Tuesday, February 01, 2011

"Oh, look! Fresh iceberg ice for my drink!"

An admission: I am a blog loser. I try to post on a regular basis but life gets in the way. (Don't we all say that except for, like, Bookslut?) Plus, I am as pessimistic these days about books and publishing as I have ever been...and that is saying something since my first job ever (literally the day high school ended for me I was offered a bookstore job) I have believed in the strength of this industry to plow through any of its various and sundry barriers. Today? Not so much. This morning I was checking my work email and I came across this quotation from Mary Williams, events manager, Skylight Books, Los Angeles, Calif., in the store's February e-newsletter:

"There's a lot of talk in the media about books being a dying format and bookstores being a dying business. If the people who said that saw the energy, inventiveness, and determination of the 500 booksellers from around the country at Winter Institute, they wouldn't be so quick to dismiss either books or the people who bring them into their communities. It's an exciting time in the book business and things are certainly in flux, but your independently owned bookstores, far from being relics of the past, are ready to meet the challenges of the future and continue to provide a service that is unique and valuable."
 Yes, it is true that there are still thousands of independent stores and many of them are making a go of it but I am starting to wonder is it too late? No, not for the stores but for what masquerades as the "reading public" in the U.S. An "exciting time?" That isn't the phrase I'd use. It is eye-opening that Ms. Williams has this sense while attending an ABA sponsored event. It is a bit like going to a baseball game and saying to yourself "Wow! This country is really into baseball...what a great time to be a fan of the sport!" Yes, the attendees and sponsors of the Winter Institute are really gung-ho about the future of bookselling and independent bookstores. Is that news? I am pretty sure that those attending the national ham radio convention would give one the impression that the state of ham radio is really strong, no? Who the hell "ham radios" or whatever anymore? The real proof is in the wider culture and I am afraid that, for the first time in my life, I am beginning to feel that we are all part of the buggy whip business. Sad, I know, but there it is. I've written it and I can't very well take it back. I am sure that this post will get picked up and sent into the blogosphere where smarter people than I will have clever responses, comments, and loads and loads of statistics on why I am full of shit but deep down, I am thinking even they know what the reality is and the reality is bleak. How else to explain the blockbuster mentality in publishing these days? Why the hell does Justin Bieber have an autobiography? There is a line from Matt Taibbi about Goldman Sachs but has some applicability here (especially when you think of books like Patterson, Grisham, and the new "Snooky" books)  about the way in which publishing has become blockbuster oriented. Publishing these days is like "a great vampire squid wrapped around the face of humanity, relentlessly jamming its blood funnel into anything that smells like money."

Do books matter anymore? Is the success of Skylight Books in L.A. an antidote to the loss of Kroch's and Brentano's in Chicago, Gotham Book Mart in New York, Goliard Bookshop in Amherst, Cody's Books in Berkeley, Printers Inc. Bookstore in Palo Alto, A Clean Well-Lighted Place for Books in San Francisco, Midnight Special in Santa Monica, Dutton’s Brentwood Books in Los Angeles, Oscar Wilde Books and Coliseum Books in New York? I guess. I know there is little rhyme or reason as to why a store in one place makes it and store in another doesn't but those cities above aren't exactly shabby, right? I mean, if the oldest (and maybe the most famous) gay bookstore can't make it in New York then we're all fucked...and not in the good way. My point is that I hope the independent world can survive and there does seem to be some evidence that they will but I am not so sure. (I am looking at you, Borders - king, daddy, papa of the indies. What the hell happened to you? Don't you realize that your demise leaves us to the whims of Jeff Bezos and Len Riggio?) Does the population that under girds all cultural activities seem to be losing its interest in books? Perhaps we aren't a reading/literary culture at all? Perhaps we are, in fact, a visual/popular culture where "straight teeth in your mouth are more important than the words that come out of it." Bleh. I am all over the place here but maybe you can feel my frustration? I don't see how books are going to continue to have any fascination for future generations. I want it to be true, I work hard to make sure that it will be true, but that may not enough to make it so.

Are books are dying? AAP sales figures from 2009 (the most recent yearly stats available) are mixed. Some indicators are up, others are down. Popular culture is in the ascendancy. Let's look at the NYTimes best seller list for a second, shall we? Is there a single book on any of those lists that is there because it found an audience that didn't hear about it on Glen Beck, Oprah, or NPR? Sure, the usual suspects are still on the list:

Tom Clancy (Seriously? Still?)
John Grisham (Who?)
Dean Koontz (Isn't he dead?)
James Patterson
W.E.B. Griffin
and, of course, Stieg Larsson.

I suppose there is a case to be made for Room by Emma Donaghue. That is a surprise actually, though it was one of the NYT's best books of 2010 so it isn't like it snuck up on us. I guess I can't have it all. I can't complain that people don't read any books other than what they are force-fed and then have an example in front of me and say "oh, that one doesn't matter." What all this ranting is making me think is that I am having a crisis of confidence. We never seem to get enough comments here to make a debate but that sure would help me as I am flailing around. What do you think, readers? Help a lifelong book devotee (I have worked in 5 bookstores in my 40+ years, 3 publishers, 1 agency, and a library) come to some conclusions about the state of books here in the US. What articles do you read? Which authors will help me through this long period of darkness? Where does the solace come from? E-books? Well, the six of you who stop by regularly know I am not really an e-book guy.

I'm drowning. Can anyone help?


Citizen Reader said...

I can't help, and I'm sorry. I have a few random thoughts for you, things that have helped me in the past, so I'll just throw them out there for you. Do with them what you will.

When I think about the demise of print books I think about LPs--it comforts me that people are still out there buying albums. Perhaps print books will become like that, objects for purists, which would be different, but might still be okay.

And: sometimes readers still find each other, fall in love, and produce new little readers (or at least they try). And some of those little readers might still like actual print books because they are bound up in their psyches and memories. I'm hoping my little one's first words are "fuck Kindles, and fuck you, Amazon." It's a lot to ask but I repeat it to him a lot when his father isn't around. Okay, no I don't. I've been told I can't swear around the boy.

And last but not least: once I saw Phillip Gourevitch (he of We Regret to Inform You that Tomorrow We Will Be Killed with Our Families and Paris Review fame) give a talk, and he was awesome. One of the things he said? "Sure, the barbarians are at the door, but they're not in yet, and maybe we can keep on keeping them out." For whatever reason that gave me hope. If somebody who wrote a book about RWANDA could still have hope about humankind (and/or culture and reading), I guess I can too.

Hang in there--and keep asking the good questions. If it's any consolation it makes me feel better knowing you and your blog are here.

Catherine Petruccione said...

Love your blog -- had to reply!
The pendulum may swing when people wake up and realize all their earnings have been lost toward ethereal stuff they never really own or get to keep-- and wake up to how many jobs we've lost because we don't make or value anything REAL anymore. From the forester to the postman, and everything in between—paper factories, printers and binderies, publishing houses, new book stores, used book stores—thousands of jobs are swept away in a totally digital world…and that’s just books…it goes on in every facet of our lives. Nobody will have a job left to pay for their e-readers, cell phones, cable and satellite services, GPS, internet connection, etc. etc.…most of the jobs involving these products/services have moved overseas. This is the downside of our high tech not-so-global economy.
I do believe that there will always be some people who value the book in its traditional form; that old books will be treasured more than ever, and some small publishers/printers may thrive making quality books of those works which readers value enough to want to own in book form. Maybe only the best of the best will see print. (Let’s face it, a lot of drivel has been getting into print that isn’t of any lasting value). Perhaps the wheat will separated from the chaff.
Then again, maybe we are living in a world where most people just don’t care to own anything…it’s too much of a commitment! It’s a “throw-away” society, and there isn’t much appreciation for craftsmanship, beauty, or form. That too, could change.