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« L.A. and The Sublime | Main | True Art School Tales »

October 28, 2003

The Future of Book Publishing

Dear Friedrich --

If 15 years of following the publishing biz don't entitle me to pontificate grandly and extrapolate baselessly about the future of books, well, then ... (Huff, puff, snort.) What the hell good were those years? Don't answer that question. Nonetheless, I'm in a mood today to make a few modest predictions about the directions we'll be seeing book publishing taking in the future.

First, the setup: some ruminations and observations.

The trade-book biz -- the "you might buy it in a typical bookstore" end of the book-publishing business -- is in a recession. Aside from the occasional "Harry Potter" bonanza, the biz doesn't seem able to move much product; you don't have to sell many copies of your book to get on the bestseller lists just now. When will the biz come out of this cyclical slump?

But is the slump in fact cyclical? Many people in the biz worry that it may not be. Hey, book-publishing people aren't blind; like you, me and everyone else, they've noticed that young people aren't reading in the same way young people used to. What if the business has simply lost the younger generations?

How do the younger people you're in contact with interact with books? The ones I see don't seem to get through many books at all, especially fiction. (They also don't seem to see books per se as anything special.) The young women go through a little chick-lit, and do a little of what a book critic friend calls "worthiness reading" (Oprah books, the current jabbered-about collection of literary stories). The young men barely read fiction at all, although they seem eager enough to flip through certain kinds of nonfiction books (Nascar biographies), and books relating to their jobs and businesses. And these are bright kids from snazzy colleges.

It seems that the media menu that young people order from isn't the same one that older people have been using. Interesting to note, for example, that network TV-viewing is down 12% just in the last year, with most of that decline attributed to young people watching less. What are these young adults spending their entertainment dollars and hours on? Since I can make a seat-of-the-pants guess as well as anyone else can, I may as well pitch in. As far as I can tell, the young people play with media things. A little websurfing here. Some thumbing-through-a-magazine there. A DVD with friends. Some videogaming ...

Fiction's a special case. Americans have always had a hard time with it. We're practical, empirical people, more interested in getting ahead than in savoring what we have. We're also sincere and earnest, wary of amorality and artifice. Yet at the same time, we cling to what works for us; we keep watching a few TV shows and we keep going to movies. What this seems to mean for fiction books is that more and more people read fiction books as a substitute for the movies or TV they'd prefer to be watching. They read when, for whatever reason, they can't watch -- on the subway, for instance.

Fond though I am of many arty lit-fiction things, I don't have any trouble with this. Do you? After all, if you're looking for a fiction fix, it's hard to beat a good movie or TV show. They offer visuals, music, performers, glamor, provocative situations, dynamic storylines -- a lit-fiction writer has to be awfully good with words to compete with this. There's also the sociability factor; friends may have opinions about what you've seen and be eager to talk about it, where it's relatively unlikely anyone's recently read the book you just finished. Movies and TV are convenient, and intense too. In a couple of hours at a movie theater, you can have a full, rounded fiction experience. A TV series can provide a kind of ongoing involvement that many people crave.

So it seems to me that what the new young people do is play with media things. They shift back and forth between words, sounds, design, images and moving images. They browse, and they put their experiences together for themselves; they aren't hungry to submit to anyone else's vision for too long. And when they want fiction, they drop in a DVD or watch a TV series.

A quick bit of book-publishing history. Early books were very much like the web. They were mixtures of images and text; few of them were made entirely of words, and even fewer were meant to be read straight through. They were often compilations, often of work by many different authors and artists. In other words, when you interacted with these early books, you were ... that's right: browsing and grazing. Playing with media.

Then along came the all-text, read-it-straight-through book. You and I grew up with an idea of "the book" as an all-text performance by one person that was meant to be experienced straight through, from page one to page whatever. Remember what a big leap out of childhood it was thought to be to be able to manage an unillustrated book? Remember the disdain that was encouraged towards kids who never developed the taste for plowing through all-text books? Well, that was (in part, at least) a consequence of the book-publishing technology of the time. Mass publishing technology for a few hundred years simply couldn't handle much in the way of visuals or design.

And when you think about it, what an odd taste it is: staring at oceans of text, dutifully trudging from one page to the next. What an odd thing, to want to spend hours in a single author's mind. And what an oddly arrogant demand it is on the part of an author: imagine asking people to sit there and burn up their eyes attending to nothing but your work and your mind for 5-20 hours. The audacity of it: why, I have misgivings about putting up a blog posting as long as this one is.

Thanks to computers, book publishing has come full circle. What was once rare and done by hand at enormous expense can now be done for the mass market. Computers make mixing and matching design, imagery, color and words manageable as well as affordable. (As the great philosopher once said, if they can, they will.) So what's going to become of the all-text, straight-through book?

Early on during my years of following publishing, I decided that it makes more sense to think of the process as "making a book" rather than "writing a book." Why? Because the phrase gives a better idea of what the process is like. It strips away some of the naivete too many of us carry around; it's a reminder of, for example, the fact that the book you're interacting with may well not have been initiated by the writer. We former English majors have a lot of dopey and romantic ideas in our heads about books. We enjoy imagining tons of earnest, talented writers writing their gifted hearts out, anxiously submitting their dreams to professorial, sage people at publishing houses, who in turn make dignified decisions about who deserves to get into the country club -- er, to get published. Well-schooled critics with knowledge and taste sort the results; eventually the cream rises to the top. And, of course, there's the demon figure: the Evil Money Person who, for no good reason, makes this otherwise smooth process more fraught and crazy than it needs to be.

Ah, well, we really do like our dreams, don't we. As a young fool you go into publishing expecting to be fascinated by authors. What a surprise it was for me to realize that many of the smartest, most inventive and visionary people I met weren't writers. (Sad to say, but writers, and fiction writers especially, can be incredible dingalings.) Many of the brightest, most interesting, and feet-on-the-ground people I met were editors, agents, and publishers.

One was the English publisher Peter Kindersley, the man behind the British publishing house Dorling Kindersley, now known as DK, a company probably best-known for its Eyewitness children's books. As far as I can tell, he came up with the magazine-like book -- or the version of it that's familiar today, anyway. Think visual reference books with lots of isolated images set against airy white; think headlines, boxes, subheads, and text blocks, all presented in a clear and classical hierarchy. (Kindersley, who I've talked with, has ideas about how people relate to information that are as interesting as any philosopher of perception's. In fact, and if I remember right, he developed his ideas about making books in part by talking to philosophers of perception.) These are complicated books to make; they're big productions demanding considerable budgets. So Kindersley also came up with innovative ways of financing and distributing his books. He was as brilliant and creative as anyone I met in publishing, artists and writers included; he rethought the making-a-book thing from top to bottom, and did so very successfully. He's the equivalent in book-publishing terms of such creative movie producers as Sam Spiegel and David Selznick.


Books of the future? That's a DK book on the bottom right, by the way


Given all this, here are a few predictions from the East Coast Blowhard about where book-making is likely to go in the future. A few bonus reflections too.


  • Perhaps what we're now witnessing is the younger generations losing the taste for plowing in a linear way through books that are all text. If so, half of me is appalled; these kids sometimes seem to be an inch away from illiterate, and they don't seem to have learned how to think or to reason. But half of me is envious; browsing-and-grazing-through-multiple-media may well be a more natural activity than being linear and text-centric. And I like the idea of the reader assembling his own experiences; isn't that we've all really done all along anyway? And, let's face it: some of these playing-with-media kids will come up with amazing new artifacts. Too late for you and me to do anything other than observe, of course -- pity about that.

  • Read-it-straight-through, all-text books won't vanish, of course. But having a taste for spending a lot of time with them may come to be seen as a rather special, even odd, thing, like the taste for reading poetry or going to the ballet is today.

  • But the read-it-straight-through crowd won't let go of their hierarchical view of the arts (let alone literature and books) easily or gracefully, even though everyone else will ignore them and get on with browing and grazing. Then, one day, the read-it-straight-through crowd will wake up to the fact that they haven't been sitting on Mt. Olympus after all; nope, in fact what they've been sitting on is the roof of a small, wet house in the midst of a giant flood. When do you suppose this awakening will take place? Next year? Twenty years from now? And how do you suspect they'll react? By clinging on desperately?

  • In the future, as more and more books become graphics-and-pix-and-words productions, more and more books will be assembled by teams. They'll be team productions much like studio feature movies are. Why? Because of the simple fact that few people will ever be good at all the creative roles involved -- graphics, visuals, production, editing, writing. So what becomes of the much-cherished voice of the individual? If not in books, where will it find expression? Beats me.

  • Traditional book publishers will get their clocks cleaned by intruders -- by magazine and web publishers, for example. These are people who know how to do multimedia productions, and who have their own distribution and publicity networks already in place. You of course know that the "For Dummies" series has been a big success. The books are assembled by teams (the credited author is generally brought in to give the book a polish and a "voice"), and were originated by a multinational trade-magazine publisher -- people who know how to make and sell such things better than a traditional book publisher like Random House does.

  • It's tempting to imagine that in a looking-and-scanning environment, graphic novels will be a sure thing, and I know graphic-novel buffs who look forward to the new world. Visuals, color, narrative, chunks of words -- hey, how can graphic novels not succeed bigtime? I'm betting against it, though. My hunch is that our wariness about consuming fiction in book form and our addiction to getting our fiction-fixes via movies and TV will prevent graphic novels from ever becoming more than a niche taste. I also expect that a browing-and-grazing, mix-and-match, roll-your-own gestalt will do anything but promote intense immersion in any kind of linear, coherent experience. I could be wrong here; I hope I am.

  • People will get used to a different way of interacting with books. We all are already, of course, but the experience will become more widely recognized and embraced. People will be looking, browsing and grazing, and diving into text blocks for explanations; they'll be moving around, and moving back and forth; they'll be moving between books and other media things. Websurfers are familiar with this process and mindset already, as are people who deal with such nonlinear text-and-visual productions as cookbooks. Needless to say, it's a strikingly different mental and sensory experience than putting on the reading glasses and plowing through masses of linear text.

  • It's hard not to suspect that the mass audience won't be bothering much with the great all-text books of the past. Sad to say.

What do you suspect we'll be seeing more of so far as books are concerned?

Best,

Michael

posted by Michael at October 28, 2003




Comments

Michael,

Great post on the book biz and future thereof, with which I largely agree. A question, though: did you have in mind primarily fiction? I can't see (though I may just be obtuse on this) how one would read, say, a history of the middle ages or a treatment of philosophy in the way you describe. For me, at least, some discplines will still require mostly straight text - perhaps not fiction, which I can see becoming compressed, with less emphasis on the novel and more on the short story and the illustrated novel.

Will all those great straight-text books from the non-technologically adept ages be repackaged in a multimedia way or just ignored?

Gerald

Posted by: Gerald on October 28, 2003 9:49 AM



Voice of the individual? wonders Michael Blowhard in a blog. (Where's the webcam, blowhards?)

heh, as the saying goes.

Meanwhile,
Sing it again, Sam, baby, loud and clear:: (Oehwoewoe, Sam Cooke, that is)


Don't know much about history
Don't know much biology
Don't know much about a science book
Don't know much about the French I took
But I do know that I love you
And I know that if you love me too
What a wonderful world this would be
Don't know much about geography
Don't know much trigonometry
Don't know much about algebra
Don't know what a slide rule is for.
But I do know that one and one is two,
And if this one could be with you,
What a wonderful world this would be.
Now i don't claim to be an "A" student,
But I'm trying to be.
For maybe by being an "A" student baby
I can win your love for me.
Don't know much about history
Don't know much biology
Don't know much about a science book
Don't know much about the French I took.
But I do know that I love you,
And I know that if you love me too,
What a wonderful world this would be.
Latatatatatatahuwaah (history)
Oehwoewoe (biology)
Latatatatatatahuwaah (science book)
Oehwoewoe (French I took)
But I do know that I love you,
And I know that if you love me too,
What a wonderful world this would be.

Posted by: degustibus on October 28, 2003 10:07 AM



There's also a problem TV/moves vs. books which is that film, even with TiVo, happens at its own pace, not yours. When you stick people in a lab and measure how they handle information, this turns out to be an even bigger difference than it seems. It might not be a difference that matters in the long run, though.

Gerald makes a good point. Cookbooks may be jazzier than an unillustrated copy of Ovid’s Metamorphosis, but instructions have to list the steps in the correct order. These kids today, the ones who don’t read much, do an excellent job of rewriting instructions for games or writing instructions for skate tricks that they’ve perfected or worked out.

Looking around the web, you'll see that young people have no problem writing "masses of linear text."

The publishing industry may be hosed simply because these kids today don't seem themselves as people who read books.

Posted by: j.c. on October 28, 2003 10:14 AM



You know, movies are a team effort, too, but they have stars. I think books will turn into multimedia with stars as well - the 'author' will be the star, even though it was a team effort. That 'voice' will become more important than split infinitives and spelling - because those can be corrected by computers and copy-editors.

In essence, it's a paring down of the creative process - the orginality and uniqueness of the idea (and perhaps the presentation) will be what counts, instead of the ability to write beautiful phrases that may or may not mean anything.

OTOH, people who do the specialized work of the presentation will be given more credit. Graphic designers, programmers, web designers, and so forth will all become a valid part of the team.

People who have been working with the web for some time retain a disgust for those who choose not to use the spell checker and grammar-check. It's akin to laziness to ignore those basics, and marks one as a 'newbie'. I find that attitude to be very interesting.

The other important note is that people of my generation (I just turned 26) tend to be very utilitarian in their reading habits. I, for instance, look at buying fiction as an indulgence - but reference books! Those can be used later - they're an investment. This attitude is fairly common, as far as I can tell - books on programmning, how-to books, etc. stack up on shelves and desks and floors while novels sit unread on bedsides.

Instead, we entertain ourselves with creative endeavours, like website design, blogging, videogames (which can be a very creative form - the Sims, the most popular videgame ever, basically involves raising people and building houses), and so forth. Even my 12 year old neice/daughter (we're raising my boyfriend's neice) has a blog, plays Zoo Tycoon (building a zoo and raising the animals), and plays Sonic (raising 'chiaos'). No wonder people put so much pressure on kids at such an early age - it's as much entertainment as it is competition "Hey, look what mine can do!"

Posted by: Courtney on October 28, 2003 10:33 AM



Michael,

Two comments. First, we're well aware of the Dorling-Kindersley books at our house; my older boy went through a phase where he just loved 'em. But they are extremely hard to read-aloud to your kid.

Second, you'll get me to give up my linear, all-text, one-page-at-a-time, read-from-beginning-to-end books when you pry them out of my cold, dead fingers.

Posted by: Will Duquette on October 28, 2003 11:01 AM



Well, but does the browse-able and illustrated format really kill off the traditional narrative of fiction?

Have you read The Diamond Age by Stephenson, by the way...he takes the idea of a sort of meta-book-as-interactive-information-provider to an interesting level.

Anyway, there will always be a need for *story" and only a talented author can give us that. Pretty pictures can't make up for lack of interesting characters or plot.

It may be, though, that once authors come up with their story and characters and maybe a few plot lines, that the readers begin to interact--as with fan-fiction--or to play out alternate scenarios--as with Choose Your Own Adventure books.

Without the original spark of authorial creativity, though, none of that can happen.

It reminds me of what happens when you read stories to children, actually. First, they only want the original story, as written. As they get older, they begin to embellish---hey Mom let's make the princess a ninja, or make the dragon have a friend who's even bigger and meaner than he is. Let's see what happens.

Posted by: emjaybee on October 28, 2003 12:21 PM



I suspect (but don't know) that a lot of the 800 pound mass-market books are already produced by teams. You know, King, Clancy, the late Ambrose historian dude, etc. I'd bet you a shiny quarter that teams of ghostwriters assemble these books and the "authors" edit them, put on a final polish and a marketable name. (This may be where plagerism can sneak into a book, the supposed author not even knowing it. . . witness the aforementioned Ambrose.)

Posted by: some guy on October 28, 2003 12:35 PM



Michael, it seems to me that you're hanging this entire posting on a pretty dubious proposition: that, as you put it, "the biz doesn't seem able to move much product; you don't have to sell many copies of your book to get on the bestseller lists just now". Now, you might well be right about this, but I'd love to see some numbers. I see B&N and Borders and Books A Million and Amazon all doing well; I see Wal-Mart making a lot of money selling books; and, of course, I see Harry Potter. In general, since the success of Scarlett in 1991, there has been a succession of megasellers, supported by supermarket sales -- almost never before would you get books selling over a million copies in hardback. Add to that Oprah, and I'm far from convinced that your premise is true: I know loads of people who've read, say, White Teeth and Everything Is Illuminated and A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius and other such trendy books by young authors. Even books about racehorses and half-forgotten presidents do astonishingly well. Hillary Clinton is selling through the roof. So -- numbers?

Posted by: Felix on October 28, 2003 1:58 PM



The young people in my house and some of thier friends havent lost the taste for plowing thru long text based linear reading. I have to scramble to keep ahead of them with library visits and used bookstore visits. And recently, taking my 16 yo son to the movie with two of his friends, the topic of conversation was the books they were reading and which was the best author and why.

And if books arent selling, Michael, why do I have to stand in line every single time I go to the local Barnes and Noble. I've been there at opening time, mid afternoon and later in the evening and every time I go it's packed and I have to wait to buy. And they are buying books, not magazines or coffee or reading paraphenalia.
Seems odd.

Posted by: Deb on October 28, 2003 2:06 PM



Two quick words in response, pish, and to quote Mary Poppins, posh.

While many of the facts that you cite (the intelligence of Peter Kindersley, the collaborative efforts behind most printed books, the growing digitalization of everything with all its implications....) are arguably true, I just don't throw in the hand-wringing towel about the death of reading as we know it.

A few quick thoughts. First of all, there will always be a hunger and a market for beautifully written books that touch people. Period. The real issue is whether the markets and industry are building in impediments to keep promising books from the masses. The need to pay fewer high-profile authors more money and devote huge marketing resources doesn't help. But there are always exceptions (unfortunately, exceptions) that show that quality books absolutely find an audience today.

And in that regard, god bless someone like Oprah for getting folks excieted about reading.

I'm not so sure I agree with the conclusion that all books will feel increasingly multi-media....rather, I like to think about the way in which new media enables authors to supplement the books, and to reach their audience in ways that the archaic bookselling industry (and the online monster that is Amazon) prevent. What's intriguing to me is the way that some of my children's favorite authors (Jan Brett, Dav Pilkey) have created wonderful websites that *supplement* their books by recreating the excitement of the page, in a digital format.

And speaking of children's books, I would argue that the literature of the past 20 years for ages 2-18 (to use a random categorization) has been superlative--that there are a number of amazing authors in this field who are far superior to what has been produced in this field in the first three quarters of last century (too long a post...more, hopefully, on another date.)

Another sign of hope: J.K. Rowling. She is now richer than the Queen of England, bless her little heart. How many millions of kids got turned on to reading cause of the buzz around her books? Screw Harold Bloom by the way, that pompous blowhard--oh strike blowhard, make that, um, blowhole? You can interpret the Rowling phenomena as a sign of one author bucking the trend of declining reading--or you can see it as the result of the right person lighting the right global fire by writing the right books at the right time. Of course some people seem to have a problem with her wealth....I know that's a problem. Now we may have a whole generation of kids that want to grow up and be authors instead of basketball stars.

And another random thought to add: what do all your book biz friends think about or do with the millions of young people now taking writing courses? Do they not read? Are they all flat-New Yorker-fiction wannabes?

Look, I just don't agree with the conclusions. It's a cyclical opinion. There are big structural changes in the bookmaking and bookselling industry that can't be ignored. But the joy of reading something great will never go away. And as someone intimately involved with my kids education, who has seen thousands of kids become readers, I just don't buy it.


Posted by: Tom on October 28, 2003 2:18 PM



Gerald:

I read a lot of history, and I must say that the straight-ahead, full text approach strikes me as usually misguided. The problem with history is that the details must have context to support them; otherwise, they're just tedious details. I'm not sure if the straight-ahead, full-text versions of such history books are arrogant ("stick with it, kid, you'll get the point sooner or later") or simply assume that the reader already has a background in, say, the Civil War or the Reformation.

I would argue that any history book worth it's salt should, logically, start with the entire substance of the book summarized in about 1000 words, then spend around 1/4 of its length going over the same material in a bit greater detail, and spend the remaining 3/4 of the book going over the same material a third time in full-on detail. That way, when you get to the detail, you have a larger context for it.

All this was brought home to me by a high school assignment my daughter got to read William Shirer's "Rise and Fall of the Third Reich." You get endless pages of parliamentary manuevering, without really ever getting the sort of introduction to modern Germany that is essential to understanding what the heck is going on. The fatuousness of her teacher (who discussed this assignment on "Back to School Night") raised my hackles--he assumed that the straight ahead, full text book length treatment of history was the only "adult" method of imbibing such facts. This attitude strikes me as explaining the historical illiteracy of the vast majority of the world's population. (And don't you just love smug educators who confuse inefficiency of communication with virtue?)

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on October 28, 2003 5:44 PM



Gerald -- I think nonfiction is increasingly being presented in dribs and drabs, don't you? Boxes, sidebars, etc -- textbooks these days are full of them. Funny recent developmen (long expected but only now actually taking place): the University of Phoenix, that for-profit outfit, is starting to buy parts of textbooks and other sources. If they want a chart from this book, and a half a chapter from that one, that's what they're going to pay for. Colleges have been creating "course-packs" (disaggregated bits of this and that bundled between covers) for a while now, but there have always been questions about how to pay, how to put payment channels into effect, etc. The U. Phoenix is huge, and is apparently forcing through yet another stage in the development of this, helping establish a semi-standard micropayment arrangement. I wonder how students who study history by reading a bit of this and a bit of that will be affected by it. Any ideas? They might very well come out of it, run into long narratives on their own, and flip for them.

Degustibus -- Yeah, exactly.

JC -- Reading used to imply the ability to steer through long linear arguments and narratives. Do you see young people doing much of that these days? Reading for the ones I see seems mostly to be be about plunging in here for a few paragraphs, then switching to scanning and browsing mode, then diving in there for a few paragraphs. I'm not sure that being able to follow software instructions is quite the same thing as reading a novel. But maybe I'm missing your point.

Courtney -- Thanks for the tales. I was chatting once some years ago with a movie techie at the time desktop moviemaking was just becoming possible, and we were marveling at the possibilities. "You know," he said, "the only trouble is going to be that everyone will be busy making their own movies, and no one will have any time to watch them." But you're making a good point, which is that the "why not be creative yourself" thing may well start to replace the enjoyment of others' creativity as a leisure and recreation activity. I guess you're saying that it already is -- interesting.

Will -- Yeah, it is hard to imagine reading the DK books out loud. No through-line, and the pictures play too important a role in the structure. Do your kids enjoy any of the story-like computer-software packages out there? Do they get involved in them in the same way they can get involved in a book?

Emjaybee -- Haven't read the Stephenson, no. Any good? I read one of his earlier books and don't retain much, but it isn't generally my kind of thing. I wonder sometimes about the importance of the author in creating stories. I mean, sure, yeah, there's such a thing as a good storyteller. But stories can also come from many different places and in many different forms. Gwyneth's travails have been much more involving than any of her movies. What is Rosie up to with that musical? And the reality-TV shows demonstrate that a traditional script and director (and a traditional set of performers) aren't needed in order to get large numbers of people involved. A concept, some "real" people, a handful of cameramen, a lot of publicity ... Seems to me, in any case, that the world is full of stories whether book-authors are sitting around inventing them or not.

Some guy -- Yeah, really: who is James Patterson, anyway? A real person who writes or a small corporation?

Felix -- "Astonishingly well" ? It's all relative, I guess. A movie might well be seen by ten or twenty million people; a successful TV show by many more than that. The top-selling magazines sell multiple millions of copies week after week, or month after month. Yet we're still programmed to be wowed when we learn that a book has sold a million copies. In pop culture terms, that isn't to be sneered at, but it's also a long, long way from "Will and Grace." The economics of a lot of the blockbusters are awfully hard to figure, by the way. It was fairly commonly recognized (as of five-ish years ago, when I was still in the thick of it), that many of them didn't earn their money back even when they succeeded in selling lots of copies. The author's advance, the publicity, the printing and distribution, the returns ... What's happening is that the trade-book industry is becoming more like the studio-movie industry; it's becoming ever more geared to moving a particular kind of product. That's what they are and that's what they do. They're actually good at the whole routine of packaging the book, timing it, making sure it shows up in bookstores everywhere, getting TV coverage, etc -- but that doesn't mean the books actually work financially. And when they don't, the losses are (in book-industry terms, anyway) enormous. As for figures, it was my experience that the figures that get made public by the bookbiz are about the last thing that should be trusted. Most of the publishers are parts of multinationals, so money gets moved and buried here and there; there's lots of creative bookkeeping going on (it's a nightmare still in many cases for authors to get good accountings of their sales and profits) ... Babble from people inside usually seemed to be far more trustworthy, even if that opened up perils of its own. In any case, knock the top two or three books off the bestseller list, and the sales figures aren't very good at all. Or so I'm told.

Deb -- Glad to hear there's a lot of reading and bookbuying going on in your neck of the woods. Publishers should make pilgramages to find out what the secret of it is.

Tom -- I admire your optimism. I can guarantee you, in any case, that the industry has no bias against quality storytelling. Also, I'm certainly not arguing that all books will become like multimedia products, just that we'll see ever more of that. Books used to be thought of as an alternative to the media; as a matter of simple fact (both from the point of view of the evolution of the industry and from the point of view of how they're increasingly being used -- see Courtney's comment), books are turning more and more into media products. My guess is that that'll lead to more books seeming to be more like media products and less like traditional books, that's all. I could be wrong, but I could also point to lots of books that already are media products. Which is nothing I condemn, by the way. Some of them are glorious.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on October 28, 2003 5:56 PM



Mr.F, I'm reading "The Language Police" by Diane Ravitch about the dumbing down of American public school textbooks in the last thirty years mostly due, according to her, to pressures from both the right and the left for "political/moral" correctness. It's an interesting book, tho I am not quite sure where she's going with it.

And my thought on how history should be taught is that the basics should be learned as quickly as possible and then the interesting details and stories should be used to flesh it out. It's a story and the best historians to read realize this.

Posted by: Deb on October 28, 2003 6:43 PM



Michael,

Re: my kids and story-like computer software--they really aren't old enough yet to get into that too much.

Regarding history: there are (at least) two kinds of history book. The first kind attempts to present a reasonably coherent picture of a particular period and place; that is, it presents conclusions with accompanying facts, and ties it together as a story. The second and more academic kind attempts to prove conclusions based on primary evidence.

The second kind is where the historian's work is done; the first kind is where the historian presents the fruits of his work to the rest of us.

I once bought a copy of Theodore Roosevelt's history of the War of 1812 thinking that it was a book of the first kind. Alas! I was wrong.

Posted by: Will Duquette on October 28, 2003 10:31 PM



Michael --

I'm perfectly happy to believe you on this one. I'd just like you, if you would, to clear up a little ambiguity. Which of the following propositions would you say is true?

1) Books don't make much money; in fact, they often lose money.
A) Books make less money than they used to.

2) Books don't sell well, especially when you compare them to the number of people who see movies or television shows.
B) Books don't sell as well as they used to.

3) The book business has got itself into a blockbuster mentality, which means that if you ignore the top two or three top sellers, the rest of the list is badly supported and generally not a good business to be in.
C) When you ignore the top two or three top sellers, book sales are going down and profitability is declining.

Now I'm perfectly happy to believe the numbered sentences, but really that doesn't matter. In order to make the claims you make in your posting, it's the lettered claims which count. And it's those which I'm dubious about. If they were really true, then publishing houses would be getting sold for lower and lower sums of money, which isn't the case. Authors would be getting smaller and smaller advancces, which also isn't the case. And Michael's (the restaurant, not the website) would probably be out of business.

Can you name me a time in history that McCullough's John Adams would have sold more copies than it has done in the present? It's all very well saying that fewer people read it than went to see Pirates of the Caribbean, but it's my contention that the book business, contra the moaning of its denizens, is actually in pretty good shape, historically speaking. To be sure, the gentleman publishers with their Flatiron Building offices and 5-hour days might be a thing of the past, along with your friendly neighborhood bookstore which always had to order in whatever you wanted. But is contemporary culture killing the book business as a whole? Somehow I doubt it.

Posted by: Felix on October 29, 2003 12:20 AM



Hey Felix -- All good points, and good to see you so fired up about the topic. You won't catch me disagreeing. I'm a big fan of Amazon, buried somewhere in our archives are one or two postings where I've argued that now is actually a good time for book consumers, and I can't stand the sentimentality of those who make a big deal out of the purity of the old days and ways.

For this posting, though, all I'm interested in is asserting a couple of things:

* That publishing people are worried about whether or not they're losing, or have already lost, the young audience, which has developed a taste for mixing and matching media.
* That the publishing industry, which was once seen as a status-heavy alternative to the mediabiz, and even its superior, is now a small-ish branch of the mediabiz.
* Quark and Illustrator and new printing whiz-bangery have made it plausible to do heavily art-directed books at a reasonable price.
* And that, as a consequence of these three facts, we're A) likely to see more and more new books resemble media things, and B) we're also likely to see the taste for plowing straight through all-text books decline. A is already a fact. If you were to compare the new books on sale at a B&N today to the new books on sale at a bookstore 30 years ago, you'd be struck by how many of the new ones have strong visual qualities. (A great thing, IMHO.) B is arguable, of course -- we'll just have to see. But I think there's a lot of evidence around that suggests it's likely -- I take what Courtney says in her comment above, for instance, as interesting and typical.

But you're raising lots of interesting questions. The whole thing about how and why, in the midst of a bright and shining electronic world, a given book (or two or three) might strike a chord and mean something to a large number of people ... The role of books in the midst of a media universe ... And how it is that some young people do in fact get around to reading a book or two -- which ones? Andhow does this happen? If you've got some hunches about these things, I'd love to hear them.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on October 29, 2003 9:17 AM



Michael,

My kids are readers. Quite a few of their friends are readers. I had a wonderful conversation with a 10 year old kid my son was babysitting about the plot of the Iliad which he had read in translation. His favorite part was when Achilles dragged Hectors body around behind the chariot.

The common thread I find is that they are all restricted from too much TV, too many video games and they live in households where reading is valued as a good thing to do. And the parents buy the kids books to own, take them to the library and read to them.

The problem is that parents either dont have the time to read to thier kids, dont see a problem with a 6 year old watching hours of TV, like the fact that the video game keeps the kids quiet or dont value reading as a pleasurable thing to do themselves. I personally think the whole Harry Potter thing wouldnt have happened if the adults hadnt read and enjoyed the book also.

IMHO, of course.

Posted by: Deb on October 29, 2003 10:18 AM



“Funny recent development (long expected but only now actually taking place): the University of Phoenix, that for-profit outfit, is starting to buy parts of textbooks and other sources. If they want a chart from this book, and a half a chapter from that one, that's what they're going to pay for. “ Wow. This is news to chew on.

“I'm not sure that being able to follow software instructions is quite the same thing as reading a novel. But maybe I'm missing your point. “ Probably wasn’t clear. They aren't following software instructions, they're realizing that the instructions suck and creating their own.

My point was that the feckless youth who are not reading know, instinctively, that one way to show off is to write well. For many game players, the reams of linear text method is preferred over the lavishly illustrated guides sold at Best Buy. Some of this has it origins in the demands of the medium (plain text is more portable than html or rich text) but most of the urge to write walkthroughs comes from the urge to be the guy who did the best job of writing it. Skate punks will make video of themselves doing a trick, and then post that along with a lengthy, detailed, and well-organized “how to” they've written themselves with their own grotty fingers and ear for language and grammar.

Now let’s move on to how Print-on-Demand technology is changing things at Amazon.

Posted by: j.c. on October 29, 2003 10:19 AM



Friedrich-

I agree with you that history and othr non-fiction can be written (or "made") in different ways, and the outline you describe works for me, as does your critique of the professor. My comment was meant as a mild objection to the notion that most books could be "browsed." However, I remember when I was younger reading books and not knowing what was going on - but then going to try to find out; the book convinced me there was something else going on I was not aware of; nifty graphics and bells-and-whistles may provde a false sense that the information is packaged and complete.

Michael-

I haven't seen many textbooks recently, but the U of Phoenix project sounds just about right, at least for students. If I am an arts major, say, a history textbook with bits and pieces of information presented in different forms may be just what I want. One of my favorite historians, who nonetheless wrote straight-ahead full text books, liked to say that medieval cathedrals, with their tapestries, carvings, etc. provded just as much history to a preliterate age as our books do to us. But I too am half appalled when I consider the loss of linear, text-based reason. Orwell said that the age of tyranny is when men think in slogans and talk in bullets: I like to think habits of in-depth concentration and the ability to follow an argument help protect against that.

Also, on your comment about technology and book publishing. While the medieval and early modern books were multiform, am I right in rememberiong thatthings like papyrus scrolls and ancient Greek texts were just marks on paper? Perhaps the pendulum swings back and forth.

Posted by: Gerald on October 29, 2003 10:21 AM



If so, half of me is appalled; these kids sometimes seem to be an inch away from illiterate ....

I think the word here is "postliterate," meaning that everyone can read but nobody wants to.

Compared to other forms of mass entertainment, book publishing is really small potatoes. If the only people who saw John Grisham movies were the people who bought his books, the movies would gross about $2 million apiece. The lone exception might well be the Christian book market, which moves a lot of product through Wal-Mart, Sam's Club, and various religious bookstores. Of course, the NY Times doesn't count any of that, but Christian fiction makes some serious money in the heartland.

Posted by: Tim Hulsey on October 29, 2003 1:31 PM



Fascinating post indeed. The part that hit home for me was the idea that these new multi-media books will need to draw upon the skills of teams. Having just completed a book of text and photos, I agree heartily. Let's just say that much as I love my book and think it's pretty good, for the third edition I would just as soon have a photographer or at least photo editor in on the project from the very beginning.

And then, when you add in the possibilities offered by some sort of eBook (on line, as weblog, who knows!) you have to think about video and sound and web page composition etc. Lots and lots of disparate skills.

Of course then there is the issue of what happens to the book which tops out at ten thousand copies? Can it possibly support such a crew? I doubt it. So it's back to the garage operation on a shoestring.

Posted by: David Sucher on October 29, 2003 8:33 PM



Tyler Cowen points to this good WashPost piece about how much more time kids under the age of 6 are spending with electronic media (DVDs, computers, TV) than with reading. It's here.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on October 29, 2003 9:30 PM



Kids aren't learning to write cursive script anymore, either.

On a tangent, might this explain why so many children today lack a certain elegance? It seems to me that legible cursive handwriting is essential to basic etiquette -- thank-you notes, invitations, etc.

Posted by: Tim Hulsey on October 30, 2003 1:46 AM



Hey all,

I find it quite strange to hear all this talk about the future of the book without any thought given to the e-book.

Would you imagine talking about the future of music without taking into account the effect of digital distribution via mp3's? No. But there is really only one big thing that separates books from music here. And that is, you can't scan books as easily as you can rip an mp3.

Yes it's true that there is no e-book device that is as good as an iPod, but this is consequence not cause. Easy mp3 ripping drove rampant piracy, which in turn produced the development of items like the iPod a few years later.

Without easy consumer piracy of books to start the process, all of this will take longer in publishing than it did in the music industry. But it will still happen. (Notice Amazon is making there collection text-searchable. Wonder where that's ultimately going to lead?) Once a lot of current reading shifts to interactive devices, this will have a huge effect on writing style, linearity of exposition, use of images, etc.. And that's not even getting into the other disruptive effects of cheap production & distribution.

Okay, that's my two cents, which is old news to veterans here. Bring on the rejoinders about the magic of paper, the lovely smell of binding glue, the impossibility of a "horseless" carriage, etc..

Alexis

Posted by: alexis on October 30, 2003 4:51 AM



I have to agree with Alexis on this one. I, and many of my contemporaries, spend hours a day staring at a computer screen, bored out of my mind. You can't watch a movie, because you might be called to work at any point, and that's relatively noisy. You can listen to music, but that's generally not all-engrossing. Upper management frowns on game-playing, especially PC games that require more than one key stroke to exit from. Eventually, you run out of web-surfing to do. So, what do I do? (and a substantial number of my contemporaries?) I read.

Amazon.com has a respectable number of e-books, but they're relatively expensive, because they charge you the same price as a paper book. My favorite are the publishing house ventures, like baen.com. They skip the cost of the paper books, leaving you to pay for the royalties, etc. - on average $4 or $5 a book. Plus, you can buy a book individually, or you can buy a month's worth of output at a time, on a subscription basis. That's a great way to discover new authors. In addition, you can download the text in a number of formats, so you don't have to be hooked up to the web, you don't need a computer to do it, and you can read the text on whatever device suits you best - even paper, if you're so inclined.

More interesting to me, people with vision difficulties love these options, because text-to-voice software lets the book be read to them. That's a true blessing for the blind and otherwise impaired - and baen.com has the testimonials to prove it.

So, that's my two cents. ;)

Posted by: Courtney on October 30, 2003 7:17 AM



I think there were early books that had few or no illustrations--perhaps lots of them. They don't get reproduced much because no one's likely to be interested unless they're deeply into the history of books or calligraphy or the particular text. I'm sure there were people who couldn't afford illumination (or could only afford a little color on the major capital letters) but who could afford a plain bible or Book of Hours and wanted one.

As for the current state of the book industry, Andrew Wheeler of the Science Fiction Book Club (a frequent poster at rec.arts.sf.written) has been saying lately that it's in a slump. I don't know what his line of thought is. As someone said upthread, the superstores certainly have customers. On the other hand, a casual inspection isn't going to show you whether there's been somthing like a 20% drop in sales.

As for Neil Stephenson, he's a gonzo writer--giddy descriptions and action with a tendency toward lively infodumps. If that's the sort of thing you like, he supplies plenty of it.

Unless you've gotten over your unfortunate allergy to science fiction, you probably won't like _The Diamond Age_--liking the book would require a fondness for speculation about substantial social and technological change.

You might want to check out Stephenson's _Cryptonomicon_. While many science fiction readers think it's science fiction (and it does have a miniscule fantastic element), it's half about World War II with an emphasis on cryptography and half a satire of the dotcom boom.

There's a *lot* of amateur creative writing going on these days. What I hear about is mostly fantasy or media based--last I heard there was some 64,000 Harry Potter fanfics available online, and that might have been just one of the major sites. I've also heard that some 90% of it is painfully inept (spelling and grammar not adequate), but I've read a little of the highly recommended fanfic, and it's of at least decent commercial quality. There are quite a few novels.

I have no idea whether there's anything comparable for non-fantasy, though there's a substantial Sherlock Holmes sub-genre. (I'm not sure how the rights got loose.)

I've also heard of fanfic about non-fantasy (apparently the Bible is popular--of course, fanfic about the Bible has a long history) and real world people (mostly boy bands, I'm told).

As stated, there's also a tremendous amount of writing being done as part of fantasy and science fiction role-playing games. Some of the writing is of considerable length.

As for reading with attention, there are non-trivial audiences for Lord of the Rings and for the Diskworld books (the latter are major best-sellers in the UK) who read the books again and again (Diskworld is some 20 or 30 ordinary-length novels by now) and can discuss them in considerable detail. On the non-fantasy side, I believe that the Patrick O'Brian books (Napoleanic naval stories) have a similar fandom.

I don't think the appetite for long books is gone or even going away, though I grant that it's seeing a lot of competition these days. For some people, there's just nothing like the trance you get from reading, and the Harry Potter phenomenon suggests that such people aren't all that rare.

Posted by: Nancy Lebovitz on October 30, 2003 9:28 AM



We interrupt this stimulating debate to bring you the first two paragraphs from one of those long talky books, Bleak House.

"London. Michaelmas Term lately over, and the Lord Chancellor sitting in Lincoln's Inn Hall. Implacable November weather. As much mud in the streets, as if the waters had but newly retired from the face of the earth, and it would not be wonderful to meet a Megalosaurus, forty feet long or so, waddling like an elephantine lizard up Holborn-hill. Smoke lowering down from chimney-pots, making a soft black drizzle, with flakes of soot in it as big as full-grown snow-flakes--gone into mourning, one might imagine, for the death of the sun. Dogs, undistinguishable in mire. Horses, scarcely better; splashed to their very blinkers. Foot passengers, jostling one another's umbrellas, in a general infection of ill-temper, and losing their foot-hold at street corners, where tens of thousands of other foot passengers have been slipping and sliding since the day broke (if the day ever broke), adding new deposits to the crust upon crust of mud, sticking at those points tenaciously to the pavement, and accumulating at compound interest.

"For everywhere. Fog up the river, where it flows among green aits and meadows; fog down the river, where it rolls defiled among the tiers of shipping and the waterside pollutions of a great (and dirty) city. Fog on the Essex marshes, fog on the Kentish heights. Fog creeping into the cabooses of collier-brigs; fog lying out on the yards, and hovering in the rigging of great ships; fog drooping on the gunwales of barges and small boats. Fog in the eyes and throats of ancient Greenwich pensioners, wheezingly by the firesides of their wards; fog in the stem and bowl of the afternoon pipe of the wrathful skipper, down in his close cabin; fog cruelly pinching the toes and fingers of his shivering little 'prentice boy on deck. Chance people on the bridges peeping over the parapets into a nether sky of fog, with fog all round them, as if they were up in a balloon, and hanging in the misty clouds.

Posted by: Tom on October 30, 2003 11:56 AM



Hey all --

Ebooks are a great topic, if a bit too large to get into in depth in a piece about what's likely to happen in trade book publishing. (Actually what's already happening in trade book publishing, extrapolated a little.) Eager to hear everyone's hunches about them. David Sucher over at City Comforts has written interesting things about ebooks, as well as about the possibility of websites being created to extend (update, elaborate, give additional sources for) the physical, bound book.

My own take is that people who think about ebooks often make too much of using electronics to mimic the traditional book experience. They're overlocked into that conception, IMHO. My hunch is that the flow of influence is likely to go in the opposite direction, with bound books coming ever more to resemble electronic media things. I also think we fixate too much on "the work" as a big, finite, text-heavy linear thing that has a beginning and an end, like a book. Why? Because if a work is going to be electronic, why should it take that form? It certainly can, but realistically how many are likely to? The more natural thing in the electronic world would be for "a work" to have interactivity, hyperlinks, images, sound ... I mean, why not?

Given these two things (debatable, of course), I'm led to notice that we already have a lot of electronic looking-and-reading available to us -- it's the web. The web's already a great big library of e-reading and e-looking. I don't know about you, but I already spend hours many days doing e-reading. Why fixate on whether what I'm e-reading is a "book" or not?

If writing (and people's expectations of writing) are going to go ever more in the direction of short-ish chunks of text; if expectations are going to go further in the direction of expecting graphics and images; if the expectation is going to go more and more in the direction of nonlinearity and putting it together for yourself ... Well, there it is already: the web. Plus the web offers you many features that a finite book doesn't: interactivity, updating, archiving, and especially instant links to pages and sites outside the one you're looking at. The e-work can be flexible, stretchy, porous and networked.

Instead of buying a single book on a single topic, why not just type the subject you want to know about into Google and then roll your own looking-and-reading experience on that theme? I don't know about anyone else (and am interested in comparing notes on this), but these days I'm finding that an hour or two of webbrowsing stands up to all but the very best books, at least where learning and information-type reading goes. It's perfectly amazing how quickly you can bring yourself up to speed (or in my case, semi-speed), and on how many topics.

As for fiction that's linear and all-text? And as for the appreciating-writing thing, as well as the immersing-yourself-in-one-mind thing? Hmm. Makes you wonder, doesn't it? I wonder how much of the taste for these activities will survive. Some, obviously. But my bet is that both will become a specialized, minority (or occasional) taste. Hard for me to see how things could play out otherwise, and it seems to me both are already well on their way to becoming specialty, occasional tastes. But maybe I'm missing something here. As for stories ... Well, as I noted above, while our taste for stories needs catering to, why do they have to come to us in the form of all-text books? Aren't journalism, the gossip pages, reality TV, and videogames also delivering story experiences? Can't Mario (of Super Mario Bros.) be recognized as an important fictional character? Who's to say that he won't have a longer and more influential life than anything Don DeLillo ever came up with?

Incidentally, have any of you read a through-written prose book on an ebook reader? I have, and would love to compare notes. I found it a passable experience, and a functional device. But I found it an odd experience too. The fact that the words aren't ink sitting on paper isn't so bad, though the fact that they seem like plastic forms floating on the top of a swimming pool was very strange. Managing the device was molto peculiar. It was thoughtfully designed but frustrating even so. You don't realize (at least I didn't) how much time you spend flipping back and forth inside a traditional book, sticking your thumb in, or a piece of paper, or doublechecking that one paragraph a few pages back where you were kind of dozing off ... Doing all that on an ebook reader is much, much harder, and much less intuitive than it is with a traditional book. Easy enough to flip forward a page (or a chapter) or back a page. But flipping around, thumbing through, sticking your finger in? Possible but it takes too much thought -- you have to pop out of your reading brain and go over into your getting-around-inside-a-program brain. And you discover the two aren't very closely related. At least mine aren't.

So, FWIW, here's what I'm semi-anticipating seeing so far as ebooks go:
* We already have an e-reading library: the web. We already do a lot of e-reading and e-writing. Why continue getting hung up on this "book" fetish? Eventually more of us will wake up to the fact that we're already e-reading and e-writing.
* Ebook readers so far have been too bulky, and not easy enough on the eyes. And the e-reading software hasn't yet been in anything like the class of a good web-browser, using which most of us find pretty easy and intuitive.
* So I'm going to bet that a devoted ebook reader will never work commercially. For one thing, the taste for the read-it-straight-through, self-contained, text-heavy book is diminishing. For another, books themselves are amazingly cheap these days for what you get. They're also convenient, you can give them away when you're done, and we all know how to use them already. Who's going to want to re-learn how to read a book? And to pay for the privilege?
* So (ta-da), my guess about what's likely to happen is that laptops, or laptop-like devices (hard drives, screens, keyboards, touchpads), are going to become our de facto ebook readers. They're going to get lighter and cheaper, they're going to have wireless connections to the web (so they won't be just some doorstop dedicated device), and they'll be able to do what computers can do too. You want to download a traditional piece of long fiction and read it staight through? You've got your hard drive for storage and your screen for reading. You want to do a web search at the same time? Go right ahead. And I'm betting that the browser (or a browser-like something) will become the interface for all of this.

Very interested in hearing everyone else's hunches about this. I really do think that the clunky dedicated ebook reader has about as much chance commercially as, oh, one of those Franklin translating or dictionary devices of making much a dent in the world. Even with better screens and software, they'll still be too confining and too dedicated -- they feel like dead ends when you use one. Why can't you get on the web and open your brain (and the "book" you're reading) up out on to the world?

But I'm also someone who's never won a bet at the horse-racing track, so don't pay too close attention here.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on October 30, 2003 3:57 PM



A few small publishing-biz notes:

* Yes, the trade book business is very soft right now, as soft as it's been in a long, long while. Some people have said it's softer than it's been since WWII -- very unofficial and unreliable, sure, but still an indicator.

* It helps to remember that there are tens of thousands of books being published, and there are dozens of sizable publishers. The existence of a half a dozen hits doesn't mean that the biz overall is doing well.

* In fact, there is something remarkable about the fact that very young kids these days are spending so much more time with "screen devices" (as the study says) than with traditional reading. Very young kids, remember -- not teens. What is it? It's that they'll be the first generation ever of whom it'll be true that they came to reading via electronics, and not vice versa. Even the 20somethings now popping up in the work world didn't come to reading via electronics, as the new young kids are. The electronic world will be primary, even so far as the brain-wiring of the early-childhood years goes. I wonder what these kids will expect of books? Any thoughts?

* As for all those orders you place on Amazon and the people you see at B&N and Borders ... Remember that Amazon hasn't yet shown many profits, and that they're doing their best to get into many non-books markets. Why do you suppose they're doing this? Many reasons, but one is that there simply isn't that much money to be made from selling books.

* Also, as an FYI here, the ongoing apparent success of superstores is a mystery to many retail analysts. The stores look busy but they don't actually generate as much sales per square foot (evidently the key figure) as do many other kinds of retail operations. I've got no independent knowledge of this, so please be skeptical of me here. But over the years I talked to numerous bookbiz and retail people who wondered aloud (if confidentially) how much longer the ever-growing-superstore phenom could go on. It sounds impressive that there are more superstores; money seems to be piling in; growth seems endless and unbounded ... But what if the market gets saturated, or the overall economy takes a downturn, or kids stop being as interested in books as they once were? There'll be hell to pay, and a lot of overinvestment to liquidate or catch up with. Typically by then the executives who engineered the whole mess will have taken their bonuses and options and retired or headed elsewhere, and someone else will be stuck cleaning up after them. This scenario is fairly widely expected. We'll see, of course.

* An aside: something similar happened in the movie-theater biz a few years back. Chains overinvested in dolbyized mult-giga-cineplexes. Then everyone discovered that all that meant (from the making-money point of view) was that, released at ever-more screens, blockbusters could sell an ever-larger percentage of their tickets in their first weekend. It didn't mean that overall revenue went up, or not by all that much anyway. Overall ticket sales went up, but just by a little bit, not nearly enough to justify the investments that had been made. Those first blockbuster weekends, though -- wow, they really looked good there for a while. But then there was a collapse, a number of chains went out of business, a few others gobbled up what remained (and went into debt doing so), and we're now in this funny standoff limbo where studios and theater chains are double-daring each other to invest in digital-projection equipment -- the chains at the moment don't have the money to do any further investing. Something similar might well happen in the books superstore biz -- it's semi-expected by lots of bookbiz people. Why? Because it's looking like the most lucrative markets are now exploited and serviced. How many more Borders and B&Ns can be squeezed in? How many of the remainong unexploited markets can really support a superstore? And how many more book sales can be squeezed out from the population at large? If you think about it, it's kind of striking that new superstores continue to open, yet overall book sales haven't been going up by all that much. How can you justify that level of investment in selling books if not all that many more books are going to be sold? At the moment, though, it's nirvana for book customers.Lots of big stores, easy to find what you're looking for, etec. So here's hoping we're all enjoying it while it lasts.

* The biggest bookselling change in recent years has been retailing books through the big-box stores. There's a lot of money changing hands in this sector. But a very, very limited number of titles are benefiting from this, and it's also affecting the major trade publishers in a structural way that many people find a little scary. These publishers are having to tailor their businesses towards servicing the big-box stores. Which is great when it works, at least moneywise. But what if a book you paid a lot for in the hopes that it would be chosen by Sam's Club doesn't get the nod? Oopsie. Or what if you print up tens of thousands of copies for Sam's Club, they do put it on sale -- but the book doesn't work? You've got to take all those books back. (The "returns" problem in the bookbiz still hasn't been straightened out.) These are big, big financial hits for a book publisher to take. Remember that even the giants -- Random House, S&S -- are medium-sized businesses. Big losses, at least on this scale, aren't something they're prepared to absorb -- it really rocks them.

Short version: bigtime book publishing, which was once something different than a media business (above and better, more pure and prestigious, at least in its own eyes), is now a rather smalltime branch of the mediabiz. Which in practice seems to be meaning that the big trade book publishers are operating a bit more like contempo movie studios or magazine stables, and a bit less like the image most of us have of book publishing. Blockbusters are ever more important, violent ups and downs are ever more a fact of life, market research is finally being commissioned, marketing departments are becoming more powerful, many editors no longer text-edit but instead conceptualize and make deals ...

Hey, such is life. Please, please, please: I'm no doom-monger. I withhold judgment and opinion here, but I do guarantee that this is the case -- I put in 15 years of going to conferences, and of lunching with editors, agents, publicists and the occasional publisher ... To little professional avail, admittedly, but I did learn a lot.

What qualifies this picture is that publishing a book can still be, relative to most other media things, a relatively inexpensive thing to do. So scrappy small publishers are always cropping up; people can more and more easily publish themselves; tons of titles are still getting published; chances are still being taken. At the more expensive and visible end, the business itself is more and more like, say, TV, but even so it can still be quite a lot looser and closer to the ground. But it's a very difererent picture than it presented in the '30s and '40s, and even than it presented in the late '70s when I first started getting a look at it.

FWIW, and if anyone's paying attention: I really do withhold judgment here. Some of this strikes me as for the better, some for the worse. And it's hard to deny that book buyers are better off than they've ever been -- never have so many books been so easily available at such good prices.

But these behind-the-scenes developments? It's really not worth having an opinion about, IMHO, let alone an argument. When a train goes by, what does it matter what your opinion is? It's a train going by; your opinion of it couldn't really matter less, unless you're in a position of power.

But also, what would be the point of arguing that the train isn't going by? So I'm just taking note of what I've seen and learned, and am passing it along. You won't catch me claiming that this is the end of culture, or the end of books or writing or reading, etc.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on October 30, 2003 5:39 PM



As for early books, and text and imagery ... As far as I know (happy to be overridden here), it depends on how you look at it. "Writing" per se began just with accounting and notes being marked into clay tablets. So the very earliest writing has to do with whether Mahmouz IXXX shipped his geese and amber to Babylon on time. Business slips and documents, essentially. Do we consider these clay tablets to be "books"?

Remember scribes? Important figures in the ancient world, but largely concerned with the kind of reading and writing we office drones do at work today, though they did note down histories and religious texts too. But these were all more like what we'd consider records than what we'd consider to be books.

Also, many early writing systems had pictorial elements -- think early Chinese, or Egyptian hieroglyphs; the very earliest Mesopotamian "written" languages were primarily pictographic. So at its origin, writing was both visual and "written" in the modern sense.

But: books ... It's a puzzle: when does "the book" as we think of it begin? The library at Alexandria was full of tablets and scrolls, not codex books, or so I've read. As far as I can tell, these tablets and scrolls were largely text, and were used only by scholars -- so we might say that the equivalent today of the contents of the Alexandria Library might be something more like Lexis/Nexis than what's on sale at B&N. Egyptian papyrus documents often had lots of pictures in them. The Egyptian Book of the Dead, which was a long papyrus roll, had pictures and hieroglyphs.

Like I say, happy to be overriden by an expert here. I haven't been able to look into the qeustion systematically, although I've done a lot of bits-and-pieces research. My impression is that if you think of a book as a bound thing made for presentation (and not just a document crammed full of information for use by specialists), most of the early handmade ones were pretty heavily decorated. (Korans especially are very visual.) As far as I can tell, the general rule seems to have been that the more purely functional a thing was, the more likely it was to be pure text. The more presentational it was, the more it was likely to have strong visual elements too. There was a range, from all-text documents to purely-visual books, with the all-text artifacts largely reserved for scribes and scholars.

I don't know why this bit of info occurs to me just now, but what the heck: Medieval paintings were intended to be read (they have strong narrative and allegorical elements) as well as looked at; and medieval books were often intended to be looked at as much as they were intended to be read.

Back to the overt subject: As far as I can tell, the mass taste for plowing in a linear way through all-text books is something that shows up in the 1600s and seems to be coming if not to an end then to a distinct slowdown right about now. During that stretch, printing and paper got cheaper, distribution got a bit better, ideas about copyright started to gel -- it became a business, which made books affordable to regular people for the first time. But these books weren't generally very visual in anything like the way they'd been during the medieval years. Making a visual book for the masses was possible but difficult, and so became a special thing, and no longer the standard thing. (These days, it seems once again to be becoming the standard thing.) There was no TV, there was no movies ... So people developed a taste for spending days making their way through long prose narratives.

Robert Darnton, the Princeton historian, has written about reading habits, by the way. Can' t find the exact passage. But I do remember that one of his points was that we're kidding ourselves if we think that the only "real reading" we do is plowing straight through long pieces of linear text from beginning to end. (Many people still do think we aren't "really reading" unless we're doing that. I have twinges myself sometimes: "Gosh, I haven't been doing any real reading. I've just just been playing with books and surfing the web. How awful.") His point was that many of the world's readers (and brainiest people, too) read for centuries in quite a different way. They'd pull down a book, read a bit of it, make a few notes. Then pull down another and read a bit of it. They might or might not plow all the way through a single work, but that evidently was the much rarer thing to do. They followed their thoughts and interests and needs more than they submitted to a single authorial p-o-v. The standard thing was to interact with a library, not "read a book." A bit of this, a bit of that, a stretch of text there, some pix here, putting it together for themselves. (A lot of re-reading of favorite passages, too.) ... Quite a lot like what we do when we interact with the web.

All of which is why I maintain that we're wrong to picture "real reading" as meaning only "plowing all the way through a linearly-written all-text book from beginning to end." Many, many people (including people in book publishing, and people who write about books) still do think of "real reading" in this way. Why do you suppose art books aren't generally reviewed in the book-review press? Why aren't DK books reviewed in the book-review press? Because, by the standards of whoever it is who's making these decisions, these aren't "real books."

As far as I've been able to tell, historically speaking, thinking of reading in this linear-all-text way is an anomoly, and due largely to the economics of printing and publishing, the level of technology involved, and the relative absence of competing media. The usual (and probably natural) thing to do is to browse, graze, look at a picture, thumb around, dip into some text, flip through a bit more ... And to occasionally plow through a book from beginning to end too.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on October 30, 2003 5:51 PM



Incidentally, and sad to say, but what I hear about the "Harry Potter" phenom is that what many parents have found is that their kids love "Harry Potter," but that loving those books hasn't led to reading many other books. Apparently it's common for kids to enjoy their Harry Potter, then get right back to their DVDs and videogames. "Harry Potter" hasn't (or hasn't yet, anyway) kicked off a corresponding boom in other kids' books.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on October 30, 2003 5:52 PM



If I may, a few random follow-ups, especially to your excellent last couple of posts.

First off, all of us in this argument seem to be from those who feel the same about books--we love not wisely but too well.

Second, train or no train, train in vain if you will, I believe the number of people buying books is significantly greater today than it was 20 and 40 years ago. I don't have the figures from the ABA on hand, but I have done some research on this in the past, and distinctly recall that the number of inviduals in this country who buy books went through several significant increases starting in the sixties and seventies, a boost that many attributed to the expansion of bookstores and the rise of the blockbuster. Moreover, I believe that the market for books grew at a significant annual rate throughout the eighties and nineties. For the past couple of years I think it has been flat.

I agree with you about the dark side of the superstores and worse, the Sam's Club bookselling (which calls for big print runs, savage margins, and pure commoditization of the product.) The benefits of well-run superstores that carry a huge breadth of titles, create a community of book lovers, hold events, etc. (all good things) must be held up to the impact on placing riskier bets on fewer titles with higher expectations.

But one more point: please let's not see Amazon as a necessarily positive factor in the bookselling market and its impact on readers and writers. What's good: information and availability on millions of books and titles. Cool. The semblance of hand-selling through the numerous nifty gadgets (customer reviews/links/etc.) The ability to buy used versions at much lesser prices. Which brings us to a few of the real drawbacks. Like the availabity of all those used titles right next to new copies. Yeah, I know that because this can be done maybe its inevitable that it is done...but man, it seems clear to me that this aggregation of data naturally severs the market for new books. For authors, no matter how brave a face you put up, it sucks. Second of all, while Amazon may try to create an atmosphere of browsing, it still draws you to a very small selection of titles, many of which are touted because of publisher's advertising money. I believe that you can't browse and discover new stuff at Amazon as easily as a great bookstore. I got more gripes with the company, but....

Thanks again for the thoughtful thread MB

Posted by: Tom on October 30, 2003 10:23 PM



Nearly 14,000 words about the book business and nary a word about what it is purveying...oh yeah, Neal Stephenson and Charles Dickens. I'd really be worried about the literary culture if I thought a lot of people were going to read this thread on the future of book publishing and give up reading books...

I really don't know what this array of verbiage means— that is, what difference it makes. I am pleased to be able to continue to find good books to read (which means people are writing them) like Charles Baxter's Saul & Patsy, Julie Orringer's How to Breathe Under Water, Edward Jones' The Known World, Pete Dexter's Train,Jonathan Lethem's The Fortress of Solitude and even Martin Amis' Yellow Dog.

Something Charles Baxter said to me recently gives me more than great hope, "...What I noticed at the University of Michigan was that there seemed to be a new breed of students whom I was seeing during the last five years or so who were bookish and who were using their bookishness as a new form of rebellion. Or revolt against official culture. Using their bookishness as way of saying, "Don't bother me with your damn video games. No, I'm not going to watch that TV show. I'm reading." If book culture and reading gets any more marginalized, sooner or later a marginalized population of young people will discover it all over again. I thought I was seeing some of that. I know there's an argument that something has happened to all of our attention spans— that long books are difficult for people to read. I don't think that's true at all. Neal Stephenson and his immense books…"

I probably missed the point of (your)this fulminating about the publishing biz in your view of the radiant future. Not doubt not the first time and assuredly not the last...but honestly I think the view in evidence here is like this passage from Pete Dexter's new book, "He runs the Cassidy crime family. Little people with enormous heads, every one of them. And they've all been shot in the head, and they never die. They believe it's all the luck of the Irish—they walk around thinking they were all
born lucky—it never occurred to any of them yet of they were that fucking lucky, they wouldn't keep getting shot."

Posted by: Robert Birnbaum on November 2, 2003 9:42 PM



This is the first time I have ever submitted to a "blog" or any other online website. I have enjoyed reading your forum and it ranks among my top 10 favorites. I happen to be an artist, teacher, musician and aspiring writer. I have made my living as both an artist and musician for 26 years. I am looking to someday get my writings published as well and this article caught my eye.

I've read all the comments attached to this article and I realize this area of the arts and the pursuit of recognition is just as fraught with agenda and opinion as any other. the old saying that you can't please all of the people all of the time comes to mind. That being said, I wonder what ultimately is the motivating factor for anyone searching out knowledge or gratification. I unfortunately, am probably not the best person to ask the question. When press-ganged by marketing analysts at the mall, I always get disqualified as not fitting any of their demographics. I get into arguements at the super market with the manager about how if they were to stock a certain item, I would buy it or know that it was available to buy to which he replies that they don't stock it because it doesen't sell and I say it can't sell if no one knows its available to purchase...and so it goes. A catch 22 if you will.

What does all of this have to do with writing, publishing and fiction? Mainly this, it's an above average person that will seek out any format to get engaged with. No matter how rare or esoteric. This above average person will search out and try many forms of expression and communication. One group of people prefer this over that, another group likes to get involved while another group likes to stay anonymous. That is the simple answer as to why any literary endeavours and processes have survived into this millenium. Art is successful if it illicits any emotional response, good or bad, causing no reaction one way or another is the failure. Creativity still survives, fortunately although greed and financial gain is gaining more and more directional control. The arguement "Would Motzart stoop and use synthesizers instead of the harpsicord if it was available to him?" and the answer would be a resounding YES much to the dismay of the classical purists.

I agree that it would be a sad day for humanity if the art of writing and the business of responsible publishing were to become extinct. I have argued for the importance of local talent to be more recognized in a direct way to their immediate communities than to be overly compared and competed in a global stable of talent. I submit in a sense of ultimate sophistication, and essence of advanced civilizations, the cultural heritage of indigenous tribal customs of oral history. It could be argued as the forgotten remedy to the ills of the world. The priority of family, the respect of education personally handed down from elder to youth, the intimacy of a "life story" that can be interacted with in the ultimate way, sans joystick.

I have come to know many people that have special talents in art, music, writing etc. but haven't developed these talents due to lack of support, time, money, and confidence. If a "tribe" is too small it will suffer. If a "tribe" is too big it will suffer or split. But with balance, and support, everyone can contribute and experience the visceral experiences of the creator and not the hollow attempts of the consumer.

Posted by: William Calkins on December 27, 2003 3:20 PM



TO WHOM IT MAY CONCERN

I AM WRITING TO FOR INFORMATION ABOUT BEING PUBLISH I HAD WRITTEN TWO PLAYS AND IS CURRENTLY WORKING ON THREE FICTIONS IT HAS BEEN MY PASSION TO HAVE A STORY PUBLISH HOWEVER HAVING SUCH LIMITED ASSOCIATES AND OPPORTUNITIES IT SEEMS QUITE DIM I AM HOPING THAT YOU CAN HELP ME GET STARTED OR PERHAPS JUST POINT ME TO THE NEAREST YELLOW BRICK ROAD
YOUR ASSISTANCE WOULD BE GREATLY APPRECIATED
REGARDS
ANITA HALL

Posted by: Anita Hall on May 13, 2004 11:32 PM






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