Sunday, April 10, 2011

I'm loyal to books, not book stores.

The literati of the Internet are constantly looking for something to mourn. They also like to pose as people who hate commerce. Jonathan Franzen, today's official Important Author and a man featured on the cover of time, takes every opportunity to whine about how no one reads anymore, though his book has achieved such a tremendous reading public. He is, in other words, an ingrate, and so are most writers: we fetishize our supposed obsolescence as proof that we are doing something important, that we are special, that we "get it" where others don't. And yet the numbers show that this is an excellent time to be a reader and a writer -- probably the best in history. If we are honest with ourselves we can feel this; the books we think should find success do not always find success, but sometimes they do. Amazon sold out of Blake Butler's There Is No Year in a couple days. The market is healthy. There are exciting publishers putting out brilliant work at an unprecedented rate. And more people than ever before are making money on their writing. Most of us don't get to do that, but it has been ever thus -- if it seems the market is harsher, this is only because opportunity has so greatly expanded.

There is only one sector of publishing where significant losses are taking place: the distribution of books. Book stores are closing often and they are legitimately difficult to keep open. Book stores can't match Amazon on prices, selection or convenience, and they have more overhead. While those who say the book store is dying are probably exaggerating the case -- there will be sufficient demand for physical bookstores well into the future, I think -- it's clear that the herd is thinning. And I guess I'm supposed to be sad about this. To mourn their passing. Writers taken to the pleasures of self-righteousness are never so full of themselves as when they lecture you about the necessity of book stores, about the wonders of book sellers, without whom we would not be able to sell our books. 

But this is an absurdity. If they were selling our books, they wouldn't be going out of business. The book store is dying because it can't compete. And while writers have justifiable skepticism of buzz words like "free market," the market's basic mechanism -- that people exchange money for things they want to own, thus perpetuating systems that give them what they want while failing to perpetuate those that do not -- is pretty goddamn important. Right now, the market is saying, "Book stores need to find another model or they will die." There are times where the market fails us, where we need to intervene and change the course of money. But I see little reason to believe in the moral superiority of a system wherein books are printed at location A, shipped to warehouse B, shipped from there to bookstores C through P, wherein these books then fail to sell, and are mostly shipped to location Q, to be stripped of their jackets and destroyed.

I suspect it is their very irrelevance which makes them so important to authors. I remember when writers absolutely loathed the big box stores. Now that these too are struggling, they've transferred much of their hatred to Amazon, which had the gall to succeed, to sell our books (or, to speak more honestly, the books of others); some are still too pure for big box stores, perhaps, but the sudden cloying wave of nostalgia is smothering me.

Yes, book sellers are people, and yes, I would like them to have jobs, and yes, their work is often thankless and compensates them too little. Some of these are really only reasons for them to find other, better work. None of them are more important than the survival of reading and writing. Writers are asked to support many through their work: the barnacles of over-sized promotions departments, agents, corporate boards, editors who too rarely take the trouble to edit, and then on top of all that an increasingly outmoded network of distributors and sellers. Writers are asked to support presses whose work they may not necessarily like, they are asked to finance the publication of their own work, and a thousand other little bits of welfare for writing, publishers and salespeople unwilling to do the hard work of finding readers and bringing them pleasure. And then, on top of all this, people demand that we finance the sellers, when their only contribution is the sale.


If they can't sell the books themselves, if they can't entice people to shop there without appealing to guilt and shame and fear, without leaning on the myths of looming extinction that seem to bring writers such pleasure, then they cannot do their jobs, and we would be better off without them.


  1. I agree with you. Most of my purchasing decisions are based on price. I try to buy directly from the press first, but ultimately, I usually go with the lowest price, wherever that may be. Considering the nearest indie bookstore with a good selection is thirty minutes away, and gas is $3.75 a gallon here, I've been trying to conserve money by buying online.

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