Books and bacon

June 27, 2009

The annual BookExpo America took place a couple of weeks ago in New York. Did you miss it? I did. Went right by without me even noticing, but that’s okay because, well, it usually does.

I think I posted something or another about Paul Constant’s coverage of the event because I was hard up for material. And that’s probably the same this year, since I haven’t shown my face around this blog since February. As to that, I’ll spare you the gory details and simply say that yes, I know feeling sorry for myself isn’t an excuse. My sincere apologies.

But this isn’t about me. How many times have I said that? Oh, right ….

So … um … oh, yeah. Paul Constant brought us his thoughts and observations concerning “The Slow, Moronic Death of Books (as We Know Them)“.

It’s strange that the only sign of growth at this BEA was in the number of journalists present, and that the people running BEA somehow seemed to think that the presence of more journalists was going to save them, considering that journalism just saw its most terrifying year in memory, too. It felt like the two industries were clinging together out in the ocean, drowning together. Since most of the bloggers were new to the party, none of them were asking any of the hard questions. No one was asking editors why they didn’t think twice before tossing out seven-figure deals for books based on zany blogs that anyone with half a brain could read for free on the internet. No one seemed to notice that major presses like HarperCollins weren’t asking booksellers what they wanted to sell or what their readers wanted to read. Instead, there were well-attended panels about making an insignificant amount of money off of Twitter. A sizeable number of booksellers were unwittingly attending their last BEA, because their bookstores are likely about to downsize or close. A bunch of people tried to hustle another bunch of people into buying something they didn’t want. Some of them succeeded, but most of them didn’t.

After the convention, MobyLives, the blog for indie publisher Melville House, published a postmortem titled “BEA Is Over… for Good?” I’m not so sure that it was the last one, but it was certainly a milestone: By the time next May’s BEA rolls around, at least one of the major publishers probably won’t be around to see it. The age of the giant conglomerate publisher is over. Publishing has always been an industry that has seen razor-thin profit margins if it saw profit at all, and the corporate model isn’t satisfied with a business model that optimally remains 1 or 2 percent above zero growth. The only way that 2009 will be considered a good year for the publishing industry is in comparison with the unprecedented disaster of 2008. People will tsk-tsk at the numbers and write endless, boring blog posts about it, which won’t be read by anyone except other people writing endless, boring blog posts about it. Here we were in the epicenter of publishing, at publishing’s big yearly event for insiders, and it was almost completely crushing any belief I had in the future of publishing. I don’t enjoy attending funerals, so unless things drastically change, I’ll probably never go back to BEA.

Cheery, no?

But it’s not all bad news. While the market for actual printed, bound books is in something of a transition, electronic publishing is all the rage. And this, in case you’re wondering, is where bacon comes in. Not that I haven’t heard it before, but in the case of e-books, I suddenly recalled Erica C. Barnett’s recent article (also in The Stranger) on “baconmania:

Trends inevitably go through their phases—early adoption, buzz, general excitement, overexposure—and bacon is in its terminal stage, clinging to relevance, grasping at any opportunity to cash in on its dwindling cachet as its 15 minutes come to an end.

Electronic books have obviously moved beyond their early adoption, and the Kindle, about which Sherman Alexie had a couple of things to say at this year’s BEA, probably brought on the buzz with its introduction in 2007. We might well be into the general excitement phase, then. Constant notes,

Last year’s e-book sales increased by 68 percent over the year before, and 2009’s first-quarter e-book sales increased over 100 percent from 2008’s first-quarter e-book sales. Naturally, everybody was talking about them, and this was the first year that older booksellers and librarians weren’t loudly complaining about how they couldn’t roll e-books up and put them in their back pocket or read them in the bath or whatever absurd arguments they have been trotting out at BEAs past.

This is encouraging news, and hearing from a friend about a surprise royalty check for e-book sales he hadn’t been paying attention to only adds to the attraction. But e-books probably aren’t a trend the way the recent resurgence of bacon was, and there is probably no e-book equivalent of the “Bacon Explosion“.

Rather, the concept of the electronic book is probably here to stay, and why am I thinking Gary Ross and Anne Spielberg (who wrote 1988’s Big for Penny Marshall) might deserve some sort of award for calling that one nineteen years early? Anyway, it’s hard to imagine the e-book going the way of, say, the Pet Rock.

Nor will printed books fade away. At least, not in the immediate future. But Constant does pause to dwell on the question.

And what will happen to printed books? On the second day, author Stephen Elliott looked out over the hundreds of booths and said to me, “There’s no place for literature here.” He then published a post on his blog, The Rumpus, claiming, “I don’t care about the publishing industry that’s concerned with cookbooks and celebrity memoirs.” He crowed about the death of the glitzy publishing industry and the modest rise of the small press. I know at least three authors who, torn between a larger cash offer from a major house and a smaller offer from a small press, decided to go with the latter because a small press won’t just throw the infant book out into the world to die and cares more about the physical product. It’s easy to imagine that this collapse is a happy ending for publishing: Picture a world of small, good regional publishers like Two Dollar Radio, Seattle publisher Chin Music Press, and Akashic Books printing beautiful books with high literary merit and authors making good, honest blue-collar salaries (instead of grossly overinflated six-figure book deals). Frankly, that sounds like my dream industry.

But here’s the thing: If nobody can afford to publish John Grisham, that doesn’t mean that Grisham’s readers are suddenly going to pick up a quality literary novel by, say, Dave Eggers or Stephen Elliott. It just means they’re not going to read anymore. And when the number of people reading decreases at the top of the mass-reading market—the Twilight and Stephen King readers—there will be fewer people filtering down to the serious literary experience, and the idea of reading printed books will be a tiny boutique experience, not unlike collecting vinyl.

Ha! And here he was, only a few paragraphs earlier, mocking the librarians and booksellers. Yes, I prefer the printed book. Reading reflected light is much more comfortable to my eyes than projected light. But our country is essentially capitalist, and as Roger Waters once pointed out, we all have to play the capitalist game in some way. So the world, even with its slow trickle toward other economic arrangements, is still essentially capitalist. We can speculate, with some sense of confidence, that e-books will not be inaccessible to the average reader. Sure, the Kindle is a bit pricey, but as the market warms, prices will come down. Our own Michael Thompkins just last week proudly showed off his new iPhone, and excitedly asked me to read through a couple pages of his novel, Gun Play, in its electronic format.

So here’s the good news: The Apple iPhone is down to $99, and Palm is rumored to be pushing a competitor, possibly named Eos (or Pixie, depending on which reports you read) for the same price. And with Google preparing to dive into e-publishing, allegedly without the requirement of a proprietary reader like Kindle, it is easily imaginable that by next year you will find buses full of people making their morning commute and passing the time by reading their phones.

There is, of course, bad news. I’m not sure how widespread the problem is, as I haven’t an iPhone or Kindle, and thus have only glanced through a few e-books, but my early impression is that there is much format work to do. That is, the typesetting, as such, is atrocious. Inexcusable. Ridiculous. Embarrassing.

There is a longer complaint in there, about the way electronic markup is altering the written language. The MLA Style Manual, for instance, has changed to advise only one space after a full stop. Personally, I blame word processors and HTML. (Proportionate-width fonts in word processors do strange things to blank spaces, as I think we’re all aware; and HTML is curiously incapable of maintaining a double blank space after a period. Copy and paste this paragraph into a fixed-width text editor on your computer and check. I’m writing with two spaces after concluding marks.)

But I digress. Even the issue of spaces after a full stop don’t explain the random return strikes, paragraph breaks, and line spaces in e-books. Indeed, reading through Michael’s and another book on his iPhone, I was aghast at the presentation. Theoretically, though, the market will, eventually, provide.

And paper is not yet dead. On-demand printing is undergoing a transformation of its own, having already emerged from the dread spectre of “vanity” press. Indeed, hopeful tales arise to whisper about the emergence of actual POD stations, at least one of which is functioning in London and five in the United States:

On Demand Books has installed a trial machine in a central London bookstore. It’s called the Espresso machine, but it has nothing to do with coffee beans. This baby’s grinding out books.

“Effectively, it’s a great big office printer stuck to a rather lovely, in my opinion, but perhaps not the most aesthetically pleasing collection of technology,” says Marcus Gipps, floor manager of Blackwell’s bookstore on London’s Charing Cross Road, perhaps the bookiest corner of one of the world’s bookiest cities.

The printer runs at about 100 pages a minute, Gipps says. The machine then sticks and binds the pages together itself, and out comes a book — a real book, just like all the other books on Blackwell’s shelves.

Gipps says the store already has a half-million titles saved digitally on the Espresso, ready to print — that’s five times the number on the shop floor — and within three months, it should have more than a million available.

And the Espresso isn’t just extending the long tail of book sales, it’s also providing an outlet for rising talent:

Jennifer Brown says she popped out on her lunch hour “because I finished my first book about a month ago and I really wanted to get it published, so this seemed a perfect opportunity.”

Brown says she handed over her pen drive with a PDF file on it, and within about 10 minutes, she had her own book.

Brown holds a copy of her newly printed first novel, Abstractions of Feeling — fulfilling her childhood dream. Now, she’s trying to find an agent and a publisher. Brown says she loves the Espresso machine.

And On Demand Books is aiming to have several thousand of these machines around the world over the next five or so years.

There are pros and cons to this, of course, but for now they’re mostly aesthetic. Sitting on the floor beside me is a ratty, unread copy of Steven Brust’s shelved Firefly novel, My Own Kind of Freedom, downloaded in PDF format and printed out to be bound with a Bulldog clip. And Hervey M. Cleckley’s seminal The Mask of Sanity waits on my computer desktop for the day I feel like challenging my rickety Epson printer to spit out 485 pages. Also to be Bulldog-bound. Actually printing a properly-bound book in minutes, for fifteen or twenty dollars? Sounds good to me.

To the other, I used to work in a video store, back in the days of videotapes. At the time, it was best to keep the tapes on the shelves behind cover boxes stuffed with formed styrene. These days it’s DVDs kept in a drawer behind the checkout counter, so one wanders around looking at empty cover boxes until they find the one they want. Imagine passing through aisles of mock-up book covers, selecting the one you want, and then taking your place in line to have the thing printed out. That will take some getting used to. And we can only wonder when we will hear of a payola scandal for cover placement in the stores.

But that’s off in the future. For the present, the changes taking place in the publishing market are, without question, unsettling. But things may not be as grim as Paul Constant suggests. Vigilance, of course, will be a writer’s watchword as the new marketplace coalesces, but when wasn’t it? And even in keeping an eye to the horizon and watching for rain, we can still afford to enjoy the sunshine.


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