My friend Sternwallow, who is very smart but not smart enough to stay out of the small-press publishing biz, offers an acerb insight into the current state of the market:
Update: My friend Larry, another guy who knows what he is talking about, responds:
...the scary part to me is how people understand this in some areas, but not in others. Theoretically, product placement is a legit business; we know that the summer movies at the Cineplex are going to be the latest blockbuster, regular Hollywood fare. But we know that we can turn to our local art house for something better, or rent something satisfying from Netflix. We know that the stuff piled high at the ends of the shelves in supermarkets is probably crap; we can get beyond that to the fresh meats and produce we want, or patronize the farmer’s markets and fish trucks that are now becoming more popular.
But otherwise intelligent people still think that, because of its vastness, a big B&N Superstore must have all the books in the world available. They don’t, of course, they have only what they think (or publishers will pay to have them think) can sell. Again, this would be OK but where is that alternative channel? The independents have been run out of town. When you apply the commercial model to the world of ideas, it’s a bit scary. You may have the best book on how to solve the Iraqi crisis, or fix Social Security, or whatever. But if your publicist cannot get you on Jon Stuart or Oprah, and your publisher will not pay to have your books piled high inside the front doors of B&N, your ideas are dead.
It's true, I suppose, but my feeling is that it was ever thus, and it used to be worse. Because the little independents didn't have anything, and didn't know where it was when they did. There are some powerful reasons for the success of the chains, and not all of them fit into conspiracy theories.
Meanwhile, retail book sales keep dropping, and I suspect they will continue to do so. If people are sufficiently retro to want to read, they'll do it online for free or via abebooks.com for $1 a book. And why shouldn't they?