For 500 years, Western culture, for better or worse, was formed by its books. Great novels have held up a mirror to the foibles and absurdities of human nature, while book-length manifestos have set the terms of political debate and social struggle (think Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations, Marx’s Das Kapital, or even Hitler’s Mein Kampf).
For decades now, we’ve heard predictions that a culture founded upon the book is on its way out. The electronic culture ushered in by TV and confirmed by the Internet, we’ve been warned, would eventually render most people incapable of the kind of concentration required to really inhabit a serious book. Teachers have regularly reported a decline of interest in reading among the coming generations.
Despite these warnings, the book publishing industry marched on. Book sales kept rising. Sure, sales figures were pumped up by relentless niche marketing, fad-pandering, and Hollywood tie-ins. Still, books were moving off the shelves. But now the declining importance of print has begun to show up on the bottom line. According to a report by the Book Industry Study Group, in 2007 overall book sales barely increased at all, and would actually have declined if not for a single title—the final installment of the Harry Potter series. Publishing giants, such as Random House and Simon & Schuster, are showing declining incomes. Meanwhile, sales of books for young children are declining, which confirms the common-sense impression that, with each passing year, the place once occupied by books and reading is being filled by electronic gadgets with hypnotizing screens.
Now the same digital technology that has begun to displace the book at the center of Western culture is also changing the way books are published and produced. While the public seems to be losing interest in reading books, there are still plenty of people interested in writing them. As a result, the book industry is experiencing the same kind of changes that have shaken the music industry for the past decade. Sales are stagnating or shrinking for the major companies. The mainstream audience is shrinking and fragmenting into a thousand hard-to-reach niche markets, and authors, like their musical colleagues, are experimenting with new ways of reaching an audience without the help of the publishing industry. E-books and print-on-demand technology have made it easier than ever for authors to self-publish. The Internet provides at least a potential space for authors without publishers to reach readers, and the self-published share of the book market is growing rapidly.
ACCORDING TO A story in The Guardian, one of the biggest self-publishing companies, Lulu, claims to publish an average of 4,000 titles per week and to have a ready-to-print catalog of 232,000 books. Companies such as Lulu (and Xlibris, PublishAmerica, and dozens of others) provide basic layout and printing services for self-publishing authors and get the books listed with online retailers. Lulu has also gone into partnership with Borders bookstores, placing Lulu kiosks in Borders stores so customers can order Lulu books and upload their own works of genius. And now Amazon, which has provided the main market vehicle for the self-published, has gotten into the business itself, with its self-publishing service subsidiary, BookSurge.
So far the result of all this upheaval in the book business is the same as it has been in the music industry. The major labels—the traditional corporate publishers—increasingly pander to the lowest common denominator and refuse to take chances on new voices and new ideas. Meanwhile, on the Internet a thousand flowers bloom. But nobody ever sees most of them. Most self-published books are only purchased by a miniscule audience of the author’s friends, family, neighbors, and colleagues. This works fine for the companies that provide self-publishing services. As Publishers Weekly recently noted, while the traditional publishers aim to publish hundreds of thousands of copies of a few books, the self-publishing companies make money by publishing 100 copies of 100,000 books.
This new environment will make it possible for the author with an independent platform to reach an audience directly, without catering to the whims of corporate Manhattan, in the same way that a band like Radiohead has been able to fire its record company. But on the downside, the next Toni Morrison may very well find her work buried and lost in a digital haystack of self-published family memoirs.
Danny Duncan Collum, a Sojourners contributing writer, teaches writing at Kentucky State University in Frankfort, Kentucky.