February 3rd, 2013
I came to Toronto to work in publishing at the beginning of 2002, just before Stoddart and General Publishing imploded. At the time, I was acquainted with only a very few bookfolk, but all were startled and scared about their jobs and the industry at large–they predicted that things were going to change a lot, for the worse, right away.
The sky was falling, and it’s been falling ever since.
Eventually, in my 10 years in the world of books–mainly publishing with brief forays into libraries, book stores, and the classroom–I’ve met more people, lots more people, in this world. And I discovered that publishing folks are uncomfortable without a catastrophe. It’s a hard job, making books for people who have so many shinier, easier forms of entertainment available for their leisure hours, and we–yeah, “we,” I’m in it–like it better when there is at least a focus for our frustrations, a suitable scapegoat for everything that makes delivering literature to readers so hard. Over the years it’s been everything from Dan Brown to Amazon to American dollars at par to ass-grabbing executives to Heather Reisman. I suppose this could be true of any industry–I’ve never worked in another one, come to think of it.
I started writing this post during the Douglas and McIntyre bankruptcy, lost interest as the news cycle wound down, and now I’m back because of the Globe and Mail books editor reshuffle. It’s always something! But every time is like the first time for most of us: I keep feeling like most of the conversation is all, “now we’re *really* doomed” with occasional breaks for nostalgizing how much better it was before this new bad thing happened. Which is fine, I guess, in small doses–cathartic, anyway. Bad things really have happened, we’ve got to get it out of our systems, and kvetching is sorta fun.
BUT–I feel like every literary article in the mainstream press that isn’t a straightup review lately is an end-of-days whinefest. We’re actually losing column inches across the board, but why are we squandering what we have saying over and over how it all is sucktastic?
And who knows, maybe it *is* that bad and my perspective is just clouded–see the name of this blog. But how is it going to get any better when our focus is so backwards facing, so sad about everything that has gone before that we’re unable to think of the future.
I’m hardly cutting edge, but I think some of my tiny bit of optimism comes from my unique position, which is actually multiple positions. I’ve published two old-fashioned, old-school paper books with a press that is actually still independent, still active, still innovative–somehow Biblioasis manages to keep their authors out in the world, relevant and engaged, while dealing primarily with printed pages.
But I’m also on the other side some of the time–5 days a week, in fact. I work in a publishing environment that is struggling pretty hard to do the new things–books that have no print dimension, or only a small one, but do things print could never do. Have I seen the future? No, I haven’t, but I have seen a lot of possibilities. It’s inspiring what people are coming up with. It’s also really really hard–this sort of work calls on a lot of skills that aren’t really active in most bookfolk. It’s another part of the brain–several other parts–and sometimes it makes me really sad how not-innate this stuff is to me. But I keep trying, because what choice do I have? Publishing *will* keep moving forward, and I would like to go with it as far as I can.
I do find it hard to be terribly pessimistic about the future of literature when I have seen all these great ideas–variations on the old and brand-new alike–that are coming forward. And if you’re more pessimistic than me, fine–there’s room to disagree. But surely the “we’re doomed, we’re doomed” folks must realize that they’re not the best friends a book ever had.
Literature is a vibrant part of culture–it reflects and questions and celebrates and protests what IS in our world, and therefore it has to be part of that world. If it’s hard to innovate right now, individuals and companies and the whole industry do suffer, but that’s the nature of growth. We’re just going to have to work harder. In tough times, well…you know what they say…
If you’re worried about who is going to be the next great books editor, apply for the job. If you think all the publishing houses suck, found a better one. If you don’t think there’s a book that really capitalizes on the new technologies, write one. Or write a book that transcends technology, that’s so good it would be relevant in any age. It’s something to shoot for, anyway.
Or hell, just read a book. Read anything, and engage with the content, and talk about what it is and could be. Even if the sky were truly falling, it would still be worth reading books, and I think it always will be.