A now-familiar mix of anxiety, hope
Even by the standards of the book world, 2007 saw more hand-wringing than usual, as well as some unexpected good news. The year was punctuated by anxiety over the decline of many newspaper book review sections and worry that publishing, with its old-fashioned way of printing books on paper and shipping them to stores or to online services, can’t
keep up with a fragmented, increasingly distracted and digital world.
A flurry of bookstores, especially independents, fell victim to the chains, big-boxes and Amazon.com. In Southern California, that meant the shuttering of Dutton’s Beverly Hills, Book Soup’s Orange County branch, Anaheim’s Book Baron and several beloved used-book stores. Leimert Park’s Eso Won Books and Pacific Palisades’ Village Books are hanging on by the skin of their teeth: Village owner Katie McLaughlin said she’s waiting to see how holiday sales go before deciding whether next year will be her store’s last.
And because of price discounts, the final installment of the Harry Potter series didn’t give many stores the shot in the arm they were hoping for.
Even literacy itself, according to a report by the National Endowment for the Arts, seems to be on a slow but steady decline. Add to this the destabilizing and ever-increasing pace of change.
“It’s one of those years -- they come along every once in a while -- where everyone worries and pulls their hair,” said Marie Arana, editor of the Washington Post Book World.
Is any of the unease justified? Some of it clearly is, but it depends on whom you ask.
The uncertainty around technological change is responsible for both hopes and fears within the industry, said Jonathan Galassi, editor in chief of Farrar, Straus & Giroux.
“The delivery of the content of a book in different forms and formats is making people nervous,” he said, not quite uttering the name “Kindle.” “So we’re trying to publish in a lot of different formats because we don’t know where the readers are going to be. A lot of us in the publishing industry started out when we still used carbon paper and manual typewriters.”
With book sections diminishing at publications all over the country, John Freeman, president of the National Book Critics Circle, said his group is asking: How do we continue having literary discussions at a high level, accessible to a lot of people, as newspapers change and the way that people get their news changes?
To Freeman, part of the problem is the way bookselling is becoming a winner-take-all game, with the lion’s share of promotion going to a few bestselling authors, leaving the rest to fend for themselves in an ever-more-crowded publishing environment. (Roughly 200,000 titles were published this year.)
“It’s a constant high-stakes game for the front-list,” he said. “That means anxiety levels will always be very high.”
The issue of book coverage is one that Steve Wasserman, a literary agent and former Los Angeles Times Book Review editor, thinks is worth taking very seriously indeed. “It has to do with the ecology of the way ideas get circulated in the culture,” said Wasserman. But, he added, the sky is not necessarily falling.
“It’s written into the DNA of publishers and writers to whine, to think the golden age was the day before yesterday, that publishing is in a kind of crisis,” he said.
Some strong writing
The book world’s actual output was much better than these problems would lead one to believe.
“It was a quieter year,” said FSG’s Galassi. “There were a lot of very good books published, but there weren’t as many blockbuster literary books that swept everybody away.”
Dwight Garner, senior editor for the New York Times Book Review and writer of the Paper Cuts blog, concurred. “There was a lot of excitement about books by major writers -- Roth and DeLillo and Martin Amis and McEwan -- but the books weren’t among those writers’ major works. I happen to think that [McEwan’s] ‘On Chesil Beach’ is beautiful. But all of them were mild disappointments.”
The year’s best work, though, was strong indeed.
“You had to sort of pick around,” said Garner, “but if you were paying attention it was a great year for fiction.” One of his favorites was Joshua Ferris’ “Then We Came to the End,” the tale of dot-com downsizing, which Garner said would appeal to admirers of Nicholson Baker’s novels as well as fans of the television show “The Office.”
It was also a year in which a dead Chilean literary novelist who’d never had a large English-language following, Roberto Bolano, became a sensation here, with his 1998 novel “The Savage Detectives” translated into English and met with raves and genuine excitement.
For Wasserman, it was a great year for the American novel, including books by younger novelists Dave Eggers (“What Is the What”), Michael Chabon (“The Yiddish Policeman’s Union”) and Junot Diaz (“The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao.”)
“These are people of enormous reach and ambition, who are very devoted to language, and they are not oblivious to the times in which they’re living.”
Nonfiction drew raves as well. “I think historians will look back and see 2007 as the year of the biography,” said Garner. “From Claire Tomalin on Thomas Hardy to Arnold Rampersad on Ralph Ellison to David Michaelis on Charles Schulz. I think readers are taken with lives right now, and these are real narrative biographies that turn the lives into stories.”
And at a time of turmoil in the newspaper business, said Wasserman, books are filling in some of the gap in coverage of the Iraq war.
“If you look where publishers were five or six years into the Vietnam War, you’d see we have many more books that give you a look at the characters and the historical forces and even the internal workings of the intervention in Mesopotamia than was true during a similar period in Indochina.”
Reason for hope
AMID the bad news and anxiety, there was some reason for hope. For all the turmoil and tension, it was a year in which the uncompromising Cormac McCarthy and Denis Johnson -- longtime “writer’s writers” -- broke out of the pack and experienced real sales.
“It’s about a subject very much on people’s minds right now -- Vietnam and America’s intervention in the world,” said Galassi, whose press, FSG, published Johnson’s “Tree of Smoke,” much of which is set among the military and intelligence worlds of 1960s Asia.
Galassi (whose press had one of its best commercial years ever) said the lesson of 2007 is that to hit, books often need a push from outside the literary and publishing subcultures.
“So you can sell a lot of books if it gets the right sort of attention,” he said. “But that attention has to come from outside. The traditional review media aren’t drawing the readers the way they used to.”
Accordingly, this year’s big sellers include Ishmael Beah’s “A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier,” selected by Starbucks book group, and McCarthy’s post-apocalyptic “The Road,” which got a huge boost from its selection for Oprah Winfrey’s book club. For the record, these books got strong print reviews as well.
And in a noisy, busy culture, Galassi said, where books are competing against all kinds of other media, prizes become increasingly important for a book to get heard.
The book critics circle, as a way of providing an alternative to the bestseller list for readers looking for suggestions beyond what Freeman calls “the oligarchy of brand names,” has begun a monthly list of recommended books, which come from a poll of authors and critics.
He also thinks the way to keep book coverage up is to remind people of the importance of reviews and the books they discuss.
“Books are news that stay news,” Freeman said. “And because there’s so much published, they need to be sifted for the public, to see what matters.”
Overall, as the publishing world looks back on 2007, it’s hard to reconcile the unease people feel about the business with the excitement they feel about the books themselves. When he goes to publishing dinners, bookseller Doug Dutton said, the conversation swings between lamenting the state of the business and exclaiming joy over a new novel or history.
“It’s about as murky a picture as I’ve seen,” said Dutton. Then he amended that slightly: “Sort of like last year and the year before.”