The news last week was pretty discouraging: David Foster Wallace committed suicide, high finance took a trip down the toilet, Sarah Palin has a history of wanting to ban books. Then, I got New York magazine in the mail. “Can The Book Business Be Saved?” the cover asked. I shuffled to the middle for the answer, only to find a story titled “The End” that leads with an image of an empty publisher's office and unread books riding down a conveyor belt to a shredder. Oh, and a quote from a 12-year-old suggesting we just forget this whole book thing and make movies instead.
I'm a magazine journalist who covers music and entertainment trends for publications like Page Six Magazine, Time Out New York and Billboard, so you'd think I'd be used to having my dreams crushed by stinky industry news. But for a working writer just dipping her toe into the book world, this eight-pager, written by contributing editor Boris Kachka, was fairly daunting. I sickened at the possibility that I was born just too late to join the party. Are books really... over?
As I dug into this monstrosity of a story—whatever happened to the death of long-form journalism?—I slowly bounced back from my stupor of fear. I'd heard this all before, in 2006 to be exact, when the same doomsday piece was written over and over again about the recording industry. Then, everyone seemed to think that music might cease to exist because oversized major labels were no longer able to provide million-dollar advances and five-star hotel rooms to 20-year-olds who hadn't really figured out how to play their instruments yet. Well, music didn't end, and neither did the record industry. But as the majors panicked, downsized and scrambled to redesign their business models around the digitization of music, established indies plugged along as always, happily scooping up modest gains.
Much like those music stories, Kachka's epic made me nostalgic for the old days. Once upon a time, he wrote, publishers were largely independent benefactors with excellent taste. They took small chances on charming drunks who had maybe only hinted that they could write, let alone sell their work. These book makers risked just a little at a time and steadily polished budding talent into shining genius. The whole description reminded me of the way baby boomers talk about rock and roll in the '60s, how organically it all went down back then.
The way Kachka describes the fully consolidated '90s doesn't sound so bad either. Writers were spoiled, showered in obscene advances and doped up with media coverage long before they'd demonstrated any moneymaking potential. Their books were marketed like hell, which, according to Kachka, doesn't really work anymore. Again, I arrived too late to latch onto that gravy train.
Of course, the idea of getting into book writing because you want to be a megastar seems ludicrous now, though until recently it wasn't that far-fetched a concept. But is blockbuster status something writers really wanted or was it forced on us by large corporations under pressure to cover their overhead? I'm not saying I would hate to hook up with a company that would make me rich and famous beyond the forces of my demonstrated talent. To be clear, publishers, I certainly wouldn't turn down a million-dollar advance! But really, I just want to write books for reasonable sustenance.
Can we go back to that? I know there are new challenges at hand. The economy is in a terrible state and just like the music industry, publishers are grappling with new technology. But if the big-book business of the blockbuster era really is an inflated, overvalued, broken model, is it such a bad thing that it's crumbling under its own weight?
By the end of Kachka's piece, I began to feel hopeful, even excited. An old system is dying, and a new one is taking shape, even if no one knows what it might look like when it finally emerges. Meanwhile, people still want to read books, and I want to write them. There has to be a way to make that work.
|Cristina Black covers music, fashion, entertainment and cultural trends for the Village Voice, NYLON and other publications.|