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The Revenge of Print

In 2008, the most prestigious award in literature, the Nobel Prize, was awarded to J.M.G. Le Clezio, a French writer not well known in the United States. Up until that point, his novels were released here by independent publishers Curbstone Press, David R. Godine, and the University of Nebraska Press. In his Nobel acceptance speech, Le Clezio said: “Literature is not some archaic relic that ought, logically, to be replaced . . . Literature is a complex, difficult path, but I hold it to be even more vital today than in the time of Byron or Victor Hugo.”

Today, anyone involved in the business—from newspapers to magazines, from book publishers to advertisers—seems certain about the fate of the printed word. There is a widespread belief that is now accepted as nearly absolute: Print is being replaced by screens and in a generation or two will be obsolete.

There is evidence to the contrary. Jacek Utko is a former architect who became art director for several newspapers in former Soviet Bloc nations. Utko transformed archaic and staid papers into essential reads and increased readership by 29% in Russia, 35% in Poland, and 100% in Bulgaria. In a speech available online at, Utko says that the inspiration for his work came from seeing a Cirque du Soleil performance in London: “These guys were doing some creepy, run-down entertainment and put it to the highest possible level of performance art.”

At a recent speech delivered to the Authors Guild in New York, Dave Eggers, one of this era’s literary icons, idealistically suggested that print is alive and well, and boldly offered to respond to anyone “despairing” over the future of print and “prove to [them] that [they’re] wrong.” Several of his responses have been posted in various locales around the web and have directed a great deal of backlash and flack towards the writer. Eggers’ thoughts do sound naïve and his argument is solely supported through the success of McSweeney’s, the book publishing outfit he helped found. McSweeney’s plan for the immediate future, Eggers says, is to offer a print paper through its popular website for $1, a project he asserts to be a “beautiful rich tactile experience.”

It is true that print is probably not sustainable at the current volume. For those who depend upon dollars tallied in spreadsheets to measure success (or even whether or not to initially accept a book for publication), the concept that there may be a cap to their print audience spells doom for the medium. This revelation has inspired corporate book publishers to run, not walk, away from print, and focus their immediate attention on the fertile pastures of electronic books, most likely for the simple reason that it is one of the only aspects of the industry where sales are actually increasing. Since large publishers affect the flow of the market by sheer mass, the media seem content to regurgitate this overly hyped sea-change in corporate mentality and declare the death of print. However, the reality of the situation is much less dramatic: there is space for print not only to exist in modern society, but to thrive, if undertaken on a realistic scale.

In the current climate, commercial houses do seem ready to pull out all the stops. At Book Expo America, the industry-wide trade show,  in late May, Perseus Books unveiled a project dubbed “Book: The Sequel.” A marketing gimmick if ever there was one, the book was produced by a messy herd of twenty-something pairs—one leaning over their seated counterpart’s shoulder while pointing at a computer screen (how they probably imagine work being done at a publishing company), imitated closely by ten more pairs—in a roped-off corral beneath the enormous Perseus emblem sagging like a limp phallus from the ceiling of the Javits Center. The message seemed to be that, thanks to modern technology, a book was not a slow-grinding organism, but a new media that could be produced in a similar length of time to a magazine or some newspapers.

Such efforts expose a key fundamental flaw within the mindset of modern corporate publishing: the perceived role of the book in today’s society. In the past, because of the necessary evolution required to actually create one, coupled with an ambition to deliver a valuable artifact to the world, a book was imagined by publishers as a means to both inspire and inform culture. Now the opposite is occurring. In a flagrant attempt to compete with Internet culture, to crash books into the marketplace on hot button topics from steroids to celebrities, from political scandal to political ascension, corporate publishers aim now to meet immediate demand. If a book about teenage vampires becomes a bestseller, then the hustle is on to find and market a series about pre-teen vampires. And because of this constant rush to the market with books that have the shelf-life of a bruised tomato—in hardcover, with supplemental cardboard cut-outs that stand in chain store windows and usher customers down narrow sales aisles—this ideology has influenced the ebb and flow of the industry. A worthy book that has been crafted over several steps and patiently delivered with care is outshined by a gossip memoir by a B-list celebrity’s cat-sitter.

The most obvious flaw in this new publishing design is that no matter how fast it is possible to accelerate the process of delivering a book, it will never be as quick as a magazine, newspaper, or the Internet. The fact that major periodicals, such as Newsweek, are dramatically changing not only the structure of their product, but resorting to kitschy gimmicks like guest editors is foretelling of their own eventual demise.

Some point out the ever-shrinking space allotted for book reviews in newspapers and magazines as further evidence of print’s rapid decline. There is always a big to-do when a major newspaper folds its stand-alone book review or incorporates the designated space within the pages of a more general section. Online petitions are circulated, editorials drafted, Facebook groups created, and heated blog entries written. The scaling back has been taking place regularly, city by city, paper by paper, like a pandemic.

However, this is not in any way indicative of a popular lack of concern for books. After all, there is no stand-alone New York Times Film Review, or Los Angeles Times Music Review, or Washington Post Television World. Instead, it is a matter of book review sections not generating the advertising revenue necessary to support their involvement in a daily newspaper with international circulation. Generally speaking, only the largest publishers or their various imprints can afford to foot the $50,000 tab for a full-page ad in the New York Times. Therefore, a stand-alone book review in the New York Times is not sustainable. There are those venues, such as Bookforum, that have reasonably-priced ads available and even an independent-publisher page spotlighting individual titles. In both its print pages and on its website, Bookforum has ads from a healthy gamut of independent, university, and corporate presses.

The goal for book publishers, most simply put, should not be to undertake a virtual arms race of developing technology with both the Internet and media, or to try to compete on a bloated scale with music and film, or even to translate a work to conform to an undetermined potential future model. The mission for book publishers and print media at large should be to create a product that is irreplaceable and indispensible.

There is a stock response by some corporate publishers—followed by an eye-roll—that there are simply too many books being released. Technology has made it possible for anyone to become a publisher which has in turn created a virtual avalanche of books barraging consumers and leaving them shell-shocked and incapable of pulling the trigger on the purchase of a hardcover tell-all of addiction and abuse by a childhood television star. Or, at least not in as large of numbers as they had previously. Therefore, logic follows that this goes to enforce that print is dying and the end is nigh.

If there is any lesson to be learned from the work of Jacek Utko and his newspapers, it is that we live in an age where a newspaper in Estonia can be better designed and more successful than a newspaper in the United States. This is a time where independently published books—such as works by Europa Editions, Seven Stories, or tiny Bellevue Literary Press—can edge their way onto bestseller lists in major U.S. cities. Today, books released by Akashic, Soft Skull, Melville House, and City Lights are selected regularly as Editor’s Choice picks by the New York Times. These publishers are taking some creepy, run-down entertainment and putting it to the highest possible level of art. Without gimmicks. These are outfits run by a handful of dedicated individuals, without advertising budgets, a personalized sales force, or the vast web of contacts that larger houses depend on in getting word out about a book.

“You can live in a small, poor country,” says Utko. “You can work for a small company, in a boring branch. You can have no budget, no people, but still you can put your work to the highest possible level. And everyone can do it.”

With the economy in the crapper, the American people are becoming more thrifty consumers, better able to discern what we want from what we need. Chain stores such as Barnes and Noble are realizing that books aren’t necessarily as profitable as home furnishings and are already redirecting themselves along that path. Meanwhile, the healthiest bookstores are the independents which have earned a reputation over the years based upon their own quality of taste and concern.

There is also the obvious conclusion that the book business was never intended to function on the present bloated scale and that editors have been merely masquerading like their left coast entertainment industry counterparts. According to Andre Schiffrin, former publisher at Pantheon for thirty years, “In American publishing since the 1920s, throughout periods of prosperity and depression, average profit for all of the houses was around 4 percent after taxes. (This includes companies that were intensely commercial, generating only those books that they felt to be moneymakers, as well as the more intellectual houses that sought to balance profitability with responsibility.)” While it is tempting for the suits to imagine that book publishing will follow the treadmarks of the film and music industries, the sales potential for books is much less significant except for those rare cases that transcend markets.

I believe that book publishing will re-generate in the near-future into two separate models: the corporate model, which strives to attain the widest possible “readership” in as short of a time-span as possible by use of electronic devices, interaction, and gimmicks; and the print model, sustained by independent, university, and re-branded imprints of large houses, that believe as Eggers, in reading as a “beautiful rich tactile experience,” and who are satisfied with a book selling five thousand copies.

While I feel a tremendous amount of affection and admiration towards publishing legends such as Bennett Cerf and Barney Rosset because of what they were able to create and the cultural impact that the two had, it is altogether hard to ignore the fact that they both came from wealthy backgrounds. This granted them the freedom to publish worthy books by challenging writers, which were in turn permitted the necessary time to find their own audience. (For instance, Samuel Beckett’s first book published in the U.S., the play Waiting for Godot, sold less than 400 copies the first year after it was released, a substantial amount of time, which in today’s environment would have spurred a publisher to banish the book and erase it from memory. But to date, the play has gone on to sell over two million copies.) Most importantly, both Cerf and Rosset were beholden only to themselves and not corporate umbrellas intent on the bolded total column in a spreadsheet.

There is this imagined vision of book publishing as a civilized, well-bred profession. What must be a dramatic realization and spell the death of print for corporate publishers (and some in the media) is not that anyone can publish a book in this day and age, but that any unheeled upstart can publish a better-written, better-designed, and more worthwhile book better than Random House. They’re doing it all the time.

In a New York Times review of French author Muriel Barbery’s novel, The Elegance of the Hedgehog (published by Europa Editions), the first sentence reads: “Will Americans embrace a heroine who skulks like a spy among the intelligentsia, an apparently unlettered concierge who secretly disdains Husserl’s philosophy, adores Ozu’s films and is so passionate about Tolstoy she named her cat Leo?” Apparently, the answer is a resounding “Yes.” Hedgehog, a best-seller in several European countries before being released here, has spent 24 weeks on the New York Times paperback bestseller list (as of the end of June).

The corporate ideology has run its course in book publishing, which spells the death of print to many. But as evidenced by the bevy of awards (including Nobels and Pulitzers), the best-sellers, and the critical acclaim of the work being done consistently by independent presses, print can succeed on a responsible scale. These are the small, spunky houses unafraid to publish new ideas and new writers and work of substance, holding steady in their responsibility to the reading public as purveyors of culture. While this seems revolutionary in modern times, it was the dominant manner of thinking a half-century ago. It could be so again.


Eric Obenauf

Eric Obenauf is the publisher of the Brooklyn-based book publisher Two-Dollar Radio.


The Brooklyn Rail

JUL-AUG 2009

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