The Book is Dead, Long Live Books

I went to the Brooklyn Book Festival yesterday; as that festival invited the organizers of Comic-Con to join then, I was lucky enough to be on a panel—along with fellow authors Peter V. Brett, Anton Strout, S.C. Butler, and Dave Roman—about New York, science fiction, and fantasy. As any good panel should, the session quickly became more of a casual conversation about how we write our books, balance day job and writing, and other related topics, guided eventually by questions from the audience. It was easygoing; it was fun. And after the panel, I had a short but really interesting conversation about the future of books. As it turned out, YA author Ned Vizzini had seen our panel and another one before it about the future of literary fiction, and he was struck by the severe difference in tone between our panel and the previous one. Apparently, for the people on the previous panel, the future of fiction was full of gloom and doom, declining book sales, declining readership. As a YA author, he said, this seemed at odds with his own experience. Young people are reading more books than ever, he said. About our own panel, he then said—and I'm paraphrasing here, so, Ned, if you come across this post, feel free to correct me (about this or anything else I've ascribed to you)—that it was just nice to see people talking about books in an optimistic way. Ned's comment particularly struck me because, walking around the festival before and after my panel, I saw that the optimism he felt, and that we had at our panel, was true of the festival at large. The festival was cheerful. The conversations I eavesdropped on weren't about how everyone should just close up shop and go home; they were about the latest books people were excited about, wanted other readers to buy. It was hard to square the energy and enthusiasm I saw there with the reports in the newspapers of the imminent demise of print. There were lots of vendors, selling lots of interesting books. More important, the festival itself was crowded. By writers, editors, publishers, sure—but also fans coming to see their favorite authors, avid readers, and enthusiasts for their particular flavor of literature. It was lively and engaging. It made me buy books, and it made me want to read even more than I already do.

Now, I'm not saying that the newspapers are full of crap. I can easily believe that the days when a single publisher could make tons of money selling books may be ending. If I were a large publishing conglomerate, I would probably be as depressed as they seem to be. But I think we should be careful not to confuse this with the demise of books themselves. Books, after all, aren't that expensive to make. They're not chump change, but they're also not remotely as expensive as even a low-budget movie. You can do a pretty nice small book run for the same price as buying a used car. And I don't think I'm being too naive in saying that there will always be people who write books, and there will always be people who want to read them. Books survived the Dark Ages and the Spanish Inquisition; as venerable publishing veteran Jason Epstein has pointed out, they survived the Soviet era. They are the cockroaches of global popular culture. Look at your own bookshelf, right now: Someday, when you are rotting in your grave, some of those very books will almost certainly be sitting on someone else's bookshelf. And that's a wonderful thing.

In a Where We Live episode on Connecticut Public Broadcasting a few months back—which featured NHR editor Mark Oppenheimer, Lev Grossman, and Jason Epstein—Mr. Epstein envisioned a publishing industry that was less a collection of large conglomerates and more a swarm of squabbling small presses, perhaps more like what it had been a few centuries ago, when publishers hawked their books on street corners and had local wars with each other for the attention of a voracious yet fickle readership. Looking at the Brooklyn Book Festival, it was easy to imagine that Epstein might be right, and even easier to be excited about the prospect. There might not be as much money in books as there was. But it might be a lot more fun.