Over the past year or so, I’ve noted a disturbing trend in newspapers and other media, and that’s the reduction, if not the disappearance, of coverage of books in local media. Oh, The New York Times still has its weekly book section, and the Washington Post still covers books, but coverage has virtually disappeared from many other city newspapers.
Likewise, bookstores continue to vanish. We lost the only “new book” general bookstore in Cedar City this past year, poor as its selection was, and we’re left with a decent used book store and a religious bookstore that carries no non-fiction or general fiction [except for a few “approved” religiously-themed fiction books]. Neighboring St. George lost its only general new independent bookstore, leaving only a single Barnes & Noble, despite the fact that the area has tripled in size over the past fifteen years and has something like 150,000 people. The Salt Lake City area has lost close to ten bookstores in the last five years, and that’s a pattern replicated in most major cities. Sales to Amazon and Barnes & Noble online don’t come close to making up the difference.
Even more to the point, impulse book buying has been decreasing, and will continue to do so, simply because there are fewer and fewer locations that offer that opportunity, and most of those that do tend to cater to existing book buyers anyway. As I’ve noted previously, every shopping mall once had at least one mall bookstore, often two, and I knew a few that had three. Now, it’s more like every third mall – usually the ones located in or near high-income housing – has a large Barnes and Noble… or sometimes a nearby Books-A-Million… and no other book outlets.
John Picacio – the award-winning F&SF artist – has made an interesting observation about this – that the lack of places to browse books – even for people who will buy print books online or e-books – is reducing the number and variety of book titles sold, and that every brick-and-mortar bookstore that closes reduces the variety and availability of titles sold.
Manga, anime, and series “lite” books are taking over a larger section of existing bookstores. Low-cost [i.e., "cheap"] e-books are becoming the new “penny dreadfuls.” And in F&SF, so-called critical readers and publications tend to ignore books that have wide readership, regardless of quality, and focus on books that explore narrow themes in “innovative” ways, again, regardless of quality.
More than one editor has commented to me that, at least for F&SF, it’s getting harder and harder for mainstream F&SF publishers to get even their leading titles reviewed in Publishers Weekly. Part of that may well be that PW cut the rates it paid reviewers and those who now review, for less money, are more interested in their choices than in what’s actually being read. And Locus, which bills itself as “the magazine of the science fiction and fantasy field” routinely ignores “popular” authors in the field and, for years, ignored the very top F&SF best-sellers until, rumor has it, one author’s publisher threatened to pull all advertising. That’s been denied, I understand, but I have my doubts about the accuracy of the denial.
What all this is creating is, to my way of thinking, not only the well-observed shrinkage of the book market, but also a continuing and growing fragmentation of the book-reading market. And please don’t prate on about e-books and self-marketing. Only comparative handfuls of such books ever achieve significant sales. More importantly, they don’t maintain or expand the number of book-readers.
In fact, already the rates of e-book sales are beginning to decline, and e-books, even including pirated editions, are not replacing the sales lost in the paperback market. Moreover, while Americans – and presumably, the rest of the world – are reading more on electronic devices, early research is indicating that they’re reading a larger and larger percentage of shorter prose, e.g., magazines and newspapers. Of course, that goes along with the other impact of the great electronic age – the shorter attention span of the younger generation and the quicker onset of “boredom.”
For all that, I’m certain that at least some good authors will continue to appear and be published… that some technically good authors will be best-sellers…and that lots of shallow adventure and sex-driven will continue to sell in every genre and field. What I’m not so certain about is whether being truly well-read will really mean as much as it once did, or that those people who think they are well-read will actually be that – or perhaps being “well-read” will become synonymous with “reading the well-written obscure and irrelevant.”
As in all things, time will tell.