Reading in an Age of Depression | The Nation


Reading in an Age of Depression

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The Ad and the Book

About the Author

Tom Engelhardt
Tom Engelhardt created and runs the Tomdispatch.com website, a project of The Nation Institute of which he is a Fellow...

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In the end, Hagel, who came to regret his reluctant vote to invade Iraq, evidently proved an uncomfortable fit.

In my career as an editor, a mere few decades, I've seen publishing transformed from the equivalent of a cottage industry--the term "publishing house," of course, once implied a freestanding entity--to the subbasement of giant entertainment conglomerates. I've watched those conglomerates swallow up houses large and small, creating book companies filled to the rafters with various publishing groups, divisions, imprints and boutique operations.

All of this happened as bookstores, too, morphed from largely independent cottage operations into giant chains that kept expanding their vast book emporiums into ever newer territory. And all of this, in turn, was possible only because the computer was transforming everything in the publishing process except the book itself. (A typical Barnes & Noble book palace couldn't, for instance, exist without computer systems to keep track of stock.) And for those ever-expanding stores, the publishing conglomerates just kept spewing out new catalogues and new volumes. After all, there were all those bookshelves to fill nationwide, forever.

In scale, even the largest of modern publishers with a global reach isn't exactly a GM or a Citigroup or an AIG, in part because, unlike the car, banking or insurance, the book represents such a quirky, small-scale, labor-intensive process to create and produce, but also to absorb. Demanding a significant investment of time and energy on the part of the consumer, it has always fit somewhat awkwardly into the world of mass entertainment. Still, there's a comparison to be made. As bloated as their larger cousins, the big corporate publishing outfits seemed to feel that, when it came to the future, they were immune.

Now, you can't exactly blame a business for not predicting the future, since we humans are generally terrible seers. But when the future stares you in the face, as with the three automobile giants over the last decade, or when, as with publishing, it even offers you a helpful illustration of what might be in store for you, aren't you culpable of something?

After all, when it came to illustrations, the newspaper's decline wasn't exactly a well-kept secret. But there were, I suspect, three key factors that cushioned book publishers from believing that that future would be theirs, and so from truly facing the challenge of the Internet and of the screaming wallpaper of the burgeoning entertainment universe.

The first was the ad. Book publishers seemed invulnerable to the fate of the newspaper, in part, because the ad played no part in the book's financial success.

There's a piece still to be written on the book and the ad. The ad, after all, has colonized everything in our world from gas pumps to urinals, bars to doctors' offices, taxis to your sneakers and cellphone, not to speak of every imaginable printed form, including the cereal box and the back of your supermarket receipt, and yet, strangely enough, it never successfully colonized the book.

This, in our world, has to be considered some kind of unnoticed miracle. Yes, the early book sometimes had quack medicine ads in it, and for years certain paperbacks had ads for other books (by the same publisher) at the back, but the book largely resisted the ad. Even after publishers, rushing to join the other mass forms, began wrapping book covers around anything from movie novelizations to material that had once been confined to "police gazettes" or Hollywood fan mags, the ad still--against all logic--stayed away. The authority of the book seemed, by some mysterious process, to resist it.

Back in the 1990s, ad whiz Chris Whittle launched a series of books on serious subjects by select high-flying authors for select high-flying corporate readers and leaders. These were filled with glossy Fedex ads. But when the publisher, W.W. Norton, picked up the series for the book trade, the ads were dropped. In 2001, the jewelry firm Bulgari paid Fay Weldon for extensive "product placement" in one of her novels, fittingly entitled The Bulgari Connection, and that caused a little media brouhaha. Each of these, however, proved not an inroad but a stunt.

(On the other hand, any future successful e-book reader, whether the Amazon Kindle or something else, will surely have ads; but then again, if any one device really catches on, in its next generations it is bound to "generalize": that is, you'll be able to read books on it, but also undoubtedly catch what's left of newspapers, check your e-mail, text friends, and probably take photos too. In other words, you'll be in a new universe which, for better and worse, will only partially resemble book reading as we've known it--and worse yet, from the publisher's point of view, the technology will be the property of someone else.)

Because the ad played no part in the book, there was nothing of obvious financial value for the Internet to suck out of book operations, except, of course, the attention of readers. This left publishers, even if not thinking directly about the ad and the book, feeling relatively immune to the otherwise erosive and corrosive qualities of that new world.

In addition--factor two--the chain bookstore was still expanding in the early years of this century, reaching into new cities and new neighborhoods. This seemed to ensure an expanding future for the book business (despite a yawning lack of evidence that Americans were, on average, reading more books).

The blindly hopeful nature of all this was brought home only in the last few months as books went dead in those very same stores, and the chains began cutting back every which way. One of the two major chains, Borders, losing money hand over fist, is now "reorganizing," which may actually mean hanging on by a thread. As the trade publication Publisher's Weekly put the matter, Borders "has become more selective in its buying, aggressively reducing the size of its inventory." "Steep cuts in inventory" is another way of putting it and obviously not good news for those inventory providers, book publishers. By now, both chains may also be closing some less profitable stores.

As with GM, it was always easier and far more immediately profitable for the big publishers just to keep selling those "SUVs" until their business model went into the toilet rather than try to prepare for a new world. And--factor three--there was one last bit of history that helped foster the illusion of future book prosperity. It was well known in the business that, during the Great Depression, books, like movies, had done splendidly. They were an inexpensive bit of entertainment and distraction, consumable at home, at a time when not much else pleasurable was going on in a rugged world. Ergo, books would be no less recession-proof in the next big downturn.

There was no reason to believe otherwise... unless you happened to focus on just how many dazzling entertainment options had, in the interim, entered the American home at prices more than competitive with the book. After all, most Americans can now read endlessly on the Internet, play video games, download music, watch movies and even write their own novels without stepping outside; and keep in mind that the $27.95 hardcover and the $15.95 paperback on the shelves of that mall store, once you drive there, aren't exactly the inexpensive objects of yore.

Publishers nonetheless clung to this bit of Depression-era lore for dear life as economic bad times bore down. And, unlike with the newspaper, it's been those bad times that have suddenly brought the ax down on book publishing. But publishers now firing staff, folding up or merging divisions and shutting down boutique operations in order to last out the bad times shouldn't be fooled twice. The return of economically better times (someday) is unlikely to mean the return of the book world of these last few decades.

Small independent publishers, which often have trouble surviving even in good times, are nonetheless more agile, more experimental, and closer to the Internet revolution than are the big houses. They are capable of turning on a dime, while the conglomerates--with their long lead times (often eight months to a year to put a book in the store)--probably can't turn on anything, which leaves them losers in an Internet world in which yesterday's news might as well be last year's.

Think of that old image of shrew-like mammals scooting around among the feet of the soon-to-be-extinct dinosaurs. For instance, Chelsea Green, a small publisher in Vermont having its best year ever, reports that it delivered a new book by Robert Kuttner, Obama's Challenge: America's Economic Crisis and the Power of a Transformative Presidency, from final manuscript form into the hands of readers in a matter of four weeks, and so just in time for the Democratic convention, which is remarkable. There, perhaps, lies one future for the book.

I can't claim to be exactly surprised by all this. After all, in my 2003 novel The Last Days of Publishing, I imagined--because this wasn't exactly a feat of genius (except perhaps for publishing management)-- many of the things that are now happening to the book and the business (even an editor being perp-walked to an axing, something that, back then, hadn't yet happened in the business).

I meant that title with a certain irony, because the end of the book, or even of reading itself, had been predicted and fretted about for so long. And yet, more than 550 years after the first Gutenberg Bible appeared, the printed book, still an unsurpassed technology for delivering information and experience, isn't leaving the scene soon. It's always worth remembering that, when those first printed books began to circulate in Western Europe, the previous form, the illuminated, hand-copied manuscript, did not disappear, despite what you might imagine. It lasted at least another century as a high-end collectible, which was largely what it had long been anyway.

The book remains a techno-wonder that not even the Kindle has yet surpassed. But it's a wonder in a very crowded entertainment universe in which habits, reading and otherwise, are changing fast. Add to that a world plunging into the worst of times and you have a combustible combination. The chain bookstore, the bloated publishing house and the specific corporate way of publishing that goes with them are indeed in peril. This may no longer be their time. As for the Time of the Book, add on another century if you want, but in our ever-restless universe it does seem to be shortening.

This Monday, as I was working on this post, MacMillan, owned by the other German publishing giant, Holtzbrinck, which owns St. Martin's Press, Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, the paperback house Picador and Henry Holt, which in turn houses Metropolitan Books, the small imprint for which I work parttime, fired sixty-four of its employees. I'm still here, but again my tiny world shuddered.

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