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For literature, good literature has always been a minority interest.  It’s cultural importance derives not from its success in some sort of ratings war but from its success in telling us things about ourselves that we hear from no other quarter.  And that minority – the minority that is prepared to read and buy good books – has in truth never been larger than it is now.  The problem is to interest it.  What is happening is not so much the death as the bewilderment of the reader.

Salman Rushdie In Defense of the Novel, Yet Again from Step Across This Line

 

I recently accompanied my fellow Dark Coaster, Jarret Middleton, on his book tour through the northeast.  Before embarking on the road, I had a distinct idea of how things would go and wrote about it on TNB (see This Man Is Dying, Folks).  The tour was great in many different aspects, it truly exceeded all expectations.  We had so much support: people had fun, bought books, drank, asked questions, laughed, etc.  And the whole thing sparked something in me that I’ve wanted to talk about for a while.  It is the concept of the “death of the novel” or, nowadays, the “death of books as we know them.”

This is a very hot topic these days, and be assured we had plenty of good conversations during Q&A’s and parties.  I had some Dark Coast t-shirts printed up for this tour that gigged on The Exploited’s Punk’s Not Dead expression, and had our designer throw together a Book’s Not Dead shirt, replete with a book – not a skull – sporting a mohawk.  All the shirts sold, and they sparked much enthusiasm and discussion with everyone from avid readers to those who’d never attended a reading before, let alone who bought a t-shirt fiercely defending . . . books.

Let’s get the obvious out of the way. I believe that there is no such thing as the death of any novel, or book (hence the shirt).  I believe people will always require great books and they will always read.  You don’t run a publishing company unless you truly believe this.  Therefore, I don’t believe the novel needs to be saved because I don’t think it’s on the way out.  Many of the issues heaped onto the ‘death’ of novels and print itself are actually problems endemic to the publishing companies and the entire book industry.

One of the biggest contributions to peoples’ belief that novels are dying is explained by Mr. Rushdie’s quote above about the “bewilderment of the reader.”  Readers are battered with an Over-Publishing/Over-Hyping machine every time they go online or walk into a bookstore.  This hit me hardest at this year’s Book Expo America in New York, a “House Of 1000 Corpses-style spectacle of hysterical cannibalism and glossy hero-cult worship” (to quote Middleton), that, were any unsuspecting readers to go in the first day and exit at the end of the week, they’d have a good chance coming away with an unhealthy fetish for dance music and Barbara Streisand and never read another book again.  This was my first BEA, so I can only speak from limited experience, but friends who have been involved with it for over a decade or two assure me that it was more or less standard.

So much hype flew at me full speed my head was going to fall off.  “The best book since. . .” “The next greatest. . .” “Soon to be bestseller. . .” and so on. Holy shit.  A group of 6 people talking for 10 minutes to a crowd of hundreds about books they worked so closely on, of course they believe each book is the best thing since, well since the written word.  That was just one spectacle of many at BEA, with panels, tables, giveaways, celebrity breakfasts, and after-parties all thrown in.  The poor book reading public has to hear about it in reviews, advertising, publicity, book jackets, and all sorts of fluff press that each book being released is (it’s a miracle!) the best book ever.  If every book published is the best book written, then, I am sorry, I just don’t want to read every great book.  The success of one of these over-hyped books sends publishers on a task that has become the norm, to replicate the book’s success by putting out 8 others exactly like it.

Wait, now I am getting confused.  Let me get this straight.  A publisher hypes a book until it sells millions of copies, then the same publisher (and all their competitors) put out similar titles, written by different authors and are in fact different stories, selecting them the same, editing them down, designing and marketing them the same exact way, then announce the new book is the best one since the original?

Obviously, this happens in every industry.  But, it’s easier to give a listen through a 35 minute album, or waste 2 leisurely hours on a film and still believe the hype (see Inception) than to buy a book and, for lack of a better term, get into it.  It is a gentle process, a sacred one.  And if it is abused too much, as it is now, it will only push the reader away.  In the same article, Rushdie goes on to say, “Over-publishing and over-hyping creates under-reading. It is not a question of too many novels chasing too few readers away but a question of too many novels actually chasing readers away.”

This is only one half of the equation.  The second is the electronic revolution.

Everyone is scared of the electronic revolution.  Publishers, distributors, booksellers, readers, writers, everyone.  Some are making good, seeing it as both a necessary progression and an opportunity.  The ones who’re suffering the most from electronic books and readers are the bookstores.  I’m still old school.  I still support my local independent bookstores (on that note, I also prefer to read everything on printed paper), but the average reader has a wide range of priorities, from use to availability, that have rapidly changed buying habits and will no doubt continue to.

But, even though the bookstores suffer, the larger arch that this change reveals is how individuals are going to obtain and read books.  To paraphrase Rushdie again, there has never been a larger readership than right now.  I am one of the publishers that will always publish hard books.  It is dangerous for us to allow the written word to only exist electronically, but I will certainly accommodate the electronic change as much as possible.

Publishers have made their money the same way for the past hundred and fifty years, and now suddenly they have to change.  At first they were resentful, some were irreverent, and most are still scared shitless.  Trust me, they are.

Isn’t the point of making books to facilitate the connection between the writer and reader?  It is their job to stay as current as possible and provide the venue for that connection, as it progresses and changes with time.  Other than other media and entertainment industries refusing to change in the face of technology (see epic failure of music industry) the best comparison I can make is this.  If humans finally create the flying cars I have hoped for since first seeing Back To The Future (obviously, they would also have to create a system of rules to accompany the technological innovation, or else we’d all being flying into each other and chaos would ensue, . . . but that’s another story all together), there would be some who still would prefer the old way of getting around, and there’d be those who would prefer the new cars that fly. This will cause a revolution of new cars and new companies to make them, but the old companies that keep up will assimilate to the new changes. The person buying and using new technologies doesn’t care who loses money, or who is balking tradition, or who is going out of business.  They care about the availability of thousands of books instantly, and all in one place.  They care about reading their new books anywhere they want.  More people are reading than ever before, and because of that I struggle to find things wrong with that.

 

I felt like dispelling some of that because of all the great discussions I had on this last book tour.  People of all ages and all different backgrounds came out to watch other people read from books they lovingly labored over for years.  Some people came out to their first book reading (which means I’m doing my job)!  So many people actively involved themselves in the events we provided, took themselves way out of their comfort zone, and ultimately benefitted.  The one thing that will never be simulated are these experiences.  People approached me directly to talk about literature (it’s strange to work in the book industry and find yourself only talking about the business of books and not the books themselves); others had questions they wanted a maker of books to answer.  They asked questions about Dark Coast Press, the inspiration, habits, likes and dislikes of the writers, and the entire future of our industry, as though it were both relevant and as though they were an active part of it. People bought books, and t-shirts that said Book’s Not Dead on them.  They had fun.  And for it all we have books to thank.

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AARON TALWAR is the publisher and co-owner of Dark Coast Press, a literary fiction publishing house in Seattle (www.darkcoastpress.com). He has been profiled in The Stranger and Shelf Awareness as an exciting, up-and-coming indie publisher. Aaron has an unhealthy exuberance for good books, Guinness, and hockey. The fact that he was born and raised in New Jersey contributes to his foul mouth and obtuse sense of humor. He lives in Seattle, WA.

14 responses to “Book’s Not Dead”

  1. Judy Prince says:

    Nice straightforward, lucid account of the Scary Divide, Aaron. Your reasoning makes good sense:

    “I’m still old school. I still support my local independent bookstores (on that note, I also prefer to read everything on printed paper), but the average reader has a wide range of priorities, from use to availability, that have rapidly changed buying habits and will no doubt continue to.”

    “The person buying and using new technologies doesn’t care who loses money, or who is balking tradition, or who is going out of business. They care about the availability of thousands of books instantly, and all in one place. They care about reading their new books anywhere they want. More people are reading than ever before, and because of that I struggle to find things wrong with that.”

    Regarding the over-hype of books, oh yes, as you say: ” Let me get this straight. A publisher hypes a book until it sells millions of copies, then the same publisher (and all their competitors) put out similar titles, written by different authors and are in fact different stories, selecting them the same, editing them down, designing and marketing them the same exact way, then announce the new book is the best one since the original?”

    May I add that book blurbing, reviews and adverts, from no matter what sources, if well written and honest, will help. Much militates against it, of course, but we writers owe ourselves and readers recommendations that match the books we recommend. It takes effort and commitment—-and it’s essential to the health of our matchlessly huge society of readers.

    • Aaron Talwar says:

      Judy- I think it is extremely important to book blurb. It must be well written and honest. Overall, the blurb is the word that readers have consistently gone to as a source of what to read. Without that people have no direction.

  2. Matt says:

    Good points made here, Aaron. Though while the novel may not be dead (or dying), I really wish this discussion was. It just keeps going round and round and round, over and over, and I’m a little sick of hearing it, really. We’re in a massive period of transition right now, in terms of both readership and the the status quo of the publishing industry. Literature has existed in one form or another for a very long time now, and it’s survived plenty of other trends (that advent of radio, cinema, television) and will still be around when the smoke clears. Declaring it dead might be trendy, but it’s also highly presumptuous.

    Also, I want one of those t-shirts.

    • Aaron Talwar says:

      It is a discussion that has been put through the ringer, I agree. What surprised me was how many people brought this discussion up while we were promoting our book. It seems to me that it may never go away, unless the book actually does die and no one wants that.

      The t-shirts are in re-print and I should have more by the end of next week.

  3. I am both pissed and dismayed that one of those shirts, XXL, is not sitting this very second in an envelope in my mailbox.

  4. dwoz says:

    I’ve said before, that 20 years ago, a new author had to compete against the canon of Great Works, and the best living authors working around him; Today, he has to compete against relentless, unmitigated 200dB noise.

    Also…in regard to printed vs. electronic books…There’s something important to the idea of ink on paper as being an indelible record, as compared to electronic files existing in “the cloud” somewhere. The former is far less vulnerable to the whim of future political and moral sensibilities.

    • Aaron Talwar says:

      I am ashamed that I didn’t bring it up in my article. I worry about how easy it is to manipulate texts that are only documented electronically. I am extremely skeptic and somewhat paranoid, of course, I don’t really trust authority too much either-what’s to stop them if there is no hard documentation to really change the word?

  5. Art Edwards says:

    For the people who think the novel will die, what do they think will replace it? The well-written novel occupies such an esteemed place in readers’ hearts. It’s not like you can see a movie–or ten movies–and get the same effect. It’s its own thing. And by the amount of eight-year-olds who were swallowing Rowling by the gulp a few years ago, I don’t see the novel going anywhere anytime soon. We have a whole new generation already hooked, needing their fix.

    • Judy Prince says:

      Hear, hear, Art!

    • Aaron Talwar says:

      What I found most interesting was how people were phrasing it. They were asking the question like- ‘what will happen if’ or ‘I hear that the books are dying, what do you think?’. As for what will replace the novel-nothing will. The fear is that people will see that movie ten times or watch those ten movies and they will never pick up a book.

  6. Aaron Dietz says:

    I’m looking forward to books put forth with a stronger intention of the book being a book. That is, with so much “competition” out there, people who aren’t really book writers so much as purveyors of manufactured and recycled content will move on to new mediums (eBooks, film, 3-D video games–whatever!). Then we’ll see people putting out books for people who want books. In general I think this will mean more time spent on the production of the book–layout, materials, aesthetic, as well as more time spent about shaping the content for the form of the book (most mass-produced literature is well-suited to flowing text, since that’s all it is: a flowing text document). I look forward to seeing a greater percentage of books that are artistically books at their core.

    Great post!

    • Aaron Talwar says:

      Aaron.

      You and me both brother. I for one am really looking forward to what the future will bring. Book’s can be pieces of art again. Won’t that be amazing?

      Thanks for the good comments.

  7. patski says:

    i think chuck d said it best “DONT BELIEVE THE HYPE!!!!” people are gonna suck no matter what they read. let everyone manipulate everything, true hard work will always shine through and prevail. its easy to spot jibber jabber and bullshit. so fuck it

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