Even if the economy weren’t in the most severe recession in at least a generation, a cynic might be tempted to ask, what, really, is the value of books when there’s food to put on the table? Traditionally in the publishing world, as popular concerns evolve and change, so too do the titles on the shelf. The current spate of non-fiction analyses and journalistic dissections of the Bush administration and of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are proof enough of that. But what can we predict about 2009 after a year in which major publishing houses and bookstores finally had to come face to face with a marketplace that was no longer able or no longer willing to pay $24.95 for a quick-to-press, quick-to-market popular title? What can we predict about 2009 after a year in which the Doubleday publishing group was dissolved and Houghton Mifflin froze their acquisitions? What can we predict about 2009 after a year in which the crisp, digital text of two popular e-readers (the Kindle and Sony’s e-reader) began to usurp the heft and feel of a physical book?
For many of us who read and write about books and the book industry, the viability of print media has been in question for as long as computers have been sitting on kitchen tables and in home offices. It’s become such a passé conversation and, as with rock and roll, the book has been wrongly declared dead so many times that it may be more prudent to list our hopes for 2009 rather than our predictions. That said, here, in no particular order, are a few things we’d like to see this year:
1) Publishers large and small could take a cue from major television networks and begin to make more content available online. Just as many people without television sets search YouTube and watch full episodes of The Office online, it seems reasonable that publishers could interest and entice readers new and old by making better-quality content (excerpts, interviews, downloads, interactive features) available through their websites.
2) Small and independent publishing houses should jump on the electronic bandwagon and make their titles available for download to e-readers. In a chain bookstore, publishers pay for the privilege of being put on a table in the front of a store. It’s no shock that the same big houses buy up the good bookstore real estate because they can afford it when the little guys can’t. One odd and potentially egalitarian side effect of the growing popularity of e-readers and of e-reader software is that the scales that have for so long been tipped in favor of big publishers may find a fairer balance in a world where books are bought and read digitally.
3) The big companies (Hachette, Penguin-Putnam, Random House, Simon and Schuster, Houghton Mifflin, Macmillan) need to take fewer giant risks and many more smaller risks. Perhaps paying millions hoping that you’ve found the next Grisham, King or Dan Brown should give way to publishing a wider variety of trade paperback originals by both established and unknown authors. More reasonable advances and more reasonable cover prices could be good for publishers and consumers.
4) Newspapers and magazines should bring back their book coverage. Even if a formal, printed book section isn’t in the budget, magazines and newspapers have an opportunity to continue publishing intelligent and provocative reviews on their websites. While there are many unfortunate side effects of slashing your books coverage, the worst among them just might be the implication that newspaper editors no longer believe that the public cares about and no longer wants to read about books and literature. Forgive us for disagreeing.
5) Our final hope for 2009 is that authors utilize not only agents, editors and book advances to find readers for their work, but that they look to their own resourcefulness to find homes for their poems, stories and novels. Whether that means publishing work on a personal website or submitting heavily to little magazines, we hope that the constant stream of bad news about the book world doesn’t keep a word from being written. Ultimately, that would be far sadder than any corporate restructuring or any acquisitions freeze.