The Life of Print

There's a lot to agree with in Eric Obenauf's "print is alive" article in The Brooklyn Rail, even if none of his arguments strike me as novel. Nonetheless, this is a pretty good summation of why corporate publishing is in disarray:

Such efforts expose a key fundamental flaw within the mindset of modern corporate publishing: the perceived role of the book in today’s society. In the past, because of the necessary evolution required to actually create one, coupled with an ambition to deliver a valuable artifact to the world, a book was imagined by publishers as a means to both inspire and inform culture. Now the opposite is occurring. In a flagrant attempt to compete with Internet culture, to crash books into the marketplace on hot button topics from steroids to celebrities, from political scandal to political ascension, corporate publishers aim now to meet immediate demand. If a book about teenage vampires becomes a bestseller, then the hustle is on to find and market a series about pre-teen vampires. And because of this constant rush to the market with books that have the shelf-life of a bruised tomato—in hardcover, with supplemental cardboard cut-outs that stand in chain store windows and usher customers down narrow sales aisles—this ideology has influenced the ebb and flow of the industry. A worthy book that has been crafted over several steps and patiently delivered with care is outshined by a gossip memoir by a B-list celebrity’s cat-sitter.

So yeah, print shouldn't try to be an ebook. And really, the electronic market is probably the proper home for all that gimmicky garbage: that'll save a lot of time and expense on getting rid of these books when their fad ends, and the fact that none of them will actually be actually printed will lead to less material waste.

But what of the future of printed books that really do deserve to be printed?

If there is any lesson to be learned from the work of Jacek Utko and his newspapers, it is that we live in an age where a newspaper in Estonia can be better designed and more successful than a newspaper in the United States. This is a time where independently published books—such as works by Europa Editions, Seven Stories, or tiny Bellevue Literary Press—can edge their way onto bestseller lists in major U.S. cities. Today, books released by Akashic, Soft Skull, Melville House, and City Lights are selected regularly as Editor’s Choice picks by the New York Times. These publishers are taking some creepy, run-down entertainment and putting it to the highest possible level of art. Without gimmicks. These are outfits run by a handful of dedicated individuals, without advertising budgets, a personalized sales force, or the vast web of contacts that larger houses depend on in getting word out about a book.

I agree, although I don't think this is really that novel. Small to mid-size publishers have always been the ones with enough interest in literature as art to stick behind an author like Beckett, even if his masterpieces took years to sell 1,000 copies. The difference now would be that the industry is far more corporatized and vertically integrated than ever before. That, and the traditional media's penchant for acting as though only a handful of the largest publishers matter, gives off the misimpression that all the important authors are handled by the biggest houses. That isn't the case, though. Small and mid-sized publishers are still the ones by and large discovering the talent; yes, every now and then a major house will do the same, but far more common is for them to buy off talent once a smaller press has done the legwork of bringing an author along.

I do have to take issue with this, though:

With the economy in the crapper, the American people are becoming more thrifty consumers, better able to discern what we want from what we need. Chain stores such as Barnes and Noble are realizing that books aren’t necessarily as profitable as home furnishings and are already redirecting themselves along that path. Meanwhile, the healthiest bookstores are the independents which have earned a reputation over the years based upon their own quality of taste and concern.

Sadly, no. After watching indie after indie close up in the SF Bay Area (which I am often told is one of the best markets for literature in the entire nation) I cannot endorse the idea that indies are the healthiest bookstores. Just a couple weeks ago I watched Black Oak Books die, and if quality of taste and love of literature was at all correlated with bookstore success, then that would not have been possible. Yes, some indies are surviving, but that has more to do with innovative business models than with some special indie juju. At any rate, the healthiest bookstore today isn't any indie, it's Amazon.

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