Look, we've had a good run. Remember all the times you've made me miss my subway stop, or kept me up late in bed? Remember how I liked you so much I devoted my life to you, culminating in a little something called Gimme Shelter?
Yeah, well, books, I think it's over. We can still Kindle. Maybe.
These are not great days for the printed word. Layoffs at McGraw-Hill, HarperCollins, Broadway, Doubleday. My own publisher, Simon & Schuster, laid off 35 people in December, including my editor.
Your services will no longer be needed.
The story is not unique. What's happening in the industry right now is being replayed again and again in nonprofit, manufacturing, finance. I don't need to tell you.
So, though I could easily pull a semi-witty collection of anecdotes out of my butt for today's entry, it seems rather pointless and silly to be sitting here typing in the middle of a crapstorm and not acknowledge it. I wrote a book that is about, among other things, the economy. About a housing bubble that is at least in part to blame for this current catastrophe. And hey, my own livelihood depends on sellers and publishers sticking around.
Bookstores are hurting. Publishers are hurting. Magazines and newspapers are closing up shop at an alarming rate. Public radio, for which I work, and Salon.com, for which I also work, have cut back. The very bookstore whose blog you are reading now, Powells, has shelved plans for expansion, per a recent report in the paper that just laid off one hundred people, the New York Times. The updates coming in from The Media Is Dying are incessant. There are days I feel like I'm in a mass version of Predator, running through the media forest as the body count rises.
Current value of your 401(k).
I don't know how to remedy it, though I will say that I think giving major advances to minor celebrities (I'm looking at you, Joe the Plumber) is ludicrous.
I can almost understand it, though. We're all trying to simply stay in business in the most financially scary times in memory. If there's some cat diet self-help book based on a viral YouTube clip that keeps the whole works floating, then, by golly, somebody's going to publish it.
The world is changing, and the industry is going to have to change as well. Maybe the day is coming soon when all the people who've lost their jobs in the recent bloodbaths will get together in all their newly found free time and figure out a new revenue model. Maybe we can save publishing and, with it, books. Because Twittering is not writing. Texts are not text.
How do you work this thing?
As a Tweeter/blogger/MySpacer myself, I give all that stuff its due. I just want more. I think most of us do. I see us out there every day, sitting on trains with our noses in Outliers or Revolutionary Road; I see us at the library with our kids devouring Harry Potter and Lemony Snicket.
The written word isn't dead. Shakespeare and Gogol and, god help us, Chelsea Handler will continue to find their way into the hands and eyes of people who want to read them. I do, however, wonder about the impact of the recession — and our collective rapidly diminishing attention span — on literature and the cultivation of new talent. Would Harper Lee be able to get a publisher today? Or would she be passed over for Facebook Status! The Hardcover?
I don't know. But I'll tell you this —I have a gratitude to every person who has laid out cash to buy Gimme Shelter in this suckass economy, that I could not have fathomed at any other moment in history. I am so deeply humbled and moved that it happens at all, because I too know exactly what a financial sacrifice it is to buy a book these days.
So, I'm going to keep reading. I'm going to keep spending some of my dwindling funds in bookstores. Though I sometimes wonder whether it's not too late to make a go of it in MILF porn, I'm even going to keep writing. I'm going to hope that there's enough love and passion out there to support the business of words. To wish the same of art and music, and my friends who make them. And likewise, to all the rest of us trying to pay our bills and hang on to our dreams, wherever we are and whatever we do, as well.
÷ ÷ ÷
Mary Elizabeth Williams is the cultural critic for Public Radio International's morning news show The Takeaway and a regular contributor to Salon.com. She has written for many publications, including the New York Times, the New York Observer, and Parents. She has appeared on Court TV and has lectured on journalism and community at New York University and Columbia University. She lives in New York City.
Books mentioned in this post
Mary Elizabeth Williams is the author of Gimme Shelter