A recent trip to a Barnes and Noble Bookstore in Medford--just one of 700 of these megastores in North America--- confirmed for me that times were changing faster than I thought.
On one hand, the place still looked Iike a Barnes and Noble, the biggest chain of brick-and-mortar book stores in the USA. I hadn't been in my local B&N in a while, preferring the cozier and admittedly cheaper air of a used book store or one that has fairly recent titles in a more human-sized form. Barnes and Noble offers row upon row of books of course and most of them are still very overpriced in my view. The "fiction and literature" section of the store featured new reissues of older novels going for fifteen dollars--in paperback!
Some hard cover compendiums of works by certain writers like Douglas Adams, John Steinbeck, Jane Austen, Maya Angelou were available. These often came with little other than the text of the books themselves. No forwards or biographical background on the author, no criticism from top-flight authors or afterwords by the writers themselves.
Many of the "classic" works were available but were published by Barnes and Noble's printing house. Nothing wrong with that, per se, but I found it sad that they often went with a very old English translation of a book like "The IIi-ad" or "The Three Musketeers" by Dumas that was obviously in public domain. And the font for some of their other classic books appeared to be not been reset in the last fifty years! Only the covers were new.
If you go into one of these places you can't miss right up front its big display for hand-held electronic gadgets for reading novels and such without buying an individual product. It's called a Nook. The Nook is the new big thing, the little gadget you carry around to order books and read them on an electronic slate with a viewer.
Has anybody out there ever read a whole book on a computer? I have no interest in that way of long-term reading. It's one thing to read an article or an essay, but a 300 page book? Some journalists see this as a generational thing, but part of the fun of books is that you have them at home or office to refer to when you like. They are part of the decor as well, part of what makes a home a home or a business office personal. Does one really need to lose "the Nook" and with it the better portion of your library?
And yet while independent and well-stocked bookstores are increasingly hard to find outside the major cities and university towns, it appears that even the chain-leviathans of high cost books are losing their stores. Borders Books is no longer in business, as is Walden Books and a few others I could name.
Most of us have seen products like Nook on television and the malls and such. . Now while I don't fancy myself a Luddite it does also concern me that the consumer is being stampeded toward a way of reading that may be cheaper per unit for the publisher, and even the reader, but will also discourage new book-length works of fiction and non-fiction. An article in the London-based "Guardian" outlined that the cost of publishing would become more like the cost of everything else in media like music downloads and such--much cheaper. This might be all right, as the author, Lloyd Shepherd suggests, or maybe Mr. Shepherd is a Pollyanna.
This would spell the end of major advances for news or "mid-list" authors, those who aren't household names but have a niche with readers who are loyal to a certain writer who might be talented but hasn't a mega-following of a Stephen King or a James Patterson. The prospects for more literary authors might be even more dire.
Advances by publishers that may be reduced by up to two-thirds soon. So this sounds to me like the number of book titles will go down. Is this good for a literate society? Will all serious writing be down to a few proven authors who cut their opinions to match the ever-bigger corporate entities that publish these fewer books?
How does an off-beat financial or sociological writer get published in an environment where no "small presses" exist to get the word out? And how does that effect the "marketplace of ideas" that Justice Oliver Wendall Holmes spoke about in 1917 in his Supreme Court defense of first-amendment guarantees. How can an new paradigm of economic or scientific or theological importance be nurtured if you make the "gatekeepers" of our book selection ever more mindful of fulfilling a giant corporate agenda, an agenda that says in effect--"we will allow one or two ways of looking at a political problem or a historical time or a figure of controversy like Ronald Reagan or Margaret Sanger or Jesus Christ or Fidel Castro or whomever.
Great writers of the past whom we revere today were sometimes mid-list writers for most of their careers. F. Scott Fitzgerald published little successful work in the last fifteen years of his life. Jane Austen was not a huge seller in her time, and now her work is globally recognized. Graham Greene and Steinbeck struggled for years in the 1930s as newspaper writers until their fiction work began to capture public imagination. More recently Don DeLillo, author of the acclaimed American novel "Underworld" was a midlist writer.
And will great novels or non-fiction essays by new and dynamic non-English language writers even bother to be translated, or would that hurt the bottom line?
Will the lack of even a mega-bookstore like Barnes and Noble as a bricks and mortar place in a town change the way we see books we might not have seen otherwise. Some see this is already happening as online book sellers like Amazon take away market share from the regular book stores, as well as evading paying the state taxes that regular commercial businesses have to charge. Oh yes, Amazon will 'recommend' books FOR you. But what about old school browsing yourself in a shop and finding your own "recommendations"?
It seems the new way to publish books that is upon us is fraught with consequences people should think long and hard about before we all start relying on a few e-book spots for our book purchases.