The Flip Side

publishing, bestsellers, statistics, beneath the cover, blog, michael r. drewIn a previous article, I compared the findings of two major studies – one national, the other international – that seemed to confirm that reading in the U.S. and other Western countries is in a dismal state.

Time spent reading has declined precipitously, test scores have gone down, and many companies are reporting that writing proficiency is so bad that it is beginning to affect the bottom line. Similar trends have been identified in the U.K. and other Western countries.

One thing has always amazed me about these reports, surveys, and op-ed pieces — they ignore the book business.

It stands to reason that if we are raising a generation of non-readers, and the current universe of readers is shrinking and becoming ever more addled and distracted by electronic entertainments that intrude on what was the most engaging of experiences, the book industry would finally crash and burn after an interminable tailspin. As you and I know, the book industry hasn’t crashed and burned, but that seems to have escaped the notice of industry observers and insiders who insist on describing book publishing as a hit-driven basket case lurching from one crisis to another.

In his wonderful review of Gail Pool’s Faint Praise: The Plight of Book Reviewing in America (University of Missouri Press) that appeared in The New Republic, James Walcott describes a ritual self-flagellation in book publishing as shocking to the uninitiated as the practice in the Middle East:

The perceived perennial decline in book reviewing mirrors the perennial decline in book publishing. Like the Broadway theater, the publishing world is always tottering on its last legs, a wheezing shadow of its former glory waiting for the final curtain to drop, only to be jolted back into spastic life by an unexpected franchise boon (John Grisham, the Harry Potter series) and granted enough of a reprieve to keep the pity party going until the next financial slump. Much of this fatalism is standard issue, an occupational tic. It is easy to give in to despair, which is why so many give it a spin.

Book publishing may be a low-growth business, but that is not a death sentence. If you step back and look at book publishing in the aggregate, you will find that it is doing quite well compared to other entertainment media and industries.

Books more than hold their own even if you look at media consumption by hours spent per year per person. While time spent reading books pales in comparison with that of TV, and may be left in the dust as people spend more time surfing the Internet, it has not lost much ground.

Book publishing is an entertainment force to be reckoned with – despite the best efforts of those who work in the industry to whine, complain, and say the sky is falling. During the very same Internet era that the NEA and others say that voluntary reading and test scores have dropped off the table, we have witnessed the greatest explosion in book publishing since Guttenberg — built on personal computing, supply chain efficiencies, heavy discounting, the data basing and aggregation of catalogs, and the commoditization of books that makes them saleable almost anywhere.

Unless and until we can reconcile book publishing’s bipolarity, it will be impossible to predict, with any degree of certainty, what its future will be – no matter what the pessimists and extreme optimists would have us believe.

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