Friday, May 29, 2009

When Print Journalism Beats Blog

We here at SotB write witty little entries on all things publishing, from new books and smart authors to publishing strategies and disappointments. The nature of this venue is just that: it is best suited for quick responses rather than wholly original and thought-out concepts. In line with my view on book publishing, I would argue that newspapers and magazines in some form need to survive so they can pay writers to write longer, thoughtful pieces for their publications, even if their publications rely less on print and more on website postings. They are still better edited and more conceptual than your average blog.

This is quite evident in Elisabeth Sifton's piece in the Nation, "The Long Goodbye?: The Book Business and Its Woes." I know, we've heard this one before. But Sifton does a fine job pulling in history and contextualizes the current debates on book publishing's future. It's a nice long piece, thoroughly grappling with what happened to US publishing, what is happening, and what may happen if we continue down this road. I would definitely recommend it.

Some highlights include her mention of her own experience in corporate publishing, which allows a lens on the gobbling up that occurred:
The eponymous boss of the house where I first typed rejection letters and checked proofs sold his company to Encyclopedia Britannica in 1966; The Viking Press, which I joined in 1968, was sold by Thomas Guinzburg, son of its founder, to Pearson in 1975 and went through many permutations of a merger with Penguin Books, also owned by Pearson; Alfred A. Knopf, where I worked from 1987 to 1992, was a jewel of a firm that in 1960 had become a d├ępendance of Random House, in turn owned by RCA, then sold to the Newhouse brothers in 1980 and sold by them to Bertelsmann in 1998; Farrar, Straus and Giroux, which I joined in 1993, lost some of its independence when Roger Straus sold the company to Holtzbrinck in 1994, and more after his death in 2004.


She also gets into the economics of publishing, writing about who pays for what and when, touching lightly on not just advances but printing costs and bookseller invoices. I was intrigued by this point:
Hubristic, ill-considered follies reached notable highs under the Great Deregulator, President Reagan, but to be fair, book publishers then (many still carrying the names of the confident men who had founded them twenty-five, fifty, 100 or 150 years before) were panicking, for they were losing their once dependable base, and Reagan made things worse by cutting federal funding for libraries and other appropriations that had helped to fuel America's postwar advances in literacy and book-based education.

Reagan strikes again!

Again, it's worth reading through this long article to get a sense of the history at play in the current book market. I won't quote too much as I don't want to water down her points by taking them out of context. (She's weaves it all together well.) But I do want to pull out her point on the internet and the pitfalls of relying on this virtual landscape:
This prospect is even more alarming than the crisis threatening brick-and-mortar stores, for the World Wide Web is an ocean with few buoys to mark navigable channels of meaning. The channels we navigate on it are mercantile channels, designed to be lucrative--but not for us. The omnipresent money-grubbing--far removed from the pure, open-access Eden that the Internet's founders claimed they wanted--may seem natural to Americans used to wearing corporate names on their clothing and seeing their public spaces defaced with company logos and ad slogans, but the habitat is unnatural for the true life of the mind, politics or art. In this dystopia, one can scarcely get attention paid to new books except those that fit in with the flora and fauna already found there. True, you can easily reach niche audiences and specialty communities for your oh-so-unique book, but what of the general culture? How is your book being read? And in what manner might you try--say, ten years from now--to write something new? How will you know if it's any good? How will it become known? Will it be a book?

I would like to hear a response from Richard Nash on this point. She's agreeing with the argument he has put forth on the potential the internet offers smaller presses to reach niche audiences, but given the networked world at play on the internet, will communities become isolated and will books that previously might have started with a niche and grown out to a wider audience not have that chance? Will there be a different trajectory for sleeper books?

Maybe Sifton is a bit of a doomsayer, but she backs up her doom with solid history, useful personal insight, and legitimate questions. Enjoy!

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