Sunday, February 27, 2011

Andre Dubus III and the Future of American Publishing

I walked over to the Old South Church in Newburyport last night to see Andre Dubus III discuss his new book "Townie". The place was packed - over 400 people bought tickets from our wonderful local bookstore Jabberwocky - and most had already bought (and read) the book.  He told us the story of his childhood in local mill towns - Haverhill, mainly, and Newburyport - and had everyone laughing. Andre is a natural performer and something of a celebrity (after House of Sand & Fog), which is part of the reason so many people pitch up for his talks. But he is also a good writer with some cracking stories to tell, and he is supremely lucky to have been published in these hard times.
American bookstores are going out of business at a record pace; hundreds of independent stores have gone under since the financial crisis bit in 2008. Borders filed for bankruptcy this month, and is closing 200 of its coffee-klatch n' books outlets. In the UK, Books Etc. - my lifeline bookstore when I worked on Fleet Street and in the City - was bought by Borders UK and then closed down.
Digital publishing expert Mike Shatzkin in The Shatzkin Files blog said: "I’m expecting that what brick-and-mortar booksellers will experience in the first six months of 2011 will be the most difficult time they’ve ever seen, with challenges escalating beyond what most of them are now imagining or budgeting for."
The reading public appears to be the reason. In 2009 U.S. book sales were $23.9 billion, down 1.8 percent from sales in 2008, according to the Association of American Publishers.Although e-book sales are often blamed for the decline, their sales - $313 million in 2009 - comprised less than 0.015% of all book sales. E-readers like Kindle are rising in popularity, but they can hardly replace the experience of shopping for, touching, buying and reading a real book. And that experience can only happen in a bookstore.
Maybe it is the American publishing industry that's to blame for declining sales rather than Kindles and e-books. When I shop for books today (particularly in a chain bookstore) I am dismayed by the rubbish that dominates the shelves. Previously-published authors with nothing left to say, but have a winning formula, are clearly a safe bet for publishing houses. Literary fiction with a clutch of meaningless awards are next; flowery prose that is so hard to plow through that when you are finished you have to go back to the start to remind yourself what the book was supposed to be about. Then there is the bandwagon stuff: vampires, zombies. It is no wonder people turn around and leave the bookstore having bought nothing.
In the UK, where I buy most of my books, the bestseller shelves run the length of the store. There are some American stalwarts there and the prize-winners, of course, but mixed in you'll find light fiction, romantic comedy, gentle satire and historical novels. Many are from authors  who have never - gasp - been published before. Publishers in the UK don't adhere to the strict, infrequent publishing schedules that American ones do.There are books released for Christmas, for Easter, for Summer holidays and many in between. Unfortunately book sales have declined there as well.
I don't have the answer. All I know is that as a wannabe novelist it is depressing to think that the hardcover or paperback book will be relegated to history. Any idiot with a computer can turn out an egotistical, unedited e-book full of psychobabble and coming-of-age crap. Well-written, thoughtful books with finely drawn characters and a good plot (yes, a goddamn plot - sorry literati) are the stuff of life. And if Andre's turnout last night is any example, I am not the only one who feels this way.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

The Cost of Winter

The sub-Arctic, northern Canadian weather in New England this year is wreaking havoc with my life. So much snow has fallen in the Boston area (more than 70 inches and counting) that there is nowhere to put it when you go to clear the driveway. Our two car driveway is so narrow that the snowbanks are halfway up our ground floor windows and had to be cut back so that we could fit more than one car in. The leftover snow went in the back garden which now resembles the bunny slope at Sugarloaf ski area. I hate winter and New England winters were one reason I decamped at the age of 22 and moved to Europe (which is now getting its comeuppance). Now that I am back, I can't help but wonder what on earth I was thinking.
Meanwhile, on my way back from a canceled writing class in Boston last Tuesday, I calculated the cost of this winter. For me it has meant finding blokes with shovels and snowblowers and plows to take care of our various properties. At Beaver Cove, ME our plow guy had to clear the driveway 7 times between December and mid January. In Boothbay Harbor our caretaker had to shovel the walk 5 times and clear the roof once so far. In MA we have had the blokes in 6 times with some remedial work on top to cut back the snowbanks. My class in Boston has been canceled twice after I paid for and took the bus to get there and back, missing prime working hours. Several hours in mornings have been wasted shoveling and then tracking down the blokes to get it finished and mopping salty floors. I gave up on trying to fit my car into the drive (and keeping it from getting smooshed by giant falling icicles) and took it to a storage unit for the next two months. I reckon the winter has already cost me a few thousand dollars that I would really have rather spent going to the Caribbean.
But I am a small fish in the ocean. My colleagues and contacts have had to work from home more often than not. This leaves empty, heated, lit offices sucking up money and does God-knows-what to productivity. Municipalities and states are already over budget for snow removal, having to go begging for extra Federal dosh. This is on top of the serious deficits in municipal budgets already and a looming pensions crisis. (About which, BTW, Meredith Whitney is completely right. I was tipped off about the looming pensions shortfall a year ago when writing an article for CME Group Magazine, by someone who should know.)
All in all, the weather in the winter of 2010-11 could be the straw that broke the camel's back the second time. A fragile recovery may not be strong enough to withstand the costs of this winter. I know I'm not - strong enough that is. Off to Florida....