One for the Books

By Daniel Akst
For some reason I never got around to reading George Gissing's marvelous New Grub Street until now. If you make your living with your keyboard or only hope to do so (the second category is unfortunately much larger than the first), this is a must-read. Dialogue in this 1891 novel could have been taken from my very own kitchen, and then (as now) there was a revolution of sorts underway in the market for the literary arts. In those days universal literacy, faster/cheaper printing, a rising urban middle class and the lack of entertaining alternatives created an appetite for what people nowadays call middlebrow reading material--and a class of people called "writers." Despite the growing demand, these scribes were no less threadbare than they are today, when another revolution has vastly expanded outlets for writing. The catch is there's less and less prospect of getting paid.

These thoughts are prompted this morning by the report from Borders of its first-quarter results. It was a great report. Sure they lost money, and yes, revenue was sharply lower. But under the circumstances--a savage recession, a culture in which books are declining in significance, the challenge of the Internet, Amazon, Costco etc--the failure of Borders to a) lose way more or b) go out of business is well-nigh miraculous. The stock accordingly went up.

But what can be the prospects for such a business over the long run? It's hard to believe Barnes & Noble can survive the digital revolution, never mind Borders. It seems clear that any cultural product--music, movies, news, books--which can be delivered and consumed digitally will be. What will prevent bookstores (and possibly traditional publishers as well) from following record stores into the sunset? It's difficult for me to say--and I am not one of those who attack companies like Borders for having the temerity to bring a large selection of reading material to suburbia. I wish them every success, I really do.

Nor am i pessimistic about the future of reading, or even of book-length works. There will be digital books, as well as the welcome prospect that we'll be spared a lot of needlessly long works (so much nonfiction unfortunately falls into this category) because digital delivery and consumption will revive the monograph, a length that falls between a magazine article and a full-blown book and is therefore unmarketable the way the business is structured today. But I think of Warren Buffet's recent comment about newspaper companies (not worthy buying at any price) and wonder why this should not apply to many of the players in the book business. Enlightening suggestions are of course welcome.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2009/05/one-for-the-books/18341/