Publishing, it is dead (apparently)

The most recent issue of the London Review of Books contains, amongst its usual slew of interesting and stimulating reviews, this article by Colin Robinson bemoaning the contemporary state of publishing, bookselling and, indeed, writing itself.  Some of it is old news: the end of the Net Book Agreement was a disaster (personally I’m no so sure); bookstores are losing custom to Tesco and the internet (again, I’m not so sure) and publishers can’t make any money (‘Books have always been a low-profit item and in recent years margins have been shrinking even further. Publishers now regularly give bookshops a 50 per cent or even a 55 per cent discount on the retail price. … [After other costs] the publisher is left with 10 per cent to cover promotion, rent and office expenses, wages – and profit.’)  But by the end of the piece, Robinson wanders into some genuinely grumpy old man territory.  The real problem with publishing, he argues, is that everybody wants to be a writer and nobody wants to read:

But there is a wider, if less concrete threat to book publishing from the internet. Electronic communication has generally made life easier for writers and harder for readers. Text is simpler to produce on computers, easier to amend and spell-check, and a breeze to distribute. No one can be more conscious of this than editors, who are now deluged with manuscripts, attached with consummate ease to letters explaining that if this particular book is not of interest, several others, perhaps more appealing, await on the author’s hard drive. But how does this technology serve the reader? For all the claims of their optical friendliness and handiness, e-books still strain the eyes and are challenging to carry around. Worse, the dizzying range of easily accessible material on the internet conspires with a lack of editorial guidance to make web reading a disjointed experience that works against the sustained concentration required for serious reading.

This privileging of the writer at the expense of the reader is borne out by statistics showing the annual output of new titles in the US soaring towards half a million. At the same time a recent survey revealed that one in four Americans didn’t read a single book last year. Books have become detached from meaningful readerships. Writing itself is the victim in this shift. If anyone can publish, and the number of critical readers is diminishing, is it any wonder that non-writers – pop stars, chefs, sports personalities – are increasingly dominating the bestseller lists?

Perhaps the problem has to do with more than just the way in which words are transmitted. People bowl alone, shop online, abandon cinemas for DVDs, and chat to each other electronically rather than go to a bar. In an increasingly self-centred society a premium is placed on being heard rather than listening, being seen rather than watching, and on being read rather than reading.

This seems screwy to me. A wealth of people interested in writing is surely a symptom of the rude health of literary culture rather than anything else. More to the point, nobody can be a writer unless they read … I’d estimate I read two to three hundred books (a good proportion of which I buy full-cost from bookshops) for every one I write. Besides, how this connects with the perennial success of celebrity-authored books (which have always been with us) is unclear to me. Why is Robinson getting so het up? Is it because he doesn’t know how to fold cardboard boxes? [AR]

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One response to “Publishing, it is dead (apparently)

  1. Doug Cowie

    Robinson’s argument is rather boring and old, and although I don’t buy the argument that more is necessarily good, nor do I buy the one that says more is necessarily bad; it simply is, and so moaning about it (especially as a writer) makes no sense. On the other hand, I’d like to claim without any real evidence to back me up that when editors started having to cave into the pressures of (increasingly large and larger conglomerates of) publishing houses to push more books made more cheaply for higher profit, they also ceased having the time to actually edit every book that they put out. And it’s this aspect of publishing that is the real cause of “the state of publishing”, whatever that might be. Editors need time and encouragement to do their jobs as well as they can every bit as much as the writers whom they edit need that time and encouragement to write decent literary fiction. My theory (or prediction) (or hope) is that the savior of publishing (if it needs one) will be the small press, which operates on lower volume of titles, with higher quality of editing. Nobody makes as much money in the small press game, but literary excellence and money are not necessary bedfellows, either. And anyway, it’s just plain insulting to blame readers and writers when publishers are spending millions on celebrity titles that 1 in 4 Americans don’t read either, when a tiny fraction of that money could be spent putting together a nice book of poems or stories or a novel (or play) that 1 in 4 or 1 in 10 or 1 in 100 Americans, which is still a lot of Americans, by the way, might read.

    Also, it’s always people in English Departments, or with English degrees, or with a stake in the publishing business one way or another who trot out these gripes and moans. But English, generally speaking, is a very popular thing to study at Higher Education level. And it’s not as though only people with English degrees read books. And it’s not as though it matters how many in how many Americans (or any other nationality) can be said to read books based on a small-sample survey in the first place.

    End of incoherent rambling on this topic.

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