As a longtime buyer of books, many of them hardbacks, I'm fascinated and perplexed by disruptions in the publishing industry.
The most recent is the price war between WalMart.Com and Amazon, in which the price of blockbuster best-sellers fell to $8.99. This caused the familiar breast-beating in The New York Times, with a front page article foreseeing doom. According to this theory, the severe cut in price for best-sellers will mean that buyers will not want to pay the full price for other, less popular books, leading to them no longer being published. This is the corollary of the longstanding premise that the huge advances publishers pay for super best sellers leaves much less money for publishers to give to nurturing the careers of lesser-known writers, especially young literary authors who need time to develop their craft and audiences. In both cases, daring, innovative, scholarly, artistic, challenging books are threatened. These Cassandra cries have been rising for quite some time now, but an astounding selection of books continue to pour out. Of course, book sales are falling, and bookstores no longer offer the broad selection they used to, but the Internet offers an unlimited selection of subjects and authors.
Another point raised is that the book business is an anomoly in that its best-sellers, the products most in demand, bring reduced prices. Outside of the the price war between WalMart.Com and Amazon, best-sellers by writers like Dan Brown are sold at discounts of 20 or 30 percent at chain stores like Borders and Barnes & Noble. In economic theory, strong demand should bring higher prices. However, the very popularity of the books, the mass sales, actually results in a deep reduction in price. So, the publishers find it difficult to make enough money to pay for the huge advances paid out to writers like Brown. The big book publishers appear engaged in a curious ritual of self-cannibalization. The book industry already seeks to overcome the odd model in which bookstores can return books that don't sell, leading to remainders. No other industry operates quite like this.
When I go to the bookstore these days, I'm struck by how few books interest me. I also perceive a strong reduction in selection, with books I'm interested in after reading reviews hard to find. I have no desire to read any of Brown's books, or most other best-sellers, including one mentioined as being part of the price war, Sarah Palin's memoirs. The only best sellers I might be interested in are books like Malcolm Gladwell's or Thomas Friedman's, although I am unwilling to pay nearly $30 for these. I might find a Friedman or Gladwell in the library. Often, the ideas that a writer like Gladwell comes up with are well disseminated through articles and reviews, so I feel I don't even have to read the book to get its essense.
As books get tougher to sell, I'm struck by how exaggerated claims for books get, especially in subtitles on covers. Now there are a number of books about certain years that are claimed to have "changed America," or sporting events that "changed football, baseball, basketball" forever. I actually bought one of these books, on 1959, by Fred Kaplan, in which he recounts events that "changed" the country. Then the other day, I saw one on 1969, purported to be the year that also "changed" America. Yes, a lot happened in 1969, but the same is true of 1968, and 1965, and 1971, and 1972.
The reality is that no single year brought the entirity of the enormous changes that occurred from say 1950 through 1975. It was continual, if continually monnumental, process. That pace of change, with increased technological innovations such as the Internet, keeps building. But giving too much weight to one single year or event distorts the historical reality. In sports, one could make the case that the 1959 Colts-Giants championship game changed our perception of pro football, as one book has it, but was that just the culimination of a process of increased popularity, or the catalyst for new popularity? What about the advent of the old AFL in 1960, or the Giants winning the NFL championship in 1956?
Books like "1959," or a recent book I bought that claimed the '60s radical magazine Ramparts "changed America" forever assume that the radical events of the 60s really changed the country. Most of the counterculture creativity was assimilated by advertising, but didn't bring lasting political or cultural change. The '60s was followed by what has been 30 years of conservative dominance.
Another trend is looking at singular sporting events, such as one World Series game or one golf tournament. Again, claims are exaggerated about a particular event's importance. Some events, such as Francis Ouiment's U.S. Open victory in 1916, the subject of a fine book by Mark Frost and an entertaininng movie, justifiably did change a sport. But now, there's a proliferation of dubious claims. The churning out of these books goes along with a a parallel erosion of writing and editing. Even books like Frost's contain striking errors, and clumsy sentences.
I've also been fascinated by the battle between Google and authors over Google's attempts to create a digital library of a huge selection of books though the scanning the out-of-print collections of world libraries. I've leapt into a world of "orphan" copyrights, claims to open knowledge to vast new audiences, writers' protests that their rights are being trampled and that Google will control thought and knowledge in a scary Orwellian universe. A new agreement between Google and authors is being hammered out, but voices of dissent keep bubbling up. Many of the issues of these battles are difficult to grasp, sliding into a thicket of legalize and scholarly babble. But I keep trying to add to my feeble understanding.
On another front, the book industry is also threatened by e-publishing, the advent of Kindle and the Sony reader. Again, the e-reader offers much lower prices. In another development uncovered by the ever vigilant New York Times, libraries are increasing their stock of e-books, which can be downloaded for free, threatening the book industry much as Napster sapped the music business. Another pardox: libraries must pay prices of $25 for e-books, while owners of Kindle or Sony readers can buy them for $6. So, the library threat is mitigated by the libaries' inability to buy a huge selectioin of e-books because of limited budgets.
Who knows where all of this will end? I read another fascinating essay, yes in a newspaper, this time the Wall Street Journal, by Esquire writer Stephen Marche, which compared the advent of the Kindle with the invention of the codex, or the book, which replaced the cumbersome scroll. The development of the codex brought a new explosion of knowledge at the end of the Roman era, just as the printing press later led to the end of monks copying out books by hand and a broadening of knowledge. In each case, the new technology resulted in the products of the old technology receiving status as "holy" documents. According to Marche, the electronic readers will now supplant traditional books, which will be relegated to a "holy" status. Art books, or books of rare subject matter, will continue to be produced for a special clientele, but general dissemination of written ideas will come through the e-reader.
If this comes to pass, books could turn into rare artifacts. Or, they could become obsolete, unnecessary objects, with no further use. Already, libraries are getting rid of books. Perhaps book-burning will return, with assurances that freedom of thought and expression will continue in the E-publishing age. As the flames lick toward the sky, we'll either feel the warmth of a new frontier of human thought, or a chill from the surrounding dark.