Same Planet; Different Worlds

While brainstorming something to blog about, I came across a link to a The New Yorker story “A Book Buyers Lament” by Ken Kalfus. Kalfus tells of his choice to support brick and mortar bookstores over online purchases as an “ethical” thing, and is concerned over what will happen if the nation’s sole traditional book store chain closes, since, in his words, “. . . in some parts of the nation it represents the only significant bookstore from one county to the next.” And as he describes buying an espresso, I’m thinking “That’s nice.” In this neck of the woods, you have to drive hours one way just to get to a city that has one of those chain bookstores. If I only had to drive to the next county, I’d count my blessings and pass on the espresso.

Out here, the idea of drinking espresso in a book store is downright alien, probably as alien as never having bookstores within easy reach is to Kalfus. It’s just something that a city dweller has likely never encountered, just as the closest I’ve come to a bookstore with an espresso machine is the magazine rack in a convenience store. There are things so outside our experience that we simply give them no thought, not even to wonder if what we take for granted is hardly the norm for someone else.

I’ve wondered about that the few times I picked up The New Yorker, a magazine that has a circulation of over a million. More power to those who like it, but it doesn’t seem relevant where you have to drive thirty miles to find a good pair of work boots, or worry about making a dollar go as far as you can. I also wonder about that with publishing, which is heavily centered in New York and environs and, as a consequence, is naturally influenced by city living and maybe a certain economic level. That might be great for reaching other city dwellers of the same economic standing, but does it also hold for those who might not be as well off or live where the skyglow fades to stars?

My gut feeling is no, and I think the rise of indie publishing shows this. There are other factors, of course. When I bought an e-reader, it was like returning to the days when every drug store had a book rack. Online booksellers filled the void caused by collapsing distribution, and e-books make it even more convenient without the clutter. Yet there is also a sense of publishers out of touch with readers. Not for publishers that are already reaching their intended demographic, as I suspect The New Yorker is doing quite nicely, but for those going for a general readership, that will only translate into declining sales.

Of course, as such things go I know nothing, but thinking about the decades of collapsing distribution it may be that the only general sales possible is at the blockbuster level, books that would be carried by major retailers in smaller towns, and a shift toward the demographics served by remaining distributors. And it does appear this is happening: Mid-list authors are getting squeezed in favor of the blockbuster, and publishing tastes have shifted decidedly toward blue-state urban.

Yet there also a sense of desperation. When a publisher says they favor “under represented” groups, are they appealing to a more narrow demographic from contracted distribution, or are they trying to find more readers? And the same e-publishing revolution that’s led to the rise of indie authors could just as easily been filled by traditional publishers sidestepping contracting distribution with this new medium. Why did they miss their chance?

Regardless of whether all of this is by happenstance or design, the resulting void is, I think, what’s being filled by indie authors. Those of us who read for the joy of it and who’s cherished beliefs are alien to those who decide what is published, find indie writers more than able to provide what we want.

We can only speculate what the future holds, and mine is just one man’s guess. Yet if reduced distribution due to costs is behind the changes we see in publishing, it could mean a further contraction of traditional publishing houses as they pare down for a narrower market, with everything else served by indie authors. Will traditional publishing go away? I doubt it, but it’s likely to become a mere wisp of its former self.

The one consolation in all of this is that each will fit its readers’ demographics. Those of us who enjoy a good yarn will still have books to read, and those who see it as a more intellectual message-centric endeavor will have theirs. And each will look at the other like they came from the far side of the moon.