I used to come across countless mass market books, genre stuff mostly, that was being thrown away. I would grab a stack and at night drive to a nearby neighborhood and put a different book in each mailbox. I have no idea what happened to those books, if anyone read them. Imagine the surprise…
We try to write about the book business here at the blog, and I thought it would be good to get fellow blogger The Book Lady involved in a conversation.
JR: On the eve of what I hear might be the end of the book business, the Book Lady and I are embarking on a conversation about the future of the printed book, and the state of the novel. If nothing else, we’re ambitious. I don’t really believe the book is going to die, but in every independent store I visit the word is, “is this the last gasp? Is that why it’s so busy? Are people buying books one last time before they unwrap their tablet?” I can’t see a world without books, but is the printed book something of a curiosity, and will these bookstores be the sites of future Antique Roadshows? Kindle, Fire’s, Nooks, and whatever else you read books on, is that what waits all of us? Every editor I talk to is worried about e-books. Will they kill sales, books or both?
As an extension of this worry, where does the novel fall in all this? Where do writers like Jennifer Egan, Colson Whitehead, Kevin Wilson, Adam Ross, Zadie Smith, A.M. Homes and Jonathan Franzen fit into the scheme of the new entertainment? Franzen and Egan are going the way of episodic transformation. Their greatest novels will be reborn on HBO as long running television series. What happens when Richard Ford leaves Knopf for the friendly waters of Harper? Can John Irving keep his legend alive at Simon & Schuster. Just because they write it, doesn’t mean anyone will read it. Are we too distracted as a culture to celebrate books? Now I’ve cried a river, but how many people are reading literary fiction? Are publishers fighting over the same group of readers? Why are we worried about the casual readers who get a tablet as a knee jerk reaction to a fad?
Even more pressing dear Book Lady, are we holding the hand of a business that is circling the drain, and we just forgot to sign the do not resuscitate?
Book Lady: I can’t see a world without books either, and I don’t think that’s what we should really be concerned about. We’ve always had stories, and we will continue to have them, but the ways in which they’re delivered to us will change. While the indie bookstores I know have also shared their concerns about the last gasp, it seems we’re seeing consumers–at least, some consumers–return to Main Street. But they’re coming back changed, with new expectations regarding selection and service, and it’s up to indies to figure out how to meet these customers’ needs, establish themselves as centers of the community, and provide added value to balance the price differential.
Being worried about ebooks is counterproductive at this point. They’re here to stay (at least until the next big format change), and if gadgets get more people excited about reading, they can become a great thing for us. Publishers have a big task in front of them figuring out how to balance books’ value, consumers’ expectations, and writers’ needs (for pay and cheese sandwiches, as Margaret Atwood would remind us). The Google ebooks deal wasn’t nearly the lifesaver the ABA told indies it would be, but the new IndieBound app is promising in a better-late-than-never way, and it even runs on the Kindle Fire. It’s not perfect, but it’s something, and gives independent bookstores a way into conversations with their customers who want a digital option. The future is here, but the so-called death of books? I call bullshit. As long as people can write stories that resonate with us, that we recognize as profoundly true, we’ll have books. They might look different–in fact, we should expect them to–but we’ll have them.
As for Franzen, Egan, and crew making the move to TV, well…I’m excited that I’ll have well-written television to look forward to, and I hope the wide exposure will mean that more people will encounter these authors I love and decide to pick up their books. Or download them. Whatever. Honestly, at this point I just want to see people continue to choose reading over the alternatives. Movies, music, video games, and the interweb are shinier and flashier, and books have to compete. To paraphrase John Waters, we need to make reading sexy again. If putting GOON SQUAD on HBO could be a way to move in that direction, then let’s try it. And let’s make “let’s try it” a regular part of our vocabulary in this industry–a little less conversation and a little more action, pleaseandthankyou.
I don’t think we’re holding the hand of an industry that’s circling the drain. Publishing is changing shape. We’re feeling those growing pains acutely, and we’re certainly seeing more authors choose the non-traditional route, but publishers’ curation (drink!) is valuable, and writers still crave the credibility they confer. Yes, publishers are considering many factors beyond literary merit when they determine what makes the cut (hello, Twilight), but I’m not ready for a literary world where there’s no vetting process, and I’m willing to bet that casual readers (whether they know it or not) are even less ready.
JR: There is a vetting process, but like the housing market, it is upside down. Who will read the books that fill your local Barnes & Noble? Will the consolidation of the chains force publishers to trim the obvious fat from their lists? (Making it easier for publicists to spend enough time on a tighter list?) I see a world where there are more literary titles being published, and less filler. Perhaps at independents like Unbridled Books. When a super star comes along with a doorstop, like, UNTIL I FIND YOU (a 900 page book that was 700 pages too long) someone should say, “guess what, it has to be better, you’re up against Franzen, Egan, Lethem, who also happen to be writing a series for HBO.
Do we actually think that the epidemic which struck down Borders ( it was their own fault, who gives away part of their online business to Amazon?), is particular to Borders? Too many locations, too much overhead, and way to much useless product, DVDs/CDs? Why not sell VHS too?. These spaces have forced publishers to publish books that should never make it past a query letter. The first sign of a change will come in from Barnes & Noble, as I suspect they will lead the charge on an agnostic reader. There can be only two tablets, and Amazon has one figured right, and Jesus got the other one for the rest of us.
Where do people go for real books? The independents! Which by the way are up over last year. I spend my days in independent bookstores all over the Northeast, and they are busy. I agree that the death of the book is greatly exaggerated, but the industry that makes them is about to evolve into something that will fit comfortably on your phone. Barnes & Noble can’t compete on back list, so they push everyone online, and they are making “nook stores”, leaving the bookstores alone. Readers will dictate to publishers what they want, which is good books at a fair price no matter where books are sold.
Book Lady: I sure hope you’re right about a resurgence of literary fiction, and if the Spring 2012 lists I’m looking at are any indication, all signs point to yes. But I’m also excited about the incredible diversity of genre fiction that wouldn’t have been viable a decade ago but is finding an audience now. This might be a scary time for the publishing industry, but it’s a damn exciting time to be a reader.
JR: It is a strange world. Sometimes you think you have it all figured out which is usually when you realize you don’t. The Richard Ford novel, Canada, grabbed me right away and I can’t wait to dig in. Emily St. John Mandel’s new novel is glorious in every possible way. Don’t forget about a sterling little collection, Birds of a Lesser Paradise, and this is the stuff I have figured out. I suppose what I’m trying to say is this. I have no idea what will become of book publishing, because there are only two people who matter in this business of books, the writer and the reader. The rest of us are just middle men.