I had a customer at Silverfish Books two days ago who, in trying to make polite conversation, asked, “How is business?” and continued without waiting for my reply. “I guess it must be hard with no one reading anymore, everybody reading on their phones, or iPads or …”
Quite unreasonably, I admit, I got a little annoyed. Who spreads these stories, that young people don’t read printed books, that e-books are not books, etc? The media? Bookshops? Publishers?
I explained to her that it did not matter what medium readers chose. They were simply consuming books (or, for the pedantic, the written word) in other forms. I said to her that, as far as I see, the competition for books (regardless of how much some people love the smell and the feel of paper) does not come from its digital cousin. Its main competition is from the likes of Netflix. Streaming. (Yes, the internet and social media, too.)
But I said, she is right in a way. Some types of books have hit the bottom. Fiction is dead or on life-support. Where’s new fiction in the Anglophone world? I speak of serious fiction, real books, books that matter, books we collect, keep, that sit on shelves for decades, that create small dents in the universe, that enrich our lives, that give some meaning to hang onto. I realised she was referring to the sale of these books, and the reasons for their current (hopefully temporary) demise is something else.
At Silverfish, we have cut down on fiction quite drastically. (Since we don’t do bestsellers, there is almost nothing to stock.) We have some classics and books by some 20th century masters but hardly any current fiction. Fortunately, non-fiction is alive and could well claim to be the saviour of the industry. (Donald Trump alone is a major genre, a veritable Harry Potter, but we don’t stock those.) I digress.
She looked puzzled. “What business do you think book publishers are really in?” Entertainment. Storytelling.
In the past radio, television and movies tried to get into the business, but their efforts were too lame and appealed mostly to non-readers for whom reading was too much effort. They just wanted to know the ending. If episodes got too serious, they were dismissed as “art house” nonsense: boring and pretentious. Anyway, the existing formats didn’t allow for too much detail or depth. Their time slots were too short.
Then streaming has changed everything. Netflix can tell a story in a mini-series format that contains every detail (and more), is exciting, creative, allows consumers to binge-watch and immediately “reread” their favourite bits. In an era when consumer's disposable hours and attention spans are getting shorter, Netflix is God-sent. Streaming is taking away many of our serious readers too! Not to mention our best writers; Netflix probably pays more, and upfront too!
And whose fault is that? I would blame it squarely on our publishers. The large ones.
When the recent Booker Prize shortlist was announced, I went “What the …?” Salman Rushdie and Margaret Atwood were on it. “Are there no young people writing anymore?”
Don’t get me wrong. I love both Rushdie and Atwood; I have been reading and collecting their books since the 80s. But the shortlist was saying that none of the younger generation authors in the Anglophone world were worth reading or receiving a nomination. Was there no one is the nineties, naughts, and tens either? Thirty years of literary barrenness? (It has been years since I bothered with the Booker list, but this was a new low.)
Here, lies the problem.
Large book publishers are stuck in the “bestseller” trap; they want another bestseller just like the last one and the one before, and the one before that … essentially, they have chosen to live in a death spiral. Indie publishers know the problem and what has to be done about it but don’t have the enormous resources. So, the book industry is broken; has been broken for a while. No new ideas, only unsafe bottom lines.
I read an essay by a Mexican author some years ago (the Mexican ambassador gave it to me and I’m trying to remember the author’s name – maybe someone reading this can help me here) called “The book is not a shoe.” We all understand what that means, that it’s a product of culture, not of commerce. The French certainly do. But I am interest is in another dimension of the shoe story.
The first time I was in Frankfurt for the bookfair a decade ago, I was overwhelmed by what I saw. It was like, “Wow, look at that.” It’s still “wow”, except now, it’s like, “Wow, what a big shoe shop we have here, grandma! Everyone selling similar shoes! Every exhibitor at the Frankfurt Buchmesse seems to be in the shoe market!
Only, we are all not shoe-salesmen, but in the business of culture; we belong in the entertainment industry. Ours was one of the oldest industries, right after the troubadours and cave-wall painters. Books (from the time of stone tablets) were about information and entertainment (storytelling – many of which became religion, but that’s something else). We began thousands of years ago, telling stories about the wonders of the world, the universe, the gods, humans and ideas, even if we had to chisel them with the greatest difficulty onto stones. Humans are compulsive storytellers and listeners; we can go without meals, even starve, but never lose our appetite for stories. Publishers have always been our agents, our medium: fiction and non.
Now, we have serious competition from streaming. Can we make our books more interesting, compelling and less tedious than a Netflix mini-series? Unfortunately, too many books have become tiresome and tired. The big boys are not the solution. They are the problem. (Everything could change if the world ends, and we all go back to stone tablets.)
So, until then, do I read a book or watch Netflix? For fiction: Netflix wins hands down. In non-fiction: book wins, but Netflix is catching up fast.