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Fiddling While Rome Burns; or, The Sky Is Falling!; or, Are Books Dead?

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 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

  1. Gimme Shelter
    Used Hardcover $9.95

  2. Joe the Plumber: Fighting for the... Used Hardcover $4.95
  3. Outliers: The Story of Success
    Used Hardcover $9.95
  4. Revolutionary Road (Movie Tie-In...
    Used Mass Market $3.50
  5. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows...
    Used Hardcover $2.50

  6. Are You There, Vodka? It's Me, Chelsea
    Used Hardcover $7.50

Mary Elizabeth Williams is the author of Gimme Shelter

5 Responses to "Fiddling While Rome Burns; or, The Sky Is Falling!; or, Are Books Dead?"

    Frank Zubek April 5th, 2009 at 7:23 am

    I posted this on another forum where they were tossing the subject of "is print dead?" back and forth

    Personally I see this Kindle/e-reader stuff as a good thing (once they settle on more reasonable prices so that the average low income reader can afford one)I know there are dozens of people ON this site as well as hundreds of thousands of readers out there in the literature world who will always prefer holding an actual book in their hands (myself included).
    Turning the pages while curling up in a favorite chair on a long, lazy Sunday afternoon with a favorite mug of coffee or hot chocolate.

    Once other large corporations jump into the e-reader race and all of the various kinds of e-reader devices (including the elusive Kindle), come down in price and become more popular, there' s a chance (over time), that many, many stories in many, many genres might actually GAIN readership "numbers".

    Maybe reading will become popular (and accepted) once again and there would be, say, 3 million downloads of the new Stephen King book instead of the usual industry standard of just 1 million copies.

    Despite the fact that e-readers will grow inevitably in popularity, and actual books will see even smaller print runs, isn't that a good thing at the end of the day?
    Sharing the story?
    Isn't that the main reason we all write?
    To share the story with people who will appreciate and share and remember it?

    Truthfully-- a story is pretty much wasted, no matter how good it may be, (on paper or illuminated by battery power)
    if nobody reads it. Right?

    Peter April 8th, 2009 at 11:24 am

    Thanks for making me laugh today. I needed it...

    And kudos for naming one enemy among many: TWITTER.

    A severe recession like this one brings out the paranoid in me. In TWITTER, I see a tiny texting program used to train a whole population to think in 140 character increments. You know, just enough to give the ruling class commands to people like you and me: 'PICK THAT UP, SIT DOWN, GO OVER THERE'

    But what do I know? TWITTER isn't making any money either...


    Roger April 8th, 2009 at 12:21 pm

    Well, yes, I just sent a Kindle sample of Mary's new book to my iPhone, and am looking forward to perusing it (something I can't do, unfortunately, through Powell's). And here I am sitting at home in a coastal New England village, an avid reader of a newsletter published by a bookstore in Portland, Oregon. There's an awful lot of reading going on, it's all happening digitally, and I'm not lamenting the absence of the smell of paper or of being able to "curl up in bed with it" (though I do that quite nicely with my Sony Reader, too). I've never been to Powell's, but I've been purchasing its ebooks for many years now. Even though it's a few thousand more miles away than the closest big-box chain bookstore, I feel more "connected" to it, emotionally and otherwise, than this nearby bookstore.

    Now, one shouldn't confuse "reading" with "books": there's far more reading going on today than ever in our history, and it's all because of the Internet. A book, on the other hand, contains a "work", and that's a much different animal than what one typically encounters on the Internet. I've been reading "works" as ebooks on all sorts of devices over the past ten years, and I don't miss not doing so on paper at all. I will have no problem reading Mary's "book" on my iPhone, my Sony Reader, or my MacBook Pro--I'm "format neutral" and consider all of these devices eminently functional as book readers. All's Well That Ends Well is just as powerful on my iPhone as it is in a cheap Bantam paperback.

    I do think this "format-neutral" attitude is the future. Because the Internet and all-things-digital are so much more powerful platforms for reading, the more bookstores like Powell's can fully recognize the potential of this future, the more they and the publishing industry will lead a successful transition to this digital future in which reading will be more vital than ever. Rather than lament the passing of printed books, bookstores like Powell's should be celebrating (and exploiting!) the building of community that expands its reach infinitely farther than the Portland suburbs, even as far as the rocky shores of coastal New England.

    anne April 8th, 2009 at 12:52 pm

    While it seems inevitable that e-reading technologies will continue to evolve and be used, here's one reason why I think books and printed reading materials will continue to exist: No one can keep track of what you're reading, sell it to a database that then contact you to try to sell you something else (or worse, a database that creates a profile of your reading preferences for more dubious reasons--your insurance agency, for example). Call me paranoid, but I like the idea that I can read anything I want or explore topics of my choice without someone looking over my shoulder, figuratively or literally.

    Meanwhile, I buy a lot of books each year. I admit, I try harder to find used copies to buy, and wait for things to come out in paperback. But I just don't see myself sitting in front of a screen burning out my eyeballs for the length of a good novel (yes, I could print it out on paper--how wasteful, though, not to mention ironic).

    Lynette April 8th, 2009 at 10:25 pm

    I for one see a different view of it all.

    For those who remember all the book burnings they know books are invaluable. For those who know that governments are looking at controlling the internet books are invaluable.

    Now we have a recession. What books will be bought now? I'm buying up old and used books the libraries are selling to keep the library going. For the same price of a brand new hot off the press book I can buy all the used books I can carry! And honestly some of the old stuff takes the cake on a lot of the new stuff.

    I enjoy books because they are books. To me there's nothing better than a great book, my favorite chair, my favorite snack, and my favorite drink. And now I have the perfect setting to get away from it all. Books also give me a chance to learn something new without distractions, without the need for some form of power, and I can take it anywhere, even kayaking if I put it in a ziploc bag. I also don't have to worry about security at an airport thinking it might contain something to blow up a plane, When reading a book while on a trip it's almost a guarantee that it will strike up a conversation with someone somewhere and give me a chance to make a new friend - in person - because the new friend could read the title on the spine or cover.

    These things can't be done with electronic equipment.

    Books are cheaper than electronic equipment as a lot of kids in Africa are finding out. These kids never would have had chance to learn new things otherwise. Google 'books to Africa' to learn more.

    Books keep us connected to history and how humanity has evolved in a way better than any other device used to do so. You can hold it in your hand and touch the pages and have a physical connection to that history than you do otherwise. Words have been put to paper for well over a thousand years. That's a connection that's hard to break. Even if the whole book and paper industry were to die suddenly there are trillions of books that would still be in existence. Then we would be back in the Western days when books were hard to come by and were passed around long after the pages were falling out.

    It's just a recession; we'll survive .. and have before during the Great Depression.

    Technology and/or society will fail long before books will.

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