Books in a bind
Just yesterday I was browsing in my favourite bookstore - Unity Books, on Auckland's High Street. As you can see from the Google Maps Street View image it has none of the vestiges of a chain store. More like an Aladdin's cave where staff actvely curate the content - if for no other reason than they don't have room to stock everything.
I love books and feel more grounded when I have them around me. In trut, burdened by their wieght is probably more accurate. So it was interestng to me to read that the big three book publishers in the United States are facing a gloomy future. If they have a future at all. According to Good Magazine, in turn responding to an op-ed article in the New York Times:
Major publishing houses follow American automakers into financial abyss
One would think that when those catchwords of the season, “massive layoffs” and “drastic restructuring,” came to book publishing, the media would come up with a more original, literate nomenclature than “Black Wednesday.” But that’s what they’re calling it, which I find very disappointing.
Whatever the tag, here is the damage: Last Wednesday, the “Other Big Three”—you know, Random House, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, and Simon & Shuster—all announced big, scary consolidations, lay-offs, and cut backs. A few days earlier, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt announced it had stopped acquiring new books, which would be somewhat like General Motors announcing they are no longer going to make cars. (I hear the latter is not out of the realm of possibility.)
The reason for the chaos is not, as one might expect, that the Internet has caused a catastrophic reduction in reading, but that the firms have been profligate and wasteful.
Celebrity authors have been granted monumental advances for the mediocre works that end up in bookstores while outstanding works go unnoticed or unpublished. Sarah Palin has been given $7 million (nearly 14 million NZ dollars) for her autobiography. It paints a sorry picture of contemporary culture but is probably just a sad fact of life that for something to be elite or outstanding it must, by definition, be exclusive or niche, with few exceptions.
As one comentator on the Good post remarks it may not be such a bad thing for the leviathon companies to crumple under their own bloated weight, as it will allow quality niche imprints to take up the slack. That may be a Utopian idea though. There will always be demand for the trashy and easily consumed - I doubt McDonalds, holiday season blockbuster movies or tabloid magazines will disapear anytime soon. As that great hucster PT Barnum quite rightly pointed out - 'Every crowd has a silver lining' and 'There's a sucker born every minute'.
It may be that books do ultimately disappear, though I am inclined to think they will become the kind of cultural artifact they once were. Bound books will be treasured. Thier quality will increase (in terms of artistry) and the quick, cheap easily consumed stuff will become digital content, viewed on hand held devices like the iPhone and Amazon's Kindle. At one end will be luxury and intellectual hedonism and, at the other the commoditisation of content.