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End of the book?

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Worlds shudder and collapse all the time. There's no news in that. Just ask the Assyrians, the last emperor of the Han Dynasty, the final Romanoff or Napoleon -- or Bernard Madoff. But when it seems to be happening to your world, well, that's a different kettle of fish.

Two weeks ago, a close friend in my niche world of book publishing (at whose edge I've been perched these last 30-odd years) called to tell me that an editor we both admire had been perp-walked out of his office and summarily dismissed by the publisher he worked for. That's what now passes for politeness in the once "gentlemanly" world of books.

His fault, the sap, was acquiring and editing good books. The sort of books that might actually make a modest difference in the universe but will be read by no less modest audiences -- too modest for flailing, failing publishing conglomerates.

He was just a small fry, like most of us, in the bloated universe of entertainment. He went down during what publishing people are calling Black Wednesday. On that day, 35 people were axed by publisher Simon & Schuster (owned by CBS), while two key figures at Random House Inc. (owned by the German multimedia giant Bertelsmann AG) "resigned" as part of a "reorganization" -- a vague word that covers a multitude of sins. Further head-rolling is now in process.

Then, of course, there was Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. (The name is a little publishing history lesson, a recent fusion of two previously independent houses of distinction.) Just the week before Black Wednesday, its owner, the Irish private-equity firm Education Media and Publishing Group, saddled with an ocean of debt, made publishing history by instituting a "freeze" on the acquisition of new books.

On Black Wednesday, Education Media completed the deal by decimating Houghton's staff. Its publisher had already resigned, presumably in protest or dismay.

The reason for all this turmoil is that publishing houses are bleeding. In malls across America, the chain bookstores are getting mauled (just like other retailers). Book orders have reportedly fallen off a cliff.

Think of those auto showrooms that were selling a couple of cars a week and are now lucky to sell a couple a month -- then think books. And it's not just that books aren't selling; it's that that they're winging their way back to publishing houses in startling numbers. (A unique aspect of the book business is that bookstores can return unsold product to manufacturers without penalty.)

Of course, the corporate giants of publishing are but drops in the economic bucket of bad times. Thirty-five people beheaded? A mere bag of shells, as Jackie Gleason used to say.

For a little perspective, just consider the headlines of the last couple of weeks: On Dec. 8, Dow Chemical Co. revealed plans to cut 5,000 jobs. Sony announced that it would cut 8,000 employees worldwide over the next year, and Bank of America said it would eliminate 30,000 to 35,000 jobs globally over the next three years. The Los Angeles Times, which you are now reading, has cut nearly half its staff since 2001-- and even that was not enough to keep its parent company from declaring bankruptcy this month. The staggering U.S. job-loss count in November was 533,000, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Chemicals, cars, finances, newspapers. That's major stuff. Books? They're such modest (and, at best, modestly profitable) objects, even if the book has the remarkable ability to teleport readers into worlds not their own.

Still, the world is a remarkably parochial place, and nothing got to me the way the firing of one editor I knew did. That's my world. And now it's beginning to look like its time, the time of the bloated publishing conglomerate, is nearing an end, with an unknown effect on the time of the book itself.

In my career as an editor, I've seen publishing transformed from the equivalent of a cottage industry -- the term "publishing house," of course, once implied a free-standing entity -- to the sub-basement of giant entertainment conglomerates. I've watched those conglomerates swallow up houses large and small, creating book companies filled to the rafters with various publishing groups, divisions, imprints and boutique operations.

All of this happened as bookstores too morphed from largely independent cottage operations into giant chains that kept expanding their vast book emporiums into ever-newer territory. And to fill the shelves of those ever-expanding stores, the publishing conglomerates just kept spewing out new volumes.

In scale, even the largest of modern publishers isn't exactly a General Motors or a Citigroup or an AIG, in part because unlike cars, banking or insurance, the book represents such a quirky, small-scale, labor-intensive process to create and produce, but also to absorb. Demanding a significant investment of time and energy on the part of the consumer, it has always fit somewhat awkwardly into the world of mass entertainment. Still, there's a comparison to be made. Like their larger cousins, the big publishing outfits seemed to feel that, when it came to the future, they were immune.

There were, I suspect, three key factors that prevented book publishers from truly facing the challenge of the Internet and of the screaming wallpaper of the burgeoning entertainment universe.

The first was the ad. Book publishers seemed invulnerable to the fate that is befalling newspapers, in part, because the ad played no part in the book's financial success.

There's a piece still to be written on the book and the ad. The ad, after all, has colonized everything in our world from gas pumps to urinals, bars to doctors' offices, taxis to your sneakers and cellphone, not to speak of every imaginable printed form, including the cereal box and the back of your supermarket receipt, and yet, strangely enough, it never successfully colonized the book.

This, in our world, has to be considered some kind of unnoticed miracle. Yes, early books sometimes had quack medicine ads in them and, for years, certain paperbacks had ads for other books (by the same publisher) at the back, but the book largely resisted the ad. Even after publishers began wrapping book covers around anything from movie novelizations to material that had once been confined to "police gazettes" or Hollywood fan mags, the ad still -- against all logic -- stayed away.

Back in the 1990s, ad whiz Chris Whittle launched a series of books on serious subjects filled with glossy FedEx ads. But when the publisher W.W. Norton picked up the series, the ads were dropped. In 2001, the jewelry firm Bulgari paid Fay Weldon for extensive "product placement" in a novel. Each of these, however, proved not an inroad but a stunt.

Because the ad played no part in the book, there was nothing of obvious financial value for the Internet to suck out of book operations, except, of course, the attention of readers.

In addition -- factor two -- the chain bookstore was still expanding in the early years of this century, reaching into new cities and new neighborhoods. This seemed to ensure an expanding future for the book business (despite a yawning lack of evidence that Americans were, on average, reading more books).

The blindly hopeful nature of all this was brought home only in the last few months as books went dead in those very same stores and the chains began cutting back every which way.

As for the third factor fostering the illusion of prosperity, it was well known in the business that, during the Depression, books, like movies, had done splendidly. They were an inexpensive distraction, consumable at home at a time when not much else pleasurable was going on. Ergo, books would be no less recession-proof in the next big downturn.

There was no reason to believe otherwise ... unless you happened to focus on just how many dazzling entertainment options had, in the interim, entered the American home at prices more than competitive with the book. After all, most Americans can now read endlessly on the Internet, play video games, download music, watch movies and even write their own novels without stepping outside. The $27.95 hardcover and the $15.95 paperback, meanwhile, are hardly inexpensive. Publishers nonetheless clung to this bit of Depression-era lore for dear life as economic bad times bore down. Wrongly, as it turned out.

Of course, the end of the book, or even of reading itself, has been predicted for a very long time. (I even wrote a novel in 2003 called "The Last Days of Publishing.") And yet, more than 550 years after the first Gutenberg Bible appeared, the printed book, still an unsurpassed technology for delivering information and experience, isn't leaving the scene soon.

The book remains a techno-wonder that not even the Kindle has surpassed. But it's a wonder in a very crowded entertainment universe and a world plunging into the worst of times. The chain bookstore, the bloated publishing house and the specific corporate way of publishing that goes with them are indeed in peril. This may no longer be their time. As for the time of the book, it does seem to be shortening as well.

Last Monday, as I was working on this piece, MacMillan -- owned by the other German publishing giant, Holtzbrinck Publishing Group, which also owns, among other things, Metropolitan Books, the small imprint for which I work part time -- fired 64 employees. I'm still here, but again my tiny world shuddered.

Tom Engelhardt has worked in publishing for more than three decades. He is the editor of TomDispatch.com, which published a longer version of this article.

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