I’ve been stealthily avoiding all of the talk about how the publishing industry is dying because, really, are we surprised?
The various blogs belonging to publishers, agents, and authors go on and on about the root cause of the death of publishing. Is it the ebook revolution? Is it the economy? Is it the alignment of exoplanets orbiting Polaris? A butterfly flaps its wings at Houghton Mifflin and…
I wonder if anyone has thought about how it’s not really the death of publishing that we’re witnessing, but the death of America’s middle class. Having not followed the news or discussions, I have no idea if I’m just repeating a tired old theory, but publishing has always thrived on the back of the middle class. Whether electronic or print, the industry relies on disposable incomes and free time.
The publishing industry as we know it – the pile of books at the Barnes and Noble entrance that you have to climb over – pretty much saw a smooth birthing in the middle of the 18th century, when the luxury of middle class life emerged from the squalor of the Industrial Revolution across Europe. People were making more money, seeking personal refinement and escapist activities, and had the time and means to do so. So why not bury yourself in a good novel?
You see a strong shift in publishing throughout the 18th century. From weird high-brow satire and philosophy to adventure trash like Robinson Crusoe. By the 1750’s, as the urban middle class emerged from their cocoons, the comic caper novel Tom Jones hit the stands, and Voltaire pioneered the science fiction genre. Walpole put out the first gothic novel, soon to be a bodice-ripping movie in theaters near you. Goethe shifted towards Romanticism, and the path was cleared for Wordsworth, Shelley, Coleridge, Cooper, and the Big, Bad 19th Century… Which is where publishing runs to the end of its thread.
Publishing houses rose up in the mid 18th Century, trading off of the idle time and extra income of a moderately educated middle class and, by the time we got to Dickens 80 years later, they were already completely rotten to the core. Dickens is the first writer of note to be told that his work isn’t suitable for our current catalog. So fuck off and die, Chuck. Dickens is also the first writer of note to self-publish his work, though the purpose is lost today on the self-publishing legion of hacks. He was doing it to prove a point and win over a publisher in a time when publishers actually did recognize the quality of the written word once you stepped on their necks and read it to them.
Some might suggest that the publishing houses never recovered. From the greats of the 19th Century into the weirdness of the 20th, where they desperately cast around for whatever was hip. Embracing the flashes in the pan instead of the work, because the fast buck is the best buck. An attitude driven, largely, by debt and the realization that the entire book industry is built on sand. Or maybe bones.
But that’s okay because, in the 20th Century, the world was America. The greatest consumer market Human history has ever seen, where even the poor and homeless are well off in comparison to most nations.
So you get the entertainment bonanza. Stories about how your grandparents packed their lunches to go see impossibly cheap back to back movies in local theaters. Television yelled at us day and night. And publishing took off, embracing the generational shifts as time wheeled towards the 21st.
But now there’s a darkness in America. At some point between Vietnam and today, we started to become heavily medicated, fearful, and overworked. The middle class shifted wildly and morphed into the credit card class, the working poor. They say that, today, we work more than a medieval serf. Maybe that’s just because we have electricity. We’re certainly popping pills like there’s no tomorrow. Getting ourselves to the ultimate wage slave heaven where we can just painlessly live paycheck to paycheck while dulling our brains with television shows that are more about the commercial breaks than the story. We’ve traded out the absolutism of a monarchy for the absolutism of corporations, telling us what to do and when to do it. Controlling every aspect of our lives – sports, entertainment, health, happiness.
This so-called “recession” of ours, which is only hurting the idiots, is simply a symptom of the larger death of the middle class. The not so controlled plummet into mass debt.
And when you have that sort of environment, who’s going to read books? Why bother? The publishing industry has painted itself into a corner by embracing the idiot fads that can so easily be recreated on TV. Why read the series if it’s being done better, and with plenty of tits and ass, on Showtime? Why put in the time and effort to mush through 300 pages when you can get a version of the story in two hours with your favorite actor and a few extraneous explosions thrown in to dazzle?
Publishing, having turned its back on art, authors, and talent since the 1880’s, now pays the price for attempting to ride the cultural bandwagon of the season. And it pays the price for not moving forward since the 19th Century. That much is evident when a book is released as a $34 hardback. Really? Keep doing that and books will start to show up online at all the pirate sites. In fact, that’s already beginning. A year or two ago, it was pretty much just audiobooks being pirated. Now, I’m seeing more and more ebooks showing up on the torrent circuit. HTML files and PDF’s leaked by disgruntled interns or the authors themselves. Now, if a big name book is released by a big name author, you can easily steal it online. That’s pretty much a new development in 2008, and it’s starting to trickle down to not so big books and not so famous authors. By this time next year, everything will be available for torrenting. A quick and easy way to keep your ratio up!
You think publishing is suffering now… Just wait for when the pirates catch up. And more power to piracy, because high-priced hardbacks are just about on the level of deforestation of the Amazon in terms of excess and ill-planning. And while you may know some hardback collectors, there’s no way the publishers are making real money off of them. They’re borrowing money from the future paperback release. And as books fail and the old ways are called into question, then publishers begin to collapse. Again — no surprise.
And the books are failing. All because we’re a bunch of Zoloft-addled misfits working 12 hours a day and too exhausted to change our underwear. Just collapse on the couch, cram fast food down our throats, and watch about six hours of Law and Order in a row. Pass out covered in Popeye’s chicken, wake up before the sun rises, hurry up and commute to our low-paying job for a pitiful paycheck that belongs to Chase Manhattan before you even have a chance to cash it.
The mere fact that the educated and literate people I know complain about having to make the time to read is all I need to hear to know that the 90% of the population that isn’t educated and literate probably doesn’t even comprehend what a book is.
Oh – what’s the solution? There is none. Until we have another cultural shift like the Industrial Revolution, and decades pass while the dust settles and a revitalized middle class emerges with the leisure time and emotional wherewithal to idly row around the reservoir on a sunny day reading Jane Eyre. That concept seems alien to you right now, doesn’t it?
That’s the problem.