Thursday, May 21, 2009

Death of the Book: Again with the Falling Sky?

Maybe the people most tightly wound into the book industry are not the most objective when it comes to pronouncing on the health of the book in our culture. That is, they can tell us how they see things now, but they have sunk too far into the “business” end to separate out the “book.”

That’s what I was thinking as I read Elizabeth Sifton’s carefully thought out article in the June 2009 edition of The Nation. Sifton, senior vice-president of Farrar, Strauss, Giroux offers up a deeply considered piece on where she feels the market is now. Unfortunately -- and like so many others -- there are just so many trees in the way: it’s difficult to see the forest. At all.
Do books still have their power? Over the past twenty years, as we’ve thrown ourselves eagerly into a joy ride on the Information Superhighway, we've been learning to read, and been reading, differently; and books aren't necessarily where we start or end our education. The unprofitable chaos of the book business today indicates, among other things, that slow, almost invisible transformations as well as rapid helter-skelter ones have wrecked old reading habits (bad and good) and created new ones (ditto). In the cacophony of modern American commerce, we hear incoherent squeals of dying life-forms along with the triumphant braying and twittering of new human expression.
But, as Sifton herself points out, the industry has been predicting the death of the book for... well, almost forever. And still the book hangs on. Why? So many reasons, really. Portability, ease of use, a classic and proven design. And anyone who wonders if the generations just now heading to reading age will care about reading or will be swept away in a sea of Tweets and Facebook status updates need only utter a short mantra: Rowling, Meyer, Gaiman. Kids are reading. Of course they’re reading. Kids love their books. Treat them right, and those same kids will be reading when they themselves have kids. And why? Because books are good. Reading rocks. And you can reinvent the wheel or build a better mousetrap but nothing will ever duplicate the direct-to-unconscious hit of reading a good book.

Sifton again:
What now? Publishers are battening down, and chain stores are struggling, having staked so much on nationally merchandised dreck, having committed themselves to imitating the look of the big indies but never quite matching their tighter local focus and skill in “hand selling” genuine books to readers. Anyway, the entire world of American retail business is veering toward obsolescence. Must books now find their way in cyberspace?
Yes, yes: point taken. The way books find consumers is changing, at least in part. The way they are published and marketed is changing. Elements of the business of books will change. But the book itself? The book will survive: of course it will.

Of course it will.



Blogger Stephen Miller said...

To the extent reading is in any way endangered (and I agree with Linda that it isn't), the problem is not Kindle, Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Facebook, Twitter, or any of the usual boogey men. The problem is too many books are published, and too many of them are of marginal quality. The current publishing business model cannot sustain itself while it's busy handing out reported seven-figure advances to the likes of Kathy Griffin.

Thursday, May 21, 2009 at 3:11:00 PM PDT  
Blogger Barbara said...

Linda, thanks for your good sense. I'm SO tired of people saying books are dead, nobody reads, the Internet has rewired our brains and made us stupid. The evidence is not there, and there's plenty of evidence to the contrary. It's almost as annoying as middle-aged people pontificating on the habits of kids today without actually talking to kids about their preferences. (They are much less excited about the Kindle than people who are over 50, for many, many reasons. One of them is that they love "real books." I know, I've asked them, hundreds of them.)

Is the business in trouble? When has it not been? Will it have to change? Sure, as businesses always must, but the very first thing that has to change is the notion that people will get rich publishing books. Book publishing is a low profit margin industry. The idiot corporations who bought into it thinking they could make them more profitable can't do it. Get over it. (That goes for authors, too. A few people win the lottery, a few people sell millions of copies of their books. The chances it will happen to you are about as good as buying a lottery ticket. Get over it.)

Bowker recently reported stats for 2008. More books are being published than ever - more than half a million new titles in a single year, and more than half of those are "short run" and "on demand" - which isn't broken down further, but a sizable number are probably self-published. This supports a buried statistic in the famous doom-and-gloom NEA report that more people than in past years are involved in creative writing. I guess the NEA did not find that good news. Culture should be pushed from the taste-setters to the masses. Culture is a one-way street. Don't try this at home.

I'm a huge supporter of independent booksellers and the value they add. I'm also a huge supporter of buying locally produced food and not shopping at Wal-Mart. That said "Must books now find their way in cyberspace?" seems like the wrong question. The Internet allows for some things that are problematic. I have serious reservations about the Google book settlement, not because it doesn't pay authors and publishers enough but because it creates a virtual monopoly on monetizing what should be a public good (library collections); the unequal terms offered to big versus small retail outlets; the scary vertical integration of Amazon and its power to set terms; media consolidation and its disastrous effects. But the Internet is also an incredible boon to book culture. It puts people who love books, and the same kinds of books, together to talk about them, recommend them, feed each others obsessions.

Books are finding their way in cyberspace. Ain't it grand?

Friday, May 22, 2009 at 6:26:00 AM PDT  
Blogger christina said...

As a writer and book lover, I must confess that some worry did cross my mind about books becoming obsolete. It took me just a little time to realize what I feel is the most endearing reason that books will NEVER die: Books are permanent. You can hold a book, etc., but you can also look into a book 10 years from now and you will see the same "story" you saw 10 years hence. The world may be changing as we speak, but Little Women tells the same thing that it told when it was first published all those years ago.

In this ever changing world, we need something to hold onto. We need something to count on. We need something that will never change. That thing is a book.

Saturday, May 23, 2009 at 12:59:00 AM PDT  

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