Monday, December 21, 2009

Happy Holidays from a Dying Industry

The American publishing industry is a decadent empire, teetering on the brink of self-destruction, and in its cluelessness the above advertisement is a rough equivalent to Marie Antoinette's "let them eat cake."  I've watched the above clip some three or four times now, and each viewing has left me in a state of slack-jawed amazement.  What is going on here?  Over the course of two and half minutes, some two dozen "authors" -- mostly dimwitted celebrities whose ghostwritten bestsellers have already vanished into the gulping swamp of our collective national amnesia -- offer bizarre non sequiturs on the value of the book as consumer product.  The handful of literary writers who put in appearances (Lethem, McCourt, even Angelou) appear to find the whole project very amusing; the others, some of whom may not yet have cracked the spines of their own published works, range from shamelessly self-promoting to dead earnest.  (OK, except for Jon Stewart, but has he ever said anything that didn't sound sarcastic?)  Although Judy Blume has written some charming kids' titles, her quip -- "You can never have too many" -- takes the cake for idiocy here, especially in light of the other authors sharing her screen time.  I hate to tell you, Ms. Blume, but for my household, one Bill O'Reilly screed is one too many.

I find the ad so fascinating, I guess, because it speaks to what I see as a profound misunderstanding on the part of the publishing industry about what books are.  Here's a hint: they are not neckties.  The reason that books are difficult to sell is not because people don't realize that they make "great gifts"; it's because buying a book for someone requires that the giver have some familiarity with -- and interest in -- said book's content.  Yet, with print review space ever dwindling (bye bye Kirkus) the publishing industry appears to have given this up for a lost cause and has chosen to focus its energies instead on producing content that is more or less reducible to an author photo and jacket copy.  People don't have time to read, the logic goes, so we'll give them books that they barely have to skim.  Such books "make great gifts," of course, because you can purchase it with the same confidence as when you buy a one-size-fits-all Snuggie.  There are no surprises lurking inside.  If Grandpappy liked Cesar Milan's last book, he'll like the new one too.  The old dog will not be learning any new tricks, however.

A lot has been said about the "fragmentation of our cultural attention" in the age of the internet, but I would actually argue that the opposite is true.  With Wikipedia, YouTube, and yes, the blogosphere at everybody's fingertips, people are digging more and more deeply into the subjects that fascinate them, without the moderating force of a teeny local library or a shitty mall bookstore holding them back.  The reason books are losing out against new technology is not because, as the self-pitying publishing conglomerates would have it, readers are getting distracted more easily and simply consume whatever's in front of them at the moment.  As technology allows us to increasingly customize our own consumption of information and entertainment, people are actually, I believe, getting pickier and more active about what they choose.  We don't watch "whatever's on" anymore; we go to Hulu or Netflix streaming or watch the shows we've saved on TiVo.  We don't get all our news from the New York Times anymore; instead, we read articles from a variety of papers, magazines, and online news hubs, eclectically chosen.  So why do publishers concentrate their money, marketing dollars, and editorial focus on a tiny number of titles meant to appeal to "everyone"?

Not surprisingly, Lethem puts it best: books are a blessed escape from life's realities, even the realities of the very industry that produces them.  I suppose this ad did work on me, if only in the sense that it made me long for a fictional alternative to our weirder-than-plausible world. 

Happy holidays, everyone, and here's hoping for a less desperate 2010.

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