Books are dying, if not already dead. Or they’re bigger than ever. Or maybe they’re lining Schrödinger’s litter box, because both facts seem to be simultaneously true.
Technology, including print-on-demand and electronic readers, has expanded publishing unlike anything since Guttenberg first gazed upon the wine-press and said “hmmm.” More than three million books were published in the U.S. last year, compared to less than 10% of that number barely a decade ago. Any author, wielding any manuscript, can get into print (or at least e-print) more quickly and cheaply than ever.
At the same time, overall sales of books are depressed and depressing. Last year saw a 17% decrease in print book sales, and a 6% decrease in combined print and e-book sales. The average non-fiction book sells only 250 copies per year. Meanwhile the competition for traditional shelf space is fiercer than ever, with booksellers stocking just one book for every 1,000 published. This means the average author has 0.1% chance of seeing his or her book in the stores.
Perhaps most discouraging is the the way all this represents a fight for a slice of ever-shrinking pie. The rates of reading in this country are bad – real bad – and getting worse. One-third of high-school graduates, and 40% of college graduates, never read another book after leaving school. Seventy percent of U.S. adults haven’t stepped foot in a bookstore in the last five years. And 80% of American families (that’s all members of the family, mind you) read zero books last year.
So where does this leave us? For authors, publishers and bibliophiles (and what a tiny group we are, it seems), it leaves us adrift and at the mercy of contending currents: deep-set apathy and aggrandizing tech.
Watch-and-wait has been the most common approach. Maybe it’s the only sensible one. Maybe there’s not much else to do but to see where these trends take us, and then try our best to make a buck off them.
But that feels a little apathetic too, doesn’t it? Isn’t there some other way to take back publishing, to make it matter again?
Let’s start by treating it less like a business and more like a calling. Like art, even. Is that even possible? Before you answer, watch this video. Then see if you don’t agree, with me and with the artisans at Smith-Settle, that the book is beautiful and very much worth saving.