Author, Author!

Author, Author!

“There are more than a million writers in the United States and they write more than 500,000 books each year, 90% of which never see publication.


“There are more than a million writers in the United States and they write more than 500,000 books each year, 90% of which never see publication. Not a comforting thought, is it?” This, from an advertisement for Xlibris–a “strategic partner” of Random House Ventures, itself a subsidiary of…well, you guess. I find that less than comforting, too, though not in the way the ad intends. A friend of mine recently completed a rather dispiriting book tour to promote Phoenix, his (true) story of watching his brother die in a hospital burn unit in the city of the same name, after a superheated steam pipe blew at a power plant, killing several men. Having seen his writing compared favorably to John McPhee’s in the Los Angeles Times, his hopes had been rather high until the turnouts at some stops proved lower than the expectation, at one juncture comprising only a survivor of the accident. But we’ll return to that in a moment. The Xlibris ad–large and prominent, presented in a large and prominent media “outlet” as well–goes on to promise that “help isn’t just on the way, it’s here. Publishing is becoming an extension of the Internet. Huge investments made by traditional publishers in production and large print runs are becoming less necessary…. Xlibris can enable you to publish your book at no cost. Zero. Zip. Nada. Gratis.” This is far from the only venture offering such a service, of course. MightyWords is another, hosting a site at which authors can offer their wares. I say authors, because what technology has effected is an erasure of the difference between “authors” and “potential authors.” There was always none in a literal sense, of course, but there was that little catch of publication. Back to my friend: The promise of 500,000 “books” isn’t quite the cornucopia it would seem. We have to partake of it, actually, to make it one–ah, there’s the rub. The more the merrier in terms of availability, sure. Yet whether it’s print-on-demand works Available Now at a Bookstore Near You or material downloadable on your home PC, the democratic spirit of what is infinitely available will war with the autocratic spirit of what is finitely available: our time and attention. Our reading habits may indeed change as a result, as suggested in the essay that leads off this special issue of the magazine devoted to books. It’s a Sisyphean task, though, keeping abreast of the work coming out that deserves our attention–whatever the means of delivery. Herein are but a dozen discussions of books out this season, their numbers kept in check by the finite number of pages available. From the CIA’s involvement in culture (Frances Stonor Saunders) to the culture of the campus (Francine Prose, Philip Roth) to the vexing history of the Balkans (Misha Glenny, Ismail Kadare), it’s all our world. Let’s partake of it.

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