Fast Forward to 2016
by John Patrick Grace
The last Barnes & Noble closed two years ago, with all Borders and Books-a-Million stores barely a flicker in the public consciousness. What’s left of New York publishing can be located in the bankruptcy courts as protracted litigation continues to trundle along.
University, public, and private libraries are white elephants available at auction for pennies on the dollar.
All new and established works are hawked to consumers by Google, Yahoo, and Amazon.com in the form of e-books, in heady competition with the Library of Congress, which offers practically anything your heart desires for a modest rental fee.
Pirated works abound, with the result that authors and licensed or otherwise legitimate purveyors of e-books are constantly in court, battling to protect their electronic interests.
Independent bookstores are enjoying a resurgence, however, as venues for antiquarians shopping for an oddity known as “books.” Managers from the independents throng to estate sales to fend off the bids by antique shops and gift boutiques.
The audiobook market is booming as well, though wrenched brutally from the hands of publishers by the powerful mafia of the Los Angeles and Nashville recording industries.
Except for the 2 percent of the U.S. population fixated on antiques such as period furniture, knickknacks, and printed and bound books from a bygone era, all consumers of journalism and writing—historical, creative, and technical—download their reading onto hard plastic gadgets available at Sears, Target, and other fine stores. Or they listen to actors read over iPods or car stereos.
Authors, meanwhile, are using networking groups such as the Authors Guild and PMA, the Independent Book Publishers Association, to make their own connections with freelance editors and page designers to craft works they sell directly to Yahoo and its competitors, sometimes with the help of agents.
Publishing executives have tried to find jobs in banking, insurance, or the public sector, but many have wound up on unemployment. Good editors and designers, always in demand, have far surpassed publishers in terms of viability.
Or . . . ?
Be honest with yourselves, O gentle souls tossing valiantly in the hurly-burly not-so-merry-go-round that passes for publishing here in 2008: Is any of the above truly a stretch of the imagination? Or is it all wholly plausible as a scenario for a future that seems to be rushing toward us like the proverbial runaway freight train?
Can our future go another way to ensure a long and happy life for an artifact that’s been a treasure since the 16th century, namely, books printed on paper and bound in paper or cloth?
I think the answer is emphatically, “Yes, if we want it to.” After all, the pendulum doth swing to and fro, and the current mad-dash swing of publishers toward e-books and iPods may well be followed by a backlash swing toward the preservation of the aforementioned timeless treasures.
Think about it. How many fifth-graders would now want to read Harry Potter on a hard plastic device? I recently asked my 10-year-old granddaughter if she would read Potter on plastic. “No way,” she said. Would the Potter series have been, in fact, anything like the continual savior of both big-box and independent store sales that it has been if those stories had been available only as electronic books?
Then think for a moment about the numerous technological “advances” that have seen the light of day in our epoch, been manufactured, sold, used, and tried out—and then discarded on the dust heap of history: the supersonic transports like the Concorde, the one-man jet hopper, the magnetic highways, and . . . But you get the picture.
Medicine has been finding that we must return to some of the folk and tribal remedies of centuries past. Builders are learning that if they put up new houses (or baseball parks) in the style of the 1920s or ’30s, people will buy them, and delight in swinging on an old-style front porch or sitting in the bleachers of a retro ballpark such as the Baltimore Orioles’ Camden Yards.
So too, perhaps, with books. They just may stay with us as we have known them and loved them. For a long, long time to come. If we want them to.
John Patrick Grace is the executive editor of Grace Associates, Editors & Publishers (booksbygrace.com) and director of Publishers Place, Inc. (publishersplace.org). He is also the editor of The Life Writing Class.