Last week’s publishing news continues to reverberate in the most dramatic of ways. A NY Observer article describes the folks at 1745 Broadway–the home of Random House Publishers–as being in “complete emotional lockdown” (via). But my fearless editor Mark Tavani is always one to keep a cool head, and he’s stopped by to offer some perspective.
Books, Going Forward
by Mark Tavani
The publishing industry’s largest house has announced a major and fundamental reorgnization of its imprints, the shaking out of which will probably weeks or months. Other houses have announced layoffs and various changes of direction. And, perhaps most surprising of all, another house publicly stated that they would be acquiring no more books for the foreseeable future. I would be handing you a nicely cut gem of understatement if I were to say that things are not good in the world of publishing.
I would be outright lying if I told you that these changes—massive and unsettling as they are—come as a surprise to anyone who’s been paying attention over the last few years. Having been an editor for nine years now with Ballantine Books (where I very proudly publish the work of this blog’s host), I have some perspective on the industry’s recent ills, and how long they’ve actually been coming. Obviously, the industry’s recent troubles did not begin with the faltering economy, or the credit crisis, or whatever catchphrase of economic desperation CNN is tossing around this week. In fact, I think the changes that have left the industry in its current condition began to take shape a number of years back, when large media corporations began acquiring publishing houses. Of course much good came of the presence of these corporations—and no author who ever took a big advance can tell you otherwise. There was more money to be spent on books, and there were more books being published. At the same time, the distribution side of the industry was changing, with the superstores of Barnes & Noble and Borders taking the lead in keeping readers happy. All of which—the changes on both the publishing side and the distribution side—greatly expanded the industry’s infrastructure.
Then, as it is wont to do, technology changed things. Ask yourself a question: How much actual reading does the average office worker do today as compared to what the average office worker did twenty years ago? Twenty years ago, there was the newspaper, letters, faxes…and that covers most of it. Today, who among us doesn’t spend at least a third of the day staring at a computer screen, pushing our eyeballs to the limits—not to mention the other reading we do, like the good old newspaper, and good old letters, and good old faxes. I can certainly understand that the idea of coming home at the end of a work day and reading seems less fun than it used to. But technology got in the way not only by exhausting our retinas but also by more directly distracting us from reading. T.V. has been around a long time (though Reality T.V. is a more recent sign of the coming Apocalypse), but get on a plane these days and compare the ratio of people reading books to people listening to iPods or watching movies on tiny screens. In my experience, the ratio is not favorable, and it’s getting worse every day. And that’s not to mention blogs, MySpace, Friendster, blah, blah, or blah.
One thought above all keeps me sane just now: books are a mere format. Yes, they can be beautiful and wonderful to hold in your hands, and yes, there are some books I plan to keep in my home until the day I die simply for their sentimental value. So I understand what is magical about books. But the most magical thing about them is the information they convey: the story they contain. The word “book” and the word “story” are not synonymous, just as eight tracks and music are not the same thing. Stories pre-date books by milleniums; and though books might someday go away, story will last as long as our civilization does.
In a more mundane way, my anchoring thoughts are these: Yes, perhaps the industry will contract. As I said before, I feel that the book industry got big with corporate backing and it’s only normal for it to take a step back, especially in the face of so much competition for people’s time and attention, not to mention tough economic times. A few months back I read about how Starbucks was shutting down a few thousand locations. I can say I didn’t notice anyone freaking out and running around, screaming about how coffee was going out of fashion. That’s because coffee’s fine, as we all know. People love coffee, and coffee will almost certainly be around for a long time. But the industry had outgrown itself…plus, they were charging something like twelve frickin’ dollars for a grande whatchamahoozit…. But I digress. Anyway, maybe we contract. Maybe fewer books get published. Maybe some publishing folks have to look elsewhere for a paycheck. I don’t say those things lightly, because I love those books, and I’m one of those publishing folks, and I have a lot of friends in the industry. But on the bright side, maybe fewer books will mean better books. Maybe, over time, books will regain an elite status that I sense they once had. Maybe, in the end, books won’t qualify precisely as mass entertainment, but entertainment for a sizable if select audience.
At any rate, I think that’s a story I could stand to hear told.