It’s no surprise – but I appreciate the honesty – that Simon & Schuster CEO Carolyn Reidy admitted recently that her company and the publishing industry as a whole “are at a defining moment.”

That wouldn’t make me feel too warm and fuzzy if I worked at a giant publishing house. It would make Clark Griswold’s failure to receive an annual bonus in “National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation” look almost tame by comparison. At least the king of Christmas lights had a job.

Reidy hit on a theme we’ve discussed before: customers “overwhelmed by an onslaught of information and media, and faced with a bewildering array of possibilities for purchasing books.” She then went on to dispense the obligatory speech of optimism, insisting that S&S will survive and thrive, even in this climate.

That bewildering array is the chief problem, in my opinion.

There are too many books: Bad books, overpriced books, trendy books.

If I were a general market publisher, I’d put the dead bodies of the employees I was laying off in the windows and skedaddle to safety, with all the cash I could scrounge from the coffers.

Failing that, I’d not only “restructure” – that annual chestnut publishers haul out when they really mean that times are tough – but I’d do the vision thing. That means, don’t go George H.W. Bush; go Reagan.

Really examine where you’re at as a company:

  • Do we serve a readership that has too many choices from other publishers?
  • Are we welded to big-box product schedules?
  • How do our books stack up in quality to others?

As I’ve said more than once, I’d find a niche subject for a niche audience, preferably one no one is touching. I’m talking about a publisher’s perfect world, right?

It’s not as unattainable as some would dismissively insist.

Take Master Books – The 35-year-old company, purchased in 1996 by New Leaf Publishing Group, is a publishing juggernaut … and located in a small, small country town.

Publisher Tim Dudley, whose father moved from Chicago to rural Americana, oversees an operation that is debt-free, humming along with its publishing schedule and I suspect flush with, well, we won’t be gauche, but that green stuff publishers love so much.

How’d they do it? By linking with the largest creation-science ministries in the world. It didn’t hurt that they bought into the ideology, which, I’ve always maintained (amid the snickers of my sales buddies in the industry) is key. A publisher that targets a niche audience and then seeks to thoroughly understand that audience is miles ahead of other publishers who try to fake it and fool everyone down the line: authors, sales reps and customers.

A publisher that doesn’t understand his audience will end up with a warehouse full of books.

Master Books does what they do, and they do it very well. They publish for the growing number (mushrooming, actually) of people out there who are interested in the creation/evolution debate.

It doesn’t matter if someone thinks you’re a hayseed for doing it. Again, legions of publishers would put on overalls and a straw hat if it meant increased sales.

Everyone down the line is feeling the economic crunch.

Almost a year ago, Jason Fell wrote for Folio that even niche publishers had to watch their pennies, especially marketing outlay. In 2008, ad pages dropped almost 12 percent from where they’d been a year before. I hate to say it, if any magazine publishers are listening (they’re probably not), but ads in consumer magazines have taken a big hit.

I’m not surprised and I’m actually glad (not surprisingly, I have zero stake in any print publications).

By refocusing what marketing dollars they do have to work with, publishers can give themselves a fighting chance in sales. This is generally thought to pay off now in innovative campaigns that make use of social networking and an author’s own platform.

A marketing director for a publisher near Chicago told me last week that his company had virtually ceased “traditional” marketing efforts. That means they stopped just blindly buying ads in print magazines – both consumer and trade – and started looking for alternatives.

It goes against the psychological grain for publishers to do it, but if I published, say, 20 new titles each year and only six of them sold well … I’d re-evaluate.

For most publishers, what I’m about to say sounds like asking them to drive onto a thin patch of lake ice with a bulldozer. Most are simply too afraid not to publish a bloated list; bloated in the sense of too many books.

These are ballpark figures, but let’s say a publisher has $25,000 each in those 20 titles. That’s a half-million clams.

Six sell; those numbers can be all over the map, and I won’t speculate on revenue for our purposes here. Let’s focus on the 14 dogs.

Numbers there can vary widely, too, but the potential is very real that a publisher will lose hundreds of thousands of dollars on the 14 books that didn’t sell well. By “well,” I mean didn’t sell their first printing, usually somewhere around 5,000 copies.

And I can tell you that a number of publishers know they have several mediocre books in a lineup; they just hope that on the day they publish a book about a Kansas quilt-making club, Osama bin Ladin will emerge from his hideout under the barn of this farm where the quilt-making club meets on the third Tuesday of every month – because that’s the only way that book will sell.

Hoping and wishing are fine when you’re Ralph Parker aching for a Red Ryder BB gun.

They are poor strategies for a publisher trying to navigate a “defining moment” in his industry’s history.

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