The State of the Publishing Industry

Day to Day book reviewer David Kipen discusses what he learned about the state of the publishing industry at the recent Book Expo America in New York City.

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This is DAY TO DAY. I'm Madeleine Brand.

With so many titles filling bookstores these days, you'd be forgiven for thinking the publishing industry is thriving. But our book critic David Kipen just got back from Book Expo America, the annual three-day trade show held in Manhattan last weekend, and he came away with the feeling that all is not well in the publishing world.

DAVID KIPEN reporting:

Book Expo was a lot like life. In the short term, like life, most people tended to concentrate on unseemly jockeying for immediate opportunities; in this case, party invites, press attention, that kind of thing. Longer-term, also like life, folks busied themselves with unconvincing expressions of confidence--`The next catalog is our best ever,' that kind of thing. But whenever thoughts strayed to the more distant future--and maybe this was the most lifelike aspect of all--no amount of bluster could hope to disguise a classic case of the screaming fantods. Beset by stagnant sales and aging readers, the whole profession of publishing resembled nothing so much as 25,000 castaways, beached on the east bank of the Hudson River tending their signal fires and hoping for somebody--Oprah? Google Print?--somebody to rescue them before the breadfruit runs out.

The October prospects of a new memoir from Joan Didion and novels from such names as Zadie Smith, Salman Rushdie and Wendy Lesser gave Book Expo participants something to look forward to. But underneath all the hoopla, attendees' spirits proved as autumnal as their catalogs. Or maybe that's just three days of wine and cheese talking. The New York Times certainly preferred to whistle a happy tune, opening the convention with a piece celebrating an 8 percent rise in consumer spending on books over the last three calendar years. It fell to the Associated Press to emphasize that it's easy for consumers to spend 8 percent more on books just so long as books keep costing at least 8 percent more than they used to. In other words, folks aren't buying more books. They're just shelling out more for them. Seen in this light, the book sales glass is not only half empty, but looking decidedly on the brackish side.

And readers are buying fewer different books. As conglomerates like Wal-Mart come to dominate a larger and larger slice of the book market, the much smaller selection in stores like theirs has real consequences for the biodiversity of American thought. On Saturday the audience at a C-SPAN 2 panel laughed when I suggested that no bookstore should stock more than a single copy of any one book at a time. But is that really any more absurd than the alternative that we're fast approaching, when stores will finally stock thousands of copies of only one book?

Which brings us to Oprah's recent choice of three William Faulkner titles--"As I Lay Dying," "The Sound and the Fury" and "Light in August"--for her Book Club this summer. Why three books rather than the usual one? Different explanations are making the rounds, but I'm partial to the most obvious, if least invoked theory. How else could publishers hope to make $29.95 off a boxed set of three classics, any two of which can be found in most half-decent libraries or used-book stores? I'm not saying Oprah cares whether publishers make a mint off her picks or not. But such successes certainly reinforce her position as the premier literary tastemaker in America since Clifton Fadiman reigned over the Book of the Month Club. Money is nice but power is nicer. There's no tax on power.

BRAND: David Kipen is the book critic for the San Francisco Chronicle.

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