Buy This Book: Navigating uncharted waters in 21st-century publishing

I recently traveled to the London Book Fair, and I stayed in Bloomsbury, the area in central London that over half a century ago was the heart of British publishing. Over the course of four days I visited the crisp and well-appointed London Review of Books bookshop across from the British Museum, as well as three other independent shops that still exist in that part of the city: one gay, one magic and one socialist-related. In addition to the energy at the fair itself—which was substantial—all of this walking around in the midst of books made it possible to close my eyes and believe that publishing was robust again.

Of course, it is not. You probably have read about the publishing industry’s woes and the closing of bookstores all over the world. The two are intricately interwoven, their symbiotic relationship apparently over. As bookshops fade from view, books themselves are tougher for publishers to market. We never realized before just how much we relied upon a reader’s discovery of books in shop windows and on bookseller’s countertops. Now that those are increasingly vanishing, publishers are scrambling. Friendly recommendations by way of social media do not replace the value of bookshops, where people once went to browse for hours, looking for what they didn’t yet know they needed.

There was a period of a few years, recently ended, when we believed that e-books would save both institutions: publishing and bookselling. Now we know better. E-books instead are continually transforming the two institutions, Heraclitus-style, and none of us who work in books knows what is coming next.

No one knows how to make a book discoverable. That is what we have come to call the crux of the problem: discoverability. How do people find books that meet their spoken or as-yet-unspoken needs? People still share books, but this is not as simple a process as it once was. It used to be that your friend, mother or colleague would literally place a book in your mailbox or your inbox at work or in your hands, and you would take it up and consider it for yourself. Virtual and digital sharing is like spam compared with the physical kind. People are not less likely to share religious books with friends if they buy them on e-readers, but the sharing is less efficient.

People are still looking for spiritual books, but not as they were a quarter century ago. It was in the early 1990s, when I was starting in religious publishing, that the boom began. “Portable pastors” is the name we gave spiritual books back then, and it was true. They became just that, an instrument in the trend toward replacing members of the clergy, professional counselors and religious educators as the primary place to go for religious questions. The pilgrims who once traveled great distances to hear a word from a monk or priest began instead to find spiritual answers, seemingly for and by themselves, in the pages of books.

Reading Alone

The reader’s ability to find answers anonymously was part of the book’s appeal. When you can find answers easily at home or on the bus, quietly and by yourself, you may begin to feel that perhaps you no longer need what organized religion offers. Digital books have capitalized on this trend, since no one needs even to see the spine of what you are reading on the train.

It is said that the digital revolution has democratized access to books and publishing, making the world better for readers. There certainly are some authors, widely publicized by the digital media companies, who have made serious money from digital books. The former editor in chief of the journal First Things, Joseph Bottum, is one. He has written several “Kindle Singles,” including one on the faith of the football player Tim Tebow, as well as a Christmas story that quickly sold 65,000 copies two Christmases ago. And it was not necessarily Bottum’s renown that prompted the sales, but rather his well-chosen subject matter. They were also engagingly written.

But very few authors can make a living from writing alone, whether they pen digital books or the physical kind. We almost all have other jobs. But digital self-publishing has become the latest tease in the American Dream. We think: Perhaps, one day, it could happen to me....

The digital revolution in books is fascinating when considered historically. For every person who moans the loss of print, for instance, there are others who remind us that e-books—or, even more, enhanced digital books—are turning us back to an earlier time when oral storytelling and teaching were how we obtained information and identity. This is probably true. Also, I am not the first person to point out how backlit screens on Kindles and Nooks are reminiscent of reading by candlelight, including the eye-strain that sometimes accompanies it. And highbrow complaints about the devaluing of books by self-publishing mirror the worries many literati had over the “cheap accessibility” of books brought on by the printing press in the 16th and 17th centuries. The democratization of books and publishing has always made the gatekeepers anxious. This even happened in the centuries of late antiquity, as the cumbersome scroll was replaced by the much-easier-to-reproduce codex.

Sitting Still

I have also heard it said that the turn away from the physical book, and from reading for sustained periods of concentration, is a good thing because we are rediscovering the right side of our brains—the side that intuitively grasps images and easily receives oral storytelling. In other words, video and other enhanced features embedded in the books of the future will return to us something valuable we once lost. Perhaps, but this also seems like an optimistic spin on what might otherwise be called the next stage in formalizing our nearly collective attention deficit disorder. Will an expanded right brain quadrant result in a shrunken left quadrant, thus making it more and more difficult for people in the future to sit still or concentrate?

There are some—including Harvard University’s Robert Darnton—who seem to want to create a utopian universe in which every book is made digitally available, free to all, online. The rhetoric for this plan is overwhelming at times. Who could argue with “a project to make the cultural heritage of humanity available to all humans,” which is how Darnton recently described the ambitious new National Digital Library in The New York Review of Books (4/25)? He wishes only that publishers would cooperate more, loosening the reins on copyright law and making those cultural treasures more easily available.

Although it is the opposite of what Darnton intends, his dream scenario could actually bring good writing and books to an end. Do you know what it costs for a biographer to write a prize-winning volume, or a novelist to create epic storytelling? Several years of his or her life, for starters, and that is before the costs of travel, photocopying, childcare, health insurance and rent. A writer has to make a living. Taking the long view means realizing that making books universally available, free of charge to the world, could be the equivalent of making it impossible for writers to support themselves. This would, in turn, lead to a world with few writers and fewer books of interest.

We need writers to have the space and time to take more risks, not fewer. But for that to happen, we need more than the two poles of publishing that are most visible today. One pole is the established author who writes for a well-honed audience (from Dean Koontz to Karen Armstrong), producing the next book in that author’s brand. They adapt well to new technologies; their audience follows them. The other pole represents the thousands of self-published e-books, from tiny to tome, that are made available to the world each and every week. In between the two is the rest of us, authors mostly publishing in the traditional, pre-21st-century ways that are vanishing.

The future for books is complicated. No one at the London Fair knew what publishing might look like a decade from now, but for now, they were gobbling up good reads left and right. For now, they still exist.

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