Sunday, March 8, 2009

The Book Business 4

This morning I was rooting around my collection of souvenir books. I came across a copy of Cheever's great novel Falconer in the 1977 Ballantine mass market edition. I ast myself, what publisher would be crazy enough to publish it in that format these days? Or any other serious work of fiction, for that matter. No one, of course, and nobody can tell you precisely why without callin it 'historic inevitability.' Inevitable that the mass market became fit only for paranormal romances stocked in Wal-Mart. Effin publishers keep doin it to themselves.

You can tell how degenerate the book business has gotten by how much time and energy is spent worrying about formats these days and how little is focused on content.

Here's this ugly purple mass market, and the page size is just a tiny bit bigger than my iPhone, certainly a helluva smaller than a Kindle. Yet it is perfectly readable because the type size is large and rationally set. The text is completely present. I'm thinkin it would be the same if I was holding the original hardcover in my hand, or the current trade paperback, or even an e-reader. What's the important thing here? The effin book itself, not the skin it wears.

I remember when Kenzaburo Oe won the Nobel Prize and cited Falconer as one of the great books in his experience. Imagine that. I wonder which format he read. In Japanese.

The problem with good books is simple: they ain't designed to be thrown away after one reading nor are they intended to make anyone lots of money. Any adult who's ever worked in the business knows this. Booksellers, publishers, reviewers, sales reps, everyone. Despite this knowledge, somehow we wound up with a handful of predatory Fat Cats with big purses (or, more likely, big credit lines) and zero taste who somehow confused steady cash-flow with high margins and big profits. So they bought and merged the big houses and inflated the whole thing beyond recognition. Ah-ha! The horse won't pull the cart? Well, then we whip it. Whip the nag till it gives up its blood.

No business can survive when those who run it no longer remember why the business was begun in the first place, or what purpose it serves now. When books are born they're so delicate -- if done well, they take a long time to produce and most of them disappear without a trace -- but the few that penetrate the consciousness of serious readers become incredibly robust and long-lived, withstanding all the ignorant chatter, commercial pressure, and foolish expectations their publishers bring to bear on them. The old-line autocrats knew this, they knew it was a crap-shoot so they played prudently.

Cheever's dead, but Falconer is not. You can take this as melancholy fact, or cause for celebration, poot. Me, I take it as the normal order of things.

1 comment:

  1. Sunday night reading--the last week of the terrarium. Love it. Back to the store in the morning, but I checked in a few hours ago and we're down 20% for the first 8 days of the month.

    But PK, you're puttin way too much pressure on us, man. I mean, if--or should that be when?-- I'm out on the street--or sittin at home--in a few months myself, I can't possibly write anything as good as this..