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Should We Mourn?

You can find some fascinating takes on the crisis in publishing at the New Yorker’s book blog. It’s starting to sound like a good old fashioned Irish wake, complete with empty glasses, melodic keening, and the quiet schadenfreude of those fortunate enough to live on long enough to drink deeply and then piss on the grave. It’s also impossible not to be struck by the ironies: HarperCollins, “which has frozen wages and is reportedly considering layoffs,” announcing the publication of How to Talk to Girls, “a dating manual by a nine-year-old.” Another announcement that “auditions for ‘The Write Stuff’ a reality-TV competition for writers (‘armed with pencils, papers, computers and a dream’), start in January.”

Ever wonder what killed the dinosaurs? Big tails, tiny brains.

But there are hopeful signs too: the editor at Hachette who argues that it’s the small presses ??? “the Graywolfs, the Milkweeds”–that are going to survive: “They’ll be the ones publishing literary fiction, because they pay their writers a ten-, twenty-thousand-dollar advance and print five thousand copies. For a small press, a book that sells forty thousand copies is a huge success; for us, it’s a disaster.” Or Pearson’s decision to freeze salaries over $50,000, rather than to lay off staff. The recognition that publishers with a strong backlist, like Penguin, will probably survive. The acknowledgement of a failing business model that depended on “headline-grabbing advances” and celebrity memoirs.

Like everyone else with an interest in books, I’ll be watching to see how this plays out over the next few years. Will readers and publishers migrate toward e-books, as Daniel Menaker expects? Will we see a greater emphasis on “sustainability,” with smaller advances and more emphasis on quality? If the big commercial publishers freeze their acquisitions, publishing fewer books, will we see more space on the shelves for small press books? Will there even be shelves in a few years?

It’s hard, when you’re the size of a cockroach, to mourn the dinosaurs, but it’s also easy to get crushed when they come crashing down. We’ll have to see how well small publishers survive the current economic crisis, or what it means that editors at FSG have been encouraged “to come up with book ideas and seek out authors ourselves, rather than relying on agents.” (As a writer, my heart sinks when I read that. Can I just say, we could use fewer book ideas, and more books? Talking to authors is a good start, but wouldn’t it be a better idea to listen to their ideas?) If I could wish for anything when the current crisis recedes, it would be that ??? as Kirsten says ??? readers come away with easier access to good writing, that we find ways to pay writers fairly for their work in the digital age, and that books, whatever form they take in the future, cease to be simply a product and become what they once were: a light that shines in our minds.

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