Predicting the Death of the Book Isn't New
Robert Gray: Publishing Trends of Futures Past
Forecasting publishing industry trends for the new year and the new decade is an irresistible and ubiquitous exercise these days. Perhaps it's only natural, then, that I honor my habit of glancing out the back window of the digital express caboose (Shelf Awareness, June 19, 2009) and offer, courtesy of the archives at Harper's magazine, my own list of a half-dozen publishing trends of futures past:
1. January 1850 Harper's featured an excerpt from the North British Review on a "common complaint that the publishers make large fortunes and leave the authors to starve--that they are, in fact, a kind of moral vampire, sucking the best blood of genius, and destroying others to support themselves."
2. May 1883 George William Curtis observed that "one-half of the books published each year in the United States fail to return their cost, and that one-half of the remainder bring no profit, leaving the cost of supporting the publishing machinery of the country to be borne by the publishers' share of the profits of one-fourth of the books issued."
3. June 1948 In "The Book Club Controversy," Merle Miller wrote about the recent appearance of "a smoothly designed advertisement announcing the formation of still another book club" even though were already "more than fifty clubs" in competition. This particular organization, however, was called the Blue Sky Book Club and hoped to lure members with an offer that may sound familiar to e-book enthusiasts: "You may now receive all the books published... over 10,000 a year FREE." These books weren't the only lure, however, because members would also receive "in compact digest form, the synopses, plot analyses, and YOUR OWN OPINION of these books." It was, of course, a gag with satiric bite.
4. October 1959 The anonymous author of a "Letter to a Young Man About to Enter Publishing" cautioned that even though "you want to go into publishing because you love good books and would like to help produce them... the first thing you should know about is the curious attitude of the American reader."
Strong evidence was then presented, including Edward Weeks, writing in the Atlantic Monthly's that there were about a million "discriminating readers" in the U.S., and "this number has not increased with the population; it has not increased appreciably since 1920." The London Economist suggested "even before television, Americans had not acquired the habit of reading good books. It has been estimated that since 1946, spending on books and maps has declined from 15 to only 10% of total outlays on recreation." And Dan Lacy of the American Book Publishers Council observed that the "basic nature of the trade-book audience is well known; it is largely urban; somewhat more women than men buy books; a dominant proportion of the reading public is in the higher professional and economic brackets; perhaps about 2% of the people account for a vital percentage of trade-book purchases."
5. July 1963 An article noted that Geoffrey Wagner, a British novelist living in the U.S., believed American publishing had become big business and this was a "calamity," since "most small publishers of interest... are being swallowed up by a few big firms. The survivors, he claims, are adopting a 'blockbuster technique' which has 'resulted in astronomical pre-publication deals, movie tie-ins, etc.'"
6. August 1985 Harper's offered a forum--"Will the Book Survive?"--based on a discussion that had been held at the ABA convention in San Francisco, and noted that in the previous year, American publishers had released "40,000 new titles, the vast majority of them, ignored by the great spotlight of publicity, were seen by almost nobody but the author and his twelve closest friends."
One of the panelists, William P. Edwards, v-p for new business development at B. Dalton Bookseller, observed: "Today there are new customers out there--the baby boomers, who fueled the dramatic growth of the bookstore chains and the large trade publishing houses. These younger customers have different views about format. They grew up with paperbacks; they give them as gifts. It's inevitable that during the next ten years bookstores will extend their franchise. Sure, we sell information and education; but the vast majority of books are bought as entertainment. Virtually the whole mass-market industry is devoted to entertainment. We are going to see bookstores moving heavily into audio cassettes--in effect, books one can 'read' while riding a bike or driving a car--and into videotapes as well, exercise 'books,' 'cookbooks,' whatever. It's already happening. After all, in buying a book, people are making an entertainment choice, and if we ignore that and stubbornly deny that these other forms belong in bookstores, we're going to drive away the younger customers. Diversity in format is important, and these products belong in bookstores."--Robert Gray (column archives available at Fresh Eyes Now)