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.

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