Friday, March 20, 2009

After 17 years as editorial director of Bridge Works Publishing Co., a small but mighty Independent press that publishes mainstream fiction and nonfiction, I have succumbed to joining the chorus of bloggers bellowing about their not-so-secret passions. Mine is books. To me, there's no business like book business, but it's no secret that books are in deep trouble. I'm not talking about romance novels or cookbooks, which have a devoted following of wanna-bes and gourmands, but about good, old-fashioned quality fiction and nonfiction, the kind with a story that has an original theme and a little helpful information about life thrown in. And the trouble in paradise has nothing to do with the popularity of Kindle, or other electronic books, either. Even though some naive soul inquired, "Does adding more books to Kindle make it weigh more?", e-books are here to stay, so no whining over the loss of that papery feel and smell. The one percent of readers who now have an e-book still gets news, opinion and entertainment in book form from publishers who, except for a few miscreants, have carefully edited, fact-checked, and edited again before the title sees the light of day. True, e-books might one day spell the demise of that delight of all browsers, the book store, unless Barnes and Noble decides to go totally digital. We would all hate to see that happen, but browsing has been co-opted by the digitalia already.
No, the real monster eating the adult book business is its lack of readers, period, exclamation mark. While real old people (over 50) still read, if less often than of yore, young adults and various Gen X's, Y's and Millenials seem oblivious to anything longer than two pages. Whereas writers and publishers want the public to be as intimate with Don Gately and Don Quixote as with aggro and My Space.

Except for the aforementioned cook books or bodice busters, publishers can't count on enough sales to keep afloat these days. Some publishers have stopped reading manuscripts until the financial recession takes an upturn. And, of course, the vampire from the 1930's remains: publishers must take back and eat the titles that bookstores order but don't sell. Imagine 3M having to take back its Scotch tape if Walmart doesn't sell through! And book sections and reviewers are disappearing along with their print parents, magazines and newspapers.

If the older reader, the one who used to make quality books her lover, friend and debating opponent, is reading less often, is there any hope of enticing the young to stories that may run into hundreds of pages? How can we publishers get the world to read more fiction and nonfiction and earn a living wage doing so? What's the matter with books anyway--too long, too short, too boring, too quiet? For everyone who is up for returning briefly (even once a month) to a world before Instant Messaging, texting and tweeting took over our lives, look for answers in my next blog.
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