Thursday, May 28, 2009

goodbye to all that publishing

I'm reading Elizabeth Sifton's already much-discussed article about the demise of publishing in the current issue of the Nation. Here is a link to the whole, and here are two paragraphs from the middle of the piece:

A key element in the dissemination of books, independent of publishers and booksellers but essential to both, is the press. The simultaneous collapse of the business model for newspapers and magazines is a gruesome fact of life, and we book people keenly feel the pain of a sister print-on-paper industry, to put it mildly. All citizens should be alarmed by the loss of such a vital necessity to a democracy. But the hard numbers and socioeconomic exigencies of journalism's huge crisis differ greatly from those of book publishing's smaller one (though they are often conflated). Here I want only to stress that the loss of so many book-review pages nationwide is crippling all aspects of our literary life. And I mean all. Book news and criticism were fundamental to the old model of book publishing and to the education of writers; Internet coverage of books, much of it witty and interesting, does not begin to compensate for their loss.

It is taking time for the obsolescence and decay in the book world to show, given the energy and talent of so many writers, their continued devotion to book genres, the resourceful bravery of some publishers, the continuing plausibility of many aspects of their business, the pleasure and profit taken in reinforcing familiar reading habits and the astonishing biodiversity of book publishing. Not to mention the usual quotient of laziness. European publishers are happy right now because things seemed to go well at the winter book fairs in Leipzig and Paris; the London Book Fair, in April, was hopeful if meager, with strenuous, incoherent efforts made to engage with the digitized word. In America, pubescent vampire novels are selling like crazy to readers of all ages, also memoirs about cats and puppies; classics are still in demand, as are cookbooks about cupcakes, of which there are an amazing number. Books by brand-name writers continue to populate the bestseller lists (though not racking up the numbers they used to). Every week the trade bulletins report hundreds of new books being signed up, sometimes for absurd amounts of money, by dozens of publishers.

Here's a bio on Sifton: "Elisabeth Sifton, senior vice president of Farrar, Straus and Giroux, was born in New York City, graduated from Radcliffe College, and began her career in publishing at Frederick A. Praeger. She became an editor at The Viking Press in 1968 and was named its editor-in-chief in 1980, then in 1983 became publisher of Elisabeth Sifton Books and vice president of Viking Penguin. Her imprint won the Carey Thomas Award for Creative Publishing in 1986. From 1987 to 1992, Ms. Sifton was executive vice president of Alfred A. Knopf. Since 1993 she has been at Farrar, Straus, where she is both an editor for its main imprint and editor at large (formerly publisher) of Hill and Wang."