterial — people also watch more Youtube than ever before.

But if it isn’t a golden age for trade publishing, maybe it’s a golden age for art book publishing? For Chinese web authors? Indie publishing? Photobooks? Profit margins? Of self-published romance novels? Christian publishing? Of saying goodbye to the golden age? Of remembering golden ages?