Future of book publishing is unknowable

Steve Wasserman, the former Los Angeles Times book editor who is now an agent and book editor at Truthdig, gave a keynote address in Guadalajara in which he said predicting the future of BOOK publishing is impossible. But he made some points, and also recalled an L.A. story:

[Readers] know in their bones something we forget at our peril: that without books—indeed, without literacy—the good society vanishes and barbarism triumphs. I shall never forget overhearing a decade ago, on the morning of the first day of the annual Los Angeles Times Festival of Books, a woman asking a policeman if he expected trouble. He looked at her with surprise and said, “Ma’am, books are like Kryptonite to gangs.” There was more wisdom in that single cop’s remark than in a thousand academic monographs on reforming the criminal justice system. What he knew, of course, is what all societies since time immemorial have known: If you want to reduce crime, teach your children to read. Civilization is built on a foundation of books.

Selected tidbits from the speech after the jump.

The predicament facing the publishing industry is best understood against the backdrop of several overlapping and contending crises: the first is the general challenge confronting publishers of adapting to the new digital and electronic technologies that are increasingly rendering traditional methods of production and distribution obsolete, and undercutting profit margins; the second is the profound structural transformation roiling the entire book-publishing and book-selling industry in the age of conglomeration and digitization; and the third and most troubling crisis is the sea change in the culture of literacy itself, the degree to which our overwhelmingly fast and visually furious culture renders serious reading increasingly irrelevant, hollowing out habits of attention indispensable for absorbing long-form narrative and the following of sustained argument....

The historic role of books in the spreading of knowledge would be hard to overestimate. That role, to say the least, is now in doubt. In analyzing this historic juncture, it is important to retain a sense of proportion, to steer soberly between the Party of the Future, whose members are true believers in the utopia they insist will bring us a new dynamic and open medium that will liberate the creative possibilities of humanity, and the Party of the Past, whose members fear that the dystopian tsunami now rushing toward us signals the death-knell of civilization, the trivialization of the word....

There seems little doubt that a critical mass, or tipping point, is being reached. Ever more dedicated e-readers are being invented and marketed, with ever-larger screens. So, too, are computer tablets that can serve as giant e-readers, and hardware will not be very hard: a thin display flexible enough to roll up into a tube is soon to be on offer to consumers. Randall Stross of the New York Times asks the right question: “With the new devices in hand, will book buyers avert their eyes from the free copies only a few clicks away that have been uploaded without copyright holder’s permission? Mindful of what happened to the music industry at a similar transitional juncture, book publishers are about to discover whether their industry is different enough to spared a similar fate....”

In the United States, bricks-and-mortar bookstores continue to disappear at a rate rivaled only by the relentless destruction of the Amazonian rain forest. Twenty years ago, there were about 4,000 independent bookstores. Today, only about 1,500 remain. Even the two largest U.S. chain bookstores—themselves partly responsible for putting smaller stores to the sword—are in a precarious state: Borders is said to be teetering on the brink of bankruptcy and Barnes and Noble is trying desperately to figure out ways to pay the mortgage on the vast real estate they occupy across the nation.

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