Books in recession

Reading this article in the NYT about the woes of the book publishing industry not being able to make as much money off of their product due to the rise of online used booksellers seems very similar to what happened in the music industry when Napster arrived and people started sharing music instead of buying it.  Of course, people still have to buy the used books from online booksellers, but they’re able to do it often for almost nothing, a cent plus shipping and handling.  Far cheaper than the bookstore, or buying new from an online bookstore.

It’s a situation that doesn’t seem like it’s going to change anytime soon.  As mentioned, the music industry still hasn’t fully figured out how to make money on product that people can easily move around for free online.  A similar thing has been occurring with DVD burning, of course.  I don’t see this as a problem so much as a change, one that indicates the idea of property is changing, too.  People want their music, movies, and books, but they don’t want to pay a lot of money for them.  

I wonder sometimes if these products are priced too high by their producers.  I’m a writer and not a business person, and I understand that the point of a business is to make profits, but if your product is overpriced (a thirty dollar hardback, for example) how do you expect to sell it in great quantities?  And let’s be honest.  Making books isn’t as expensive as it once was, either. Wouldn’t it make sense to lower prices in order to sell more, and by doing so probably make an even greater profit than raising the prices on the product to be purchased by a lot fewer people?  

While Black Wednesday has hit the publishing industry recently (you have been following that event, right?), and many people have lost their jobs because of it, from news and professional blog sources it seems that one sector of the publishing industry that remains safe and still profitable are YA novels.  They’re extremely popular, and that popularity is not waning in the face of recession.  I think this may be because books are seen as a “good thing” and parents can feel good about buying books for their children even if they themselves have stopped buying books for themselves.  But also there are a great number of adult readers reading almost nothing but YA novels.  I find it odd that so many adults are reading about almost nothing but teenagers, and am not sure of what it is an indication.  I read YA stories and novels myself (and often write about young adult characters) so my uncertainty about what it indicates when adults read YA books is not one that comes from some sort of snobbery toward the genre itself so much as it stems from encountering so many adults who read nothing but YA novels.  I don’t buy the theory that YA is where it’s at for no particular reason.  It just doesn’t seem rational that adults would stop reading adult novels altogether, especially when a lot of teens read “up” about older adults and levels of maturation.  It’s a way that we tend to figure out what’s going to come next for us, what to anticipate.

I think a few factors exist in the shakiness of the adult publishing world at the moment.  One of them is expense.  For example, recently I was in the YA section of a bookstore looking for books to buy for my nephews and nieces for Christmas (Peeps by Scott Westerfeld, How to Ditch Your Fairy by Justine Larbalestier, Valiant by Holly Black, and Pretty Monsters by Kelly Link, if you’re interested).  What I noticed (probably for the second or third time in the past year or two) is how cheap YA books are.  You can purchase a hardback YA novel for 15 or 16 dollars.  You’d pay the same amount for many adult trade paperbacks, and twice as much or more for an adult hardback.  You can purchase a trade paperback YA novel for anywhere from 5 to 10 dollars.  Because of this, I felt less restrained about buying more books, and ended up getting several more YA books for myself that day, and got a little annoyed that I couldn’t feel so unrestrained in regards to how I felt I could go about purchasing all of the adult books I want to buy.  

I’ve heard some people say that YA books are shorter than adult books, so they can be priced more cheaply.  But I see a great amount of YA books that have as many pages (and often even more pages these days) as adult books.  If they can be produced at lower cost than adult books, I’m not sure why, and as I said, I’m a writer not a business person, so if someone can explain this to me, I’ll be grateful.  Until then, I’ll continue to ponder over the large differences in pricing between adult and YA novels, and continue to buy unrestrainedly in the YA section of the bookstore while pinching pennies in the adult section.

On a potentially good end note, it seems there is a potential trend toward cheaply priced trade and quality paperbacks in motion, though perhaps not many of the larger publishing houses have caught on to it yet.  The books featured are a new line of paperbacks (Olive Editions) somewhere in between trade and mass market–trade quality cover leaning toward mass market size.  They look good, too.  I received the Olive Edition of Michael Chabon’s The Mysteries of Pittsburgh for Christmas.  I’d already read the book, but had exclaimed over the size, affordability, and style of its production when I saw it in a bookstore several weeks ago, and in response received it as a gift.

Welcome to America

With a cold rain falling, the truck bangs along a gray road past weather-beaten houses raised on stilts. A few years ago, two-thirds of the village was finally connected to water and sewer lines; this is the one-third still waiting. Many residents, including Mr. Snyder, bathe with water retrieved from the Kuskokwim River and use honey buckets as latrines. Some of these malodorous buckets sit like garbage cans along the roadside.

Read the whole article by clicking here.

I’m listening

Ever wonder what some of our political representatives really think? Here’s Oklahoma representative Sally Kern, revealing her true beliefs about something she obviously knows nothing about. And, Sally, indoctrination has always been a part of public education. You’re just upset that some schools aren’t teaching your beliefs about the world any longer. And as for her “facts” about homosexuality, most of them are probably true, but not because the person is homosexual so much as because of a hateful society that alienates them. This is the sort of person who needs to resign from her post immediately.

Who we think we are

An interesting analysis of the racial divide in America at the NYT, and how what we’ve been taught to think about homogeneous rural people and people from diverse urban centers doesn’t turn out to be true, at least when it comes down to who they’re voting for:

The assumption has always been that a black candidate should perform worse among white voters in states with less racial diversity because those voters are supposedly less enlightened. In fact, the reverse has been true for Obama: in the overwhelmingly white states of Wisconsin and Vermont, for instance, he carried 54 and 60 percent of the white voters respectively, according to exit polls, while in New Jersey he won 31 percent and in Tennessee he won 26 percent. As some bloggers have shrewdly pointed out, Obama does best in areas that have either a large concentration of African-American voters or hardly any at all, but he struggles in places where the population is decidedly mixed.

What this suggests, perhaps, is that living in close proximity to other races — sharing industries and schools and sports arenas — actually makes Americans less sanguine about racial harmony rather than more so. The growing counties an hour’s drive from Cleveland and St. Louis are filled with white voters whose parents fled the industrial cities of their youth before a wave of African-Americans and for whom social friction and economic competition, especially in an age of declining opportunity, are as much a part of daily life as traffic and mortgage payments. As Erica Goode wrote in these pages last year, Robert Putnam and other sociologists have, in fact, found that people living in more diverse areas evince less trust for others — no matter what their race. Maybe it shouldn’t surprise us that while white Democrats in rural states are apparently willing to accept the notion of a racially transcendent candidate, those living in the shadow of postindustrial atrophy seem to have a harder time detaching from enduring stereotypes, and they may be less optimistic that the country as a whole would actually elect a black candidate.

What I find interesting about this is that we can no longer think along lines of urban/suburban/rural.  The mention of communities that are somewhere between these categories, and in existence outside of formerly successful urban empires, is a new sort of population that’s only recently beginning to enter the cultural consciousness for many Americans who assumed that everything was either New York City, the suburbs of Desperate Housewives, or Mayberry.  There are many different kinds of communities between each of those sorts of points on the scale.

Read the whole article here.

Modern Ruins

One of my favorite sites on the internet these days is Shaun O’Boyle’s Modern Ruins.  Full of photographic essays about places whose industries, way of life, or some other historical aspect, has fallen into ruin, it’s a beautiful way to preserve a particular swath of our cultural memory.  My favorite is the Big Steel collection, which was shot nearby, just outside of Pittsburgh, where you’ll find husks of decaying and abandoned steel mills, part of the landscape I grew up in.   I find them to be coldly beautiful and of another world, like Greek and Roman architecture, which you’ll also find in various spots here and in other parts of the rustbelt, in little cities that once dreamed of being empires.

The Gift

Ever read Lewis Hyde’s famous book The Gift? It’s in its twenty-fifth anniversary edition this year, and it’s still relevant to artists living and working in what continues to be our increasingly commercial market culture.  Hyde is a proponent for a creative commonwealth, of sharing and giving as an essential part of creation.  His ideas are radical for those who have invested heavily in a propertied culture, but they carry their own logic. Recently he’s been interviewed by KCRW’s Michael Silverblatt.  Have a listen.  It’s a great interview in which he talks about these ideas and what sorts of circumstances a young person needs in our current culture to become an artist of any sort, and what circumstances we’ve created that prohibit people from becoming artists.

More on Americans and reading

Okay, one more entry before I head out for the weekend.  This one is a review by Laura Miller on a book called The Age of American Unreason, by Susan Jacoby.  It seems to be related to the ideas Ursula Le Guin addresses in her essay “Staying Awake” in the most current issue of Harpers.  I like this excerpt of Miller’s review of the book, which points out some of the weaknesses of Jacoby’s (and probably Le Guin’s) examples they sometimes use to illustrate points that have actual substance, which undermines their ability to persuade some people to see what they are seeing (like David points out about his reaction to the excerpt of Le Guin’s essay I posted the other day).  Miller:

I don’t entirely disagree with Jacoby on many of these points. As a literary critic, I too worry about the dwindling numbers of Americans who read for pleasure. Furthermore, like Jacoby (and Caleb Crain, in a recent New Yorker article about the prospect of a “post-literate” America), I believe that reading fosters a particular mental stamina, discipline, creativity and flexibility that can’t be acquired from other media. In a future dominated by complex social systems, technology and science, only people who can think in this fashion will have enough understanding of how the world works to actually run it. And to remain truly democratic, America should be made up of citizens who are able to think that way.

Nevertheless, Jacoby has a hard time separating her legitimate worries about America’s eroding attention span from simple disagreements of taste and generational preferences. She dismisses certain forms of popular art out of hand, automatically presuming that her readers will agree. But I, for one, see no reason why newspaper articles on “the newest trends in hip-hop” should be written off as no more than craven pandering to distractible young readers; the subject is interesting, and worthy, in its own right. I might not equate Bob Dylan with Milton, as some overzealous rock critics have apparently done, but I’m also aware that the pop fluff of one era (the operas of Puccini, for example) often becomes the classical repertoire of the next. When Jacoby hauls out that old, shopworn story about crowds gathering at the docks to grab the latest installment of a Dickens novel, she’s not accounting for the fact that Dickens had about the same artistic status in his day as the creators of “The Sopranos” have in ours — and I’m not sure that the Dickens novel in question (“The Old Curiosity Shop”) emerges as the better work in the comparison.

Le Guin uses the story of crowds gathering at the docks for the latest installment of a Dickens novel too.  It’s a good story, but I think Miller has a good point on its weakness as an example because it’s both shopworn and also doesn’t fully examine or contextualize the example.  In any case, I’m glad people are talking about these things, and trying to define what it is that reading does that other forms of engagement and entertainment do not, and what reading, too, does not do.

Are you up to it?

If you haven’t read it, go out now and purchase the new issue of Harpers magazine. Ursula K. Le Guin has the most perspicacious (not to mention a bit angry) essay on the state of reading, and the book, and the social bonding capacity of books, and their capacity to house cultural information and memory, and how capitalism applied to publishing in extreme undermines the very function of books: a commonwealth experience, rather than one of personal profit or self-interest.


A favorite passage:

Besides, readers aren’t viewers; they recognize their pleasure as different from that of being entertained. Once you’ve pressed the ON button, the TV goes on, and on, and on, and all you have to do is sit and stare. But reading is active, an act of attention, of absorbed alertness–not all that different from hunting, in fact, or from gathering. In its silence, a book is a challenge: it can’t lull you with surging music or deafen you with screeching laugh tracks or fire gunshots in your living room; you have to listen to it in your head. A book won’t move your eyes for you the way images on a screen do. It won’t move your mind unless you give it your mind, or your heart unless you put your heart in it. It won’t do the work for you. To read a story well is to follow it, to act it, to feel it, to become it–everything short of writing it, in fact. Reading is not “interactive” with a set of rules or options, as games are; reading is actual collaboration with the writer’s mind. No wonder not everybody is up to it.


If you haven’t read the article by Charles McGrath in the Times about highbrow/lowbrow distinctions in literature in the wake of the author in England who won a settlement in court by claiming that fumes from a shoe factory near her house caused her to write a thriller, which she claimed was a fall from grace, so to speak, from her usual output of literary novels, you should do so now. I can’t believe such a thing won in court, and yet I can at the same time. It’s ridiculous and wonderful, but better yet is this discuss McGrath teases out of it in regards to what the story really has to say about our notions of classism or elitism in literature.