The Long Goodbye?

This article, by Elisabeth Sifton, originally appeared on The Nation website on 5/20/09.

Humanity has read, hoarded, discarded and demanded books for centuries; for centuries books have been intimately woven into our sense of ourselves, into the means by which we find out who we are and who we want to be.

They have never been mere physical objects–paper pages of a certain size and weight printed with text and sometimes images, bound together on the left–never just cherished or reviled reminders of school-day torments, or mementos treasured as expressions of bourgeois achievement, or icons of aristocratic culture. They have been all these things and more. They have been instruments of enlightenment.

Once the invention of movable type and various commercial advances in the early modern era enabled printers to sell books to anyone who could and would pay for them (no longer reserving them for priests and kings), they became irresistibly popular: their relatively sturdy bindings gave them some permanence; the small-format ones were portable and could be read anywhere; and they transmitted sensory pleasures to eye, hand and brain. Children learned to read with them; adolescents used them, sometimes furtively, to discover the secrets of grown-up life; adults loved them for the pleasure, learning and joy they conveyed. Books have had a kind of spooky power, embedded as they are in the very structures of learning, commerce and culture by which we have absorbed, stored and transmitted information, opinion, art and wisdom. No wonder, then, that the book business, although a very small part of the American economy, has attracted disproportionate attention.


But does it still merit this attention? Do books still have their power? Over the past twenty years, as we’ve thrown ourselves eagerly into a joy ride on the Information Superhighway, we’ve been learning to read, and been reading, differently; and books aren’t necessarily where we start or end our education. The unprofitable chaos of the book business today indicates, among other things, that slow, almost invisible transformations as well as rapid helter-skelter ones have wrecked old reading habits (bad and good) and created new ones (ditto). In the cacophony of modern American commerce, we hear incoherent squeals of dying life-forms along with the triumphant braying and twittering of new human expression.

People in the book business, like the readers they seek out (a minute fraction of the literate population), hate to think that books might be moribund, and signs of vigorous life in some quarters belie the grim 2009 forecasts. Also, publishers have always mournfully predicted that the end was nigh–they must share either a melancholy temperament or sensitivity to the fragility of culture–so today’s dire predictions aren’t in themselves news. (I’m speaking here not of technical books or textbooks, which are facing their own crises, but of what are called general trade books–literature, politics, history, biography and memoir, science, poetry, art–written for the general public.) When I first got a publishing job almost half a century ago, my elders and betters in the trade regularly worried about The Future of Books, even though manuscripts continued to pour onto our desks. They worried, too, when firms changed ownership. 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 dépendance 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.

All told, I’ve worked in only four firms, yet for seven different owners and in eight or nine different publishing arrangements designed and redesigned to accommodate varying corporate intentions. I have seen up close how feckless management activity can change things. Of course, now we all are acquainted with truly vast corporate fecklessness, which has brought us a world-historical economic meltdown that dwarfs everything. For publishers, it comes on top of systemic difficulties they have long struggled to resolve, mitigate or ignore–difficulties only compounded by changes that the digital realm has been making in our reading culture.

As we know, all retail businesses collapsed in September, failed to recover during the Christmas season and have been weak ever since. Book sales continued to drop in the spring, but then, they’ve been stagnant for years. It was in 2001, when the dot-com bubble was beginning to burst but before the shock of 9/11, that I first heard a morose sales director use the catch-phrase "flat is the new up." Book publishers and sellers were overextended and had grown careless, like everyone else, in the go-go years, while the digital reading revolution continued and business worsened. In the past six months, layoffs and shutterings have become commonplace.

A key element in the dissemination of books, independent of publishers and booksellers but essential to both, is the press. The simultaneous collapse of the business model for newspapers and magazines is a gruesome fact of life, and we book people keenly feel the pain of a sister print-on-paper industry, to put it mildly. All citizens should be alarmed by the loss of such a vital necessity to a democracy. But the hard numbers and socioeconomic exigencies of journalism’s huge crisis differ greatly from those of book publishing’s smaller one (though they are often conflated). Here I want only to stress that the loss of so many book-review pages nationwide is crippling all aspects of our literary life. And I mean all. Book news and criticism were fundamental to the old model of book publishing and to the education of writers; Internet coverage of books, much of it witty and interesting, does not begin to compensate for their loss.

It is taking time for the obsolescence and decay in the book world to show, given the energy and talent of so many writers, their continued devotion to book genres, the resourceful bravery of some publishers, the continuing plausibility of many aspects of their business, the pleasure and profit taken in reinforcing familiar reading habits and the astonishing biodiversity of book publishing. Not to mention the usual quotient of laziness. European publishers are happy right now because things seemed to go well at the winter book fairs in Leipzig and Paris; the London Book Fair, in April, was hopeful if meager, with strenuous, incoherent efforts made to engage with the digitized word. In America, pubescent vampire novels are selling like crazy to readers of all ages, also memoirs about cats and puppies; classics are still in demand, as are cookbooks about cupcakes, of which there are an amazing number. Books by brand-name writers continue to populate the bestseller lists (though not racking up the numbers they used to). Every week the trade bulletins report hundreds of new books being signed up, sometimes for absurd amounts of money, by dozens of publishers.

Read the rest of the article on The Nation.