The Slow, Moronic Death of Books (as We Know Them)
Thousands of people scavenged the bones of the publishing industry in New York City two weeks ago. Here’s a report from the funeral.
L ike other unexciting, impersonal, depressing events, BookExpo America began this year with a press conference. The annual convention for publishing-industry insiders has never begun with a press conference before. From an anthropological standpoint, this collusion of two dying industries—publishing and journalism—was fascinating. Several ancient reporters actually doddered around using canes, and representatives from the publishing industry continually enthused about how blown away they were by the fact that the media was paying attention to them.
The main speaker was Lance Fensterman, the vice president of books, publishing, and pop culture for Reed Exhibitions (the company that organizes the convention). It is at once weird and admirable that, up until now, BEA has never really courted the press, but Fensterman made a mad run for the disinterested journalists in attendance. "You, as members of the media, besides our bookselling friends, are probably the most important contingent" of the show, Fensterman said. This was because "BEA at its core is really about content and connectivity" and about "content in all its form and content creators." He commented that the show was "opening a dialogue" between one thing and another—probably the media and the publishing world (I literally was too busy yawning to pay attention).
Fensterman read a litany of numbers: BEA attendance was down 14 percent from 2007's BEA in New York and up 30 percent from last year's show in Los Angeles. This isn't so surprising, since Los Angeles is not the epicenter of the book industry, whereas you could throw a rock pretty much anywhere in Manhattan and take out the eye of someone who works in publishing. If you have a show in publishing's backyard, of course more people are going to come out. The exhibition space was about one-fifth the size of last year's, but media attendance at the show was up 20 percent from 2007. "We like you," Fensterman said to the journalists.
That didn't change the awful feeling in the room. This year's BEA felt less like a convention and more like a funeral: Last fall's recession triggered perhaps the most dismal year in the history of publishing in America. Book sales are down across the board, layoffs have plagued the industry like a virulent STD, and retailers—including Borders, which is only staying alive through a byzantine corporate ritual that involves hovering over bankruptcy like a vulture—lost money with astonishing speed. The publishers who put any energy into BEA bought smaller booths and were giving away noticeably fewer advance copies of their fall lineups for review. Larger publishers like Farrar, Straus, and Giroux and smaller presses like McSweeney's and Small Beer didn't even bother to set up booths this year. There were fewer parties to celebrate new releases, and no single event consumed people's attention. Many starstruck bloggers reported that the atmosphere at BEA was optimistic (sometimes with a "cautiously"), but they were just giddy from the increased personal attention that publicists, editors, and authors (who had nothing else to do) were affording them.
It's strange that the only sign of growth at this BEA was in the number of journalists present, and that the people running BEA somehow seemed to think that the presence of more journalists was going to save them, considering that journalism just saw its most terrifying year in memory, too. It felt like the two industries were clinging together out in the ocean, drowning together. Since most of the bloggers were new to the party, none of them were asking any of the hard questions. No one was asking editors why they didn't think twice before tossing out seven-figure deals for books based on zany blogs that anyone with half a brain could read for free on the internet. No one seemed to notice that major presses like HarperCollins weren't asking booksellers what they wanted to sell or what their readers wanted to read. Instead, there were well-attended panels about making an insignificant amount of money off of Twitter. A sizeable number of booksellers were unwittingly attending their last BEA, because their bookstores are likely about to downsize or close. A bunch of people tried to hustle another bunch of people into buying something they didn't want. Some of them succeeded, but most of them didn't.
After the convention, MobyLives, the blog for indie publisher Melville House, published a postmortem titled "BEA Is Over... for Good?" I'm not so sure that it was the last one, but it was certainly a milestone: By the time next May's BEA rolls around, at least one of the major publishers probably won't be around to see it. The age of the giant conglomerate publisher is over. Publishing has always been an industry that has seen razor-thin profit margins if it saw profit at all, and the corporate model isn't satisfied with a business model that optimally remains 1 or 2 percent above zero growth. The only way that 2009 will be considered a good year for the publishing industry is in comparison with the unprecedented disaster of 2008. People will tsk-tsk at the numbers and write endless, boring blog posts about it, which won't be read by anyone except other people writing endless, boring blog posts about it. Here we were in the epicenter of publishing, at publishing's big yearly event for insiders, and it was almost completely crushing any belief I had in the future of publishing. I don't enjoy attending funerals, so unless things drastically change, I'll probably never go back to BEA.
T here were only two bits of cheerful news at this BEA. One was the gossip that Seattle might get a real, quality, well-funded book festival this year—see Constant Reader, page 27, for more information—and the other was that one arm of publishing grew under economic assault this year. Last year's e-book sales increased by 68 percent over the year before, and 2009's first-quarter e-book sales increased over 100 percent from 2008's first-quarter e-book sales. Naturally, everybody was talking about them, and this was the first year that older booksellers and librarians weren't loudly complaining about how they couldn't roll e-books up and put them in their back pocket or read them in the bath or whatever absurd arguments they have been trotting out at BEAs past.
The author Sherman Alexie flew to New York for the convention to promote his upcoming story collection War Dances, and he announced at a panel that when he saw a woman on his flight reading on a Kindle, he "wanted to hit her." He also referred to the Kindle as "elitist," causing the kind of flap that can only happen on the internet: Alexie was accused of "reverse elitism" on Twitter and blogs and over e-mail. In an interview with litblogger Edward Champion, Alexie responded: "I don't think I'm so crazy to worry that large corporations may not have my best interests in mind when they are offering me deals... When it comes to this, many people are taking the side of massive corporations over one writer trying to get answers."
The e-books "gold rush"—as Alexie called it in that interview—was the weekend's main topic of conversation. Sci-fi author China Miéville told me, "If I was starting now, I'd be very pro e-dissemination. I think it's one of those things where it is both inevitable and desirable." It was hard to find an author or publisher who would disagree with him. By the end of the show, Google had announced that it will begin selling e-books, in direct competition with Amazon.com, by the end of this year. This is a tremendous change for Google—traditionally it sells services, like advertising or mobile-phone operating systems. Though there's no sign that Google will be making an exclusive reader for its e-books—presumably readers will be able to read their books on whatever e-reading platform they prefer, including cell phones and laptops—this will be its first endeavor into any kind of mass-market retail, and Google doesn't do things halfheartedly.
And what will happen to printed books? On the second day, author Stephen Elliott looked out over the hundreds of booths and said to me, "There's no place for literature here." He then published a post on his blog, The Rumpus, claiming, "I don't care about the publishing industry that's concerned with cookbooks and celebrity memoirs." He crowed about the death of the glitzy publishing industry and the modest rise of the small press. I know at least three authors who, torn between a larger cash offer from a major house and a smaller offer from a small press, decided to go with the latter because a small press won't just throw the infant book out into the world to die and cares more about the physical product. It's easy to imagine that this collapse is a happy ending for publishing: Picture a world of small, good regional publishers like Two Dollar Radio, Seattle publisher Chin Music Press, and Akashic Books printing beautiful books with high literary merit and authors making good, honest blue-collar salaries (instead of grossly overinflated six-figure book deals). Frankly, that sounds like my dream industry.
But here's the thing: If nobody can afford to publish John Grisham, that doesn't mean that Grisham's readers are suddenly going to pick up a quality literary novel by, say, Dave Eggers or Stephen Elliott. It just means they're not going to read anymore. And when the number of people reading decreases at the top of the mass-reading market—the Twilight and Stephen King readers—there will be fewer people filtering down to the serious literary experience, and the idea of reading printed books will be a tiny boutique experience, not unlike collecting vinyl.
At a conference one week earlier, Dave Eggers gave out his e-mail address to everyone in attendance (who then sent it all over the internet) and promised to correspond over e-mail with anyone concerned about the future of the publishing industry. The most worthwhile part of the e-mail you got if you wrote to Eggers reads: "If you can stay small, stay independent, readers will be loyal, and you'll be able to get by publishing work of merit... It's only recently, when large conglomerates bought so many publishing companies and newspapers, that demands for certain margins squeezed some of the joy out of the business." Fittingly, Eggers also announced that the next issue of his literary journal McSweeney's will be published in newspaper form. "The hope is that we can demonstrate that if you rework the newspaper model a bit, it can not only survive, but actually thrive. We're convinced that the best way to ensure the future of journalism is to create a workable model where journalists are paid well for reporting here and abroad," he writes. "If you really truly give readers an experience that can't be duplicated on the web, then they will spend $1 for a copy. And that $1 per copy, plus the revenue from some (but not all that many) ads, will keep the enterprise afloat."
This kind of inventiveness needs to come to the e-book experience, too. The reason nobody is genuinely excited about e-books is nobody is thinking of revolutionizing e-books; they're only trying to squeeze money out of them while putting in as little thought as possible, which (memo to the publishing industry!) is how this goddamned mess started in the first place. Maybe Google, which has permanently transformed so many of our daily experiences—from revolutionizing the way we find information on the internet to creating essentially a scale model of Earth that we can locate anything with, zoom in close to, and practically walk through on our desktops—will somehow create the next big thing.
Can't we make e-books and e-readers a unique experience? Can't independent booksellers make their websites destinations—real founts of information, with blogs and ever-changing staff and customer reviews and video of recent readings at the stores and a real sense of personality? Can't independent booksellers stop complaining about Amazon and the brick-and-mortar chains long enough to put their considerable intelligence to figuring out how to collectively get ahead of Barnes & Noble, for once, in the e-book game?
And as McSweeney's does with their exquisite design sense again and again, can't we somehow make the e-book experience a beautiful one? In an e-mail, Alexie lamented to me the potential loss of one of the great pleasures of book culture: "Have you ever fallen in love with somebody, a stranger, just because of the book they happened to be reading? And what about the recent awe of walking onto an airplane and seeing that forty or fifty people are reading the same Harry Potter novel? How many times have you talked to a stranger just because they happened to be reading a great book, an eccentric book, a book that you arrogantly thought that only you and the author and his or her mother had ever read?" That's not possible with a Kindle, he notes. You can't see what people are reading. "And then again, I wonder this: Do you think the e-book makers will ever design a machine that has a screen on the back that displays the digitized cover art of the book that is being read? Will that make me happy? Don't know." But it sure would be something, wouldn't it?
People are reading and writing more than ever, including people who never used to write at all, like the vast majority of commenters on blogs, and the future will no doubt include all of these literary experiences on one gorgeous, sleek device: the internet and books and blogs and e-mail and whatever comes next, too. This device will be simple and it will be effective and it quite possibly, if it's as gorgeous and sleek as I'm imagining, will have an apple somewhere on it. But whatever it is, and however it comes to be, it will not be created on the sticky floor of the Javits Center in New York, the setting of this year's BEA. There's nothing in that direction but the stench of death.