This very interesting article from the NY Times on the business of publishing and the unpredictability of it seems to forget one thing: it's art. We're not talking about manufacturing and selling widgets. No one decides whether they "like" a widget in the same way they like or dislike a book. In fact, I'm afraid that publishing is actually too much like a traditional industry, always trying to repeat and copy its previous successes. Certainly, if editors were to only select books because they believed they would be "successful," many great books would never be published. Great books are not always successful. And the successful book isn't always what one would think might be successful.
I do think, though, that publishing as a whole would gain if it were more responsive to the audience. As the article points out:
Television stations have created online forums for viewers and may use the information there to make programming decisions. Game developers solicit input from users through virtual communities over the Internet. Airlines and hotels have developed increasingly sophisticated databases of customers.
Publishers, by contrast, put up Web sites where, in some cases, readers can sign up for announcements of new titles. But information rarely flows the other way — from readers back to the editors.
The article is most interesting when it talks numbers. $25,000 paid for "The Nanny Diaries. $8 million for Charles Frazier's follow-up "Cold Mountain." And 750,000 copies of it printed,with only 240,000 sold. That means the company hasn't even (and probably never will) recoup the advance.
All of it tells me that there is room in the industry for a new business model, something outside of digital or print-on-demand. I think there remains away to make publishing traditional printed books profitable.