The Life of Publishing

Reports of the death of publishing are so ubiquitous that readers may be surprised to look around in 2009 and still see books on the shelves. André Bernard recently composed another elegy for the book business in The Washington Post, invoking Auden’s “Musée des Beaux Artes” to describe the falling Icarus of literary culture. Publishing legend Jason Epstein, conducting an “autopsy” of his industry in The Daily Beast, identifies the future of books in kiosks that will print and bind e-texts on demand—and has put his money where his mouth is by investing in them. Meanwhile, surveys of public reading habits show a seemingly inexorable trend downward into non-literacy (or so we are told in news item after news item, although the latest statistics appear to tell a different story).

Though closely related and often confused, the supposed death of publishing, of books, and of reading are separate matters; thus there is some debate among the gloom-and-doom crowd as to what, exactly, the dark future holds. A few believe that only large trade publishers will die out, having banked too heavily on an unwieldy or outdated business model. Others believe that the traditional book will be replaced entirely by the e-text (or printouts thereof), much as the CD and its predecessors are being eradicated by digital music. And some believe that book-length, un-hyperlinked literature itself—as an art form or mode of expression—is nearing its end. (Philip Roth is among the latter crowd, as this sad interview demonstrates.) What unites all these prophecies is a general sense of apprehension and loss.

We dissent. Without being Pollyannaish, and while conceding that the book industry will undergo many changes—some painful—in the coming years, we think there is plenty of life in this business and medium yet. In order to make this case, we will lay out a set of four simple principles designed to serve as guideposts in the storm of commentary and speculation. We will address the outlook for literature, for the print book, and for publishers in turn, circling back to the first subject at the end.

1) Books, whether print or electronic, are irreplaceable.

Prophets of the decline of reading often claim that books are in danger of being overtaken completely by newer, flashier, predominantly visual media. Some blame this supposedly irreversible trend on some inherent flaw in the older medium, as though books, with their plain black-and-white texts, were becoming “obsolete.” Yet such smug or fearful prophecies are as old as the nickelodeon, and they reflect nothing but the bias, natural and even healthy in a capitalist society, against the old in favor of the new. The new must be better somehow, because it is what we are being sold this season.

But remember: unlike science, art and communication are not progressive. We’re not necessarily better at either than our grandparents were, nor will our grandkids necessarily be better than we are. The advent of a fashionable new medium does nothing to change this iron law. Jeffrey Katzenberg can make a thousand 3-D or even 10-D movies and never produce a more aesthetically satisfying spectacle than The Canterbury Tales. In fact, as we rush to create new and gaudier visual spectacles, our art often seems to lose, not gain, dimensions.

On the other hand, art and communication are seldom completely regressive at any one time. That’s because, in a healthy market (which we hope we’ll have again soon), there will always be a demand for steak as well as hamburger—and suppliers eager to meet that demand by outdoing their more populist rivals. In other words, the mediocrity factory of popular culture can and does, by its very mediocrity, light a fire under talented artists, designers, and producers to create works of true value. For such dogged recusants, books—with their well-earned reputation as a thinking person’s medium—are unlikely to lose their appeal. Also, while genres occasionally fall out of favor, whole branches of the arts almost never do. Language is a fundamental, perhaps the fundamental, feature of the human mind; the use of it to conjure up imaginary worlds, advance arguments in their purest form, play verbal games too subtle to be fully appreciated by the ear, etc., probably won’t grind to a halt anytime soon. As the record of these activities, books will be around for a while.

But won’t they, like everything else, inevitably move online?

2) Books in their traditional form are only partially replaceable by electronic texts, and so are likely to survive alongside them, if only as “luxury” items for gift-givers and connoisseurs.

The great selling point of the e-book, indeed the computer itself as a reading device, is that it contains practically limitless texts. Conversely, one of the great virtues of the traditional book—to our way of thinking—is that it doesn’t: it can hold just one text, or a limited number of related texts, and so becomes a distinctive object unto itself. Elsewhere on this site we’ve compared the traditional book to “a little theater, with the author the performer and the publisher the producer”:

There’s something disappointing about the idea of publishers having to tear down the beautiful trappings of the set (cover, illustrations, jacket blurbs, etc.) and authors having to share the stage with many other authors and their works. For both performer and producer, the digitized product feels less “theirs”…even as [readers, we] think digitized booksif they consituted the bulk of [our] librarywould start to feel less personal, less treasured, less [“ours”] as well.

More broadly, what the e-book will always be hard-pressed to duplicate is aesthetic appeal. The book as tangible object, with heft, texture, fragrance, jacket illustration, and informative jacket copy, is a small masterpiece of design. Some commentators have called these sensuous qualities expendable and any attachment to them sentimental; but for many publishers (not just those within our own, heavily design-oriented niche), they are an integral part of the product. In fact, sentimental attachment to books as objects—as keepsakes and trophies of intellectual achievement—explains the impulse to buy certain books at all instead of borrowing them from the library. (Who really needs to have Tolstoy on hand at all times?) The tangible beauty of books also explains their appeal as gifts. No matter how accessible the e-text or how large the digital image bank that accompanies it, it is unlikely to equal a traditional book as a Christmas present or collector’s item.

Accordingly, we predict that the more intimate traditional presentation will continue to hold value for certain readers, ourselves included, for many years to come. It will become a kind of luxury option, though only by comparison to the extreme cheapness of the e-text. Jeff Barry at the SoroDesign blog recently wrote a forecast of the diverging paths of book design that doubles as a sensible forecast of the future of books themselves. The fifth path on his list corresponds to the “luxury option,” and as an art book publisher Abbeville will undoubtedly follow it; but we wouldn’t be surprised if it’s not just arty, high-end volumes that readers continue to prefer in this format.

And yet, like anything else, print books will vanish if no effort whatsoever is put into saving them…

3) As unique presentations of an irreplaceable art form, books will endure only if authors and publishers strive to take full advantage of the possibilities of the medium—and if critics and professors speak eloquently in defense of those who succeed.

A common charge among the prophets of doom is that publishing has undermined itself by following the Hollywood blockbuster model, i.e., by throwing large sums of money at celebrity authors and overhyped white elephant projects. This argument is limited in force because it applies far more to large trade publishers than to smaller, independent houses (as has already been pointed out by commenters on Epstein’s article in the Beast). But to the extent that it holds, it is a valuable reminder that books are books, not movies or TV shows—and that this should be a proudly trumpeted marketing angle, not a source of shame to hide under gaudy packaging. Books as we know them will not survive without an industry—and a wider culture—that celebrates them, justly and robustly.

This will entail nothing less than a return to good old-fashioned aesthetic snobbery. Too often, literature professors today condescend to students by “relating” great books to pop culture fluff, rather than extolling those works above such fluff and encouraging a diet weighted toward the former rather than the latter. Too often, reviewers are loath to criticize a bad book by a good author, as if fearing that they’ll turn people away from that author—or to criticize a bad, yet popular book, as if fearing that they’ll turn people away from reading altogether. (Nonsense: heated literary arguments are vital and entertaining; it’s uniform, bland overpraise, including incessant logrolling among authors, that discourages readers from ever picking up a book.) And too often, publishers pander to their readers’ assumed tastes rather than cultivating a reputation for exceptional quality, both in content and production…yes, we repeat ourselves here, and no, we don’t exclude ourselves from the critique.

It’s time to rediscover the virtues (and joys) of elitism in its highest sense. Many people have said as much lately with regard to politics, but few with regard to the arts. It should go without saying that books are much, much older than movies and TV and the Internet, and if only for this reason have produced far more work of lasting quality. They are, in fact, the stuff on which most films, TV shows, and websites derivatively feed. It should go without saying, but it doesn’t—because to judge from present-day college course requirements, arts review sections, etc., the person who is versed in The Sopranos and not Shakespeare is at least as literate as the person whose expertise runs opposite. Thus, it’s incumbent upon arts critics to stand up and say that this is not so; to affirm that (for example) The Sopranos was an unusually good TV show, but that it was not the equal of the best plays and novels in terms of dialogue, characterization, and a dozen other criteria; and to be able to explain why. It’s also incumbent upon universities to demand, and adequately test, genuine literacy in their students. (We find it hard to square reports of declining reading habits among young people with reports of ever-intensifying competition for top colleges.) Finally, it’s incumbent upon publishers to keep leading the way and producing books that work beautifully as books, not as TV show adjuncts or planned film adaptations. (This should be true even of books whose subject is film or TV; when properly handled, text and illustrations can always be made to speak in ways that the moving image can’t.)

Does this mean that publishers should snobbishly ignore new media altogether? Absolutely not.

4) The Web has a vital role to play in keeping books alive, and publishers must embrace it.

The Web is the world’s largest and most accessible publishing platform; who better to contribute to it than publishers? And yet publishers’ websites can’t just be used as free advertising space; they must become reader forums and sources of high-quality content in their own right. Increasingly, in all industries, consumers judge what a company sells by what it provides online for free. Since publishers are in the business of words and images, it is in our best interest to supplement the words and images we charge money for with ones that we do not—and to make the taste and sensibility that inform the latter our best advertisement for the former.

But the need for publishers to establish a strong Web presence does not imply that they will die out unless they merge their entire business, and all of their life forces, into the vast cyborganism of the future. Online and e-book publishing will have its place, perhaps a dominant place. Jason Epstein’s print-and-bind vending machines may yet hit it big, particularly among college kids who want hard copies of texts quickly and cheaply. Most likely, however, both of these formats will be able to coexist with the book as traditionally printed and published, even if the latter takes on a diminished role.

As for literature itself, it won’t become obsolete until humans do. Even in today’s screen-dominated world, almost everything important that we say to each other, whether in the classroom, in the political arena, at weddings or funerals, or in our ordinary figures of speech, originated in a book somewhere. As Wallace Stevens wrote, we are all “made out of words.” It’s time for readers, writers, and publishers to reclaim that legacy, and to take pride in it.

Happy 2009. The book is back. Spread the word.

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3 Comments

Filed under Books and Publishing

3 responses to “The Life of Publishing

  1. I actually posted a similar article on how the publishing industry needs to take a look at how to realistically move into digital publishing – not as a replacement for the printed book, but rather as a means to capture the casual reader.

    For many of us, there is a sense of pleasure in reading a book, and people are catching on (as evident by the recent National Endowment for the Arts study).

    I do, however, completely agree with you that the death of the publishing industry is vastly overrated and a typically alarmist headline. It grabs eyeballs just like news about Apple products. Good or bad, people are going to tune on.

  2. abbeville

    Thanks Bradley, and thanks also for sharing your insightful article about digital publishing, which we recommend to our readers also.

  3. It would have been better if I hadn’t left a “w” off the URI. There’s a political statement in there somehow.

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