Sunday, January 25, 2009

Less Books, Please

Claire and I just got back from the local Book-Related Superstore, Indigo, a bookstore for people who really don't like to read. It's an odd place- packed 'from the ceiling to the floor' with scented candles, and lifestyle magazines, and titles in the ''for dummies'' series- which are written ''for the rest of us'', a cookie kiosk, Starbucks, and so forth. There are some rows of actual books there, but never anything too challenging; look, Poindexter, if you want to read your 'Kant for Nerds', or whatever it is, you can just take your snooty ass to some pretentious 'book nook', and leave 'the rest of us' alone to drink our chi tea, read He's Just Not That Into You, and bask in the warm, scented glow of high self-regard.

What's amazing to me about these places is that they are built on the assumption that you can actually sell books in bulk to a public that reads less and less each year. I imagine them filling the store via mechanical pallet trucks from a massive pyramid of books in the back. The unsold ones would be thrown in some massive furnace from Metropolis. Atop all of this would be some sort of robot king.

What's even weirder is the sense I get that publishers are putting out entirely too many books. Reading an article in the latest Vanity Fair about the ''winners and losers'' in the last election, it sounded like every single ''winner'' had a huge book deal. Sarah Silverman? Paid a ''huge advance'' to write about her, you know, critical role in the election. Some guy who crunches statistical data on his blog? $700,000 advance, for a book that five lucky people will truly cherish. Joe the Plumber? Another huge advance for a book that will likely have the cultural staying power of the collected wit and wisdom of the ''Where's the beef?'' lady. You don't have to be a wall street genius to think that publishers don't have the best business model here.

It seems to me that the publishing world is willing to throw huge amounts of money at anyone who has achieved any sort of ''buzz'' in any other field in a desperate attempt to draw new readers to a dying medium; this instead of trimming their sails and only publishing books that actually have literary merit and building a reputation for cultural authority. In other words, like everything else in the current culture, it's a matter of faddish celebrity over actual cultural weight.

Am I nuts for thinking that, if publishers continue this way, places like Indigo will be selling nothing but scented candles and mawkish baubles, and no books whatsoever, in ten years time?


Holly said...

Books are turning into newspaper... a heap of shredded tree you can read, or not, for little money and less intellectual investment. When you're done with it, you line the birdcage with it.

I believe the move to cheapen the book industry was actually intended to increase readership. Poorly printed on cheap paper, quick turnaround from manuscript to sales floor kind of thing. It has certainly increased sales, but that's not the same thing at all. Most people don't see books as valuable resources for various aspects of daily life. They see them as small shiny objects, trinkets. Decorative items. Thus the proliferation of attractive books with almost zero content.

Printing more money doesn't make money more valuable, either...

Rufus said...

That actually works as a good aphorism. Nietzsche had a line about public education meaning more public and less education. Perhaps the same is true of popular books.

Brian Dunbar said...

Am I nuts for thinking that, if publishers continue this way, places like Indigo will be selling nothing but scented candles and mawkish baubles, and no books whatsoever, in ten years time?

Maybe - I will use B+N to shop for books ... then go home and purchase them on Amazon.

1. People give me gift certs for Amazon. They know I like books.

2. The product is cheaper, for hard backs and tech stuff.

The exception is fiction. And even then the newstand a mile from my house carries a better selection of SF than B+N does.

Rufus said...

I would definitely say that Amazon ranks higher than most bookstores for me. The exception would be the really good little bookstores where the owner reads a lot and actually knows what to get- there are a few local stores where I get tons of stuff I'd never even heard of when I went in. Usually, the Amazon recommendations aren't as good there.