The Barrow

2/25/09

Publishing is dead (apparently)

The most recent issue of the London Review of Books contains, amongst its usual slew of interesting and stimulating reviews, this article by Colin Robinson bemoaning the contemporary state of publishing, bookselling and, indeed, writing itself. Some of it is old news: the end of the UK Net Book Agreement was a disaster (personally I'm no so sure); bookstores are losing custom to Huge Supermarkets and the internet (again, I'm not so sure) and publishers can't make any money ('Books have always been a low-profit item and in recent years margins have been shrinking even further. Publishers now regularly give bookshops a 50 per cent or even a 55 per cent discount on the retail price. ... [After other costs] the publisher is left with 10 per cent to cover promotion, rent and office expenses, wages – and profit.') But by the end of the piece, Robinson wanders into some genuinely grumpy old man territory. The real problem with publishing, he argues, is that everybody wants to be a writer and nobody wants to read:
But there is a wider, if less concrete threat to book publishing from the internet. Electronic communication has generally made life easier for writers and harder for readers. Text is simpler to produce on computers, easier to amend and spell-check, and a breeze to distribute. No one can be more conscious of this than editors, who are now deluged with manuscripts, attached with consummate ease to letters explaining that if this particular book is not of interest, several others, perhaps more appealing, await on the author’s hard drive. But how does this technology serve the reader? For all the claims of their optical friendliness and handiness, e-books still strain the eyes and are challenging to carry around. Worse, the dizzying range of easily accessible material on the internet conspires with a lack of editorial guidance to make web reading a disjointed experience that works against the sustained concentration required for serious reading.

This privileging of the writer at the expense of the reader is borne out by statistics showing the annual output of new titles in the US soaring towards half a million. At the same time a recent survey revealed that one in four Americans didn’t read a single book last year. Books have become detached from meaningful readerships. Writing itself is the victim in this shift. If anyone can publish, and the number of critical readers is diminishing, is it any wonder that non-writers – pop stars, chefs, sports personalities – are increasingly dominating the bestseller lists?

Perhaps the problem has to do with more than just the way in which words are transmitted. People bowl alone, shop online, abandon cinemas for DVDs, and chat to each other electronically rather than go to a bar. In an increasingly self-centred society a premium is placed on being heard rather than listening, being seen rather than watching, and on being read rather than reading.
This seems screwy to me. A wealth of people interested in writing is surely a symptom of the rude health of literary culture rather than anything else. More to the point, nobody can be a writer unless they read ... I'd estimate I read two to three hundred books (a good proportion of which I buy full-cost from bookshops) for every one I write. Besides, how this connects with the perennial success of celebrity-authored books (which have always been with us) is unclear to me. Why is Robinson getting so het up? Is it because he doesn't know how to fold cardboard boxes?

2 comments:

Andrew Wheeler said...

I'm afraid it's not at all true that one needs to read first to write a book. It's definitely preferable -- and probably a prerequisite if one wants to write a book worth reading, or that has any chance of publication -- but there are millions of people out there scribbling, and many of them don't read much, if at all.

Robinson is exaggerating, but ask agents -- they're seeing large increases in the number of submissions, at the same time that sales of books are dropping. It's been a publishing joke for some time that "more people want to write books than read them," but something very similar happened to poetry in the 20th century and may be happening to the short story: only the people trying to work in the field pay attention to it at all.

It's not nearly as bad as Robinson depicts it, but there has been a marked tendency to publish ever more and more books, any one of which is read by fewer and fewer people. And we SFnal types are supposed to be very fond of "If this goes on..." extrapolations, aren't we?

Mark Chadbourn said...

People in the industry bemoan the declining readership as if it's the consumer's fault. But if the product is compelling in the way that the consumer defines, it will sell.

There is a part of the publishing industry that is quite conservative - and I include critics and literary commentators in this - in that they like things to remain the way that they like them. They want standards of "good literature" to be as they perceive them.

However, society is changing at an unbelievable rate, and part of that change is what the wider reading population perceives to be "good literature". Literary types try to characterise this as "dumbing down", when it's actually about a different form of communication. Ian Macdonald laments this a lttle in his piece below, but the truth is, in a chaotic 21st century, people want their ideas, information and opinions delivered in a more palatable form. Faster, maybe. Simpler. When publishers and writers start delivering this, book sales will rise again.

Most of us will hate it, Ian Macdonald will detest it, because it's not what we know or like. But every other industry is being forced to adapt to rapidly changing tastes. When publishing does, sales and readership will exceed writers again.