Some sellers are cutting staff, other retailers are going online-only, and some have shut down entirely: “Our sales are zilch for the moment.”
Leah Koch has been shipping packages on her own every day since The Ripped Bodice — a romance-only bookstore co-owned with her sister Bea — was temporarily closed down in mid-March. “It’s been like 10 days, but it feels like it’s been 14 years,” she tells The Hollywood Reporter while packing shipments.
“Nobody else is here,” the elderly woman said into her phone. “It’s embarrassing!”
She was the first one to arrive at my reading at the Philadelphia Library, a week after the release of my third novel, and two weeks after the pinnacle of my writing life, when that novel was praised in both The New Yorker and The Washington Post, two articles that I had assumed would create something like buzz around me or my writing. It was 6:58, and the reading started at 7:00.
Earlier that day, I had gotten messages from nine different friends, all saying they’d planned on attending but something had come up and they couldn’t make it. Each of their explanations was understandable—sick children, stuck at work, car troubles—but also it seemed cruel that every one of them would have an emergency on the same night. My wife was there, in the second row and I sent her a text from the front of the room: can we just leave? Will anyone notice?
I did not leave. I had promised to do an event, and the library had made space for me, and even if only one person was in the audience, I had a responsibility to deliver. But in those next two minutes—as I kept hoping for, say, a bus full of book critics to break down outside—I was thinking grim thoughts about the creative life.
I have been very fortunate as a writer: since 2010, I have had three books picked up by three different publishers. I have gotten coverage in major publications and been invited to do events in many bookstores along the east coast. I made enough money on my first book contract to buy a pretty nice couch.
Before I ever published anything, I’d assumed that if I ever finished a book, there would be so much demand from family and friends alone that we’d have to go into a second printing before the release date. But I am here to tell you: most people in your family will never buy your book. Most of your friends won’t either.
“STARTLINGLY SMART,” “REMARKABLE,” “endlessly interesting,” “delicious.” Such are the adulatory adjectives scattered through the pages of the book review section in one of America’s leading newspapers. The praise is poignant, particularly if one happens to be the author, hoping for the kind of testimonial that will drive sales. Waiting for the critic’s verdict used to be a moment of high anxiety, but there’s not so much to worry about anymore. The general tone and tenor of the contemporary book review is an advertisement-style frippery. And, if a rave isn’t in order, the reviewer will give a stylized summary of sorts, bookended with non-conclusions as to the book’s content. Absent in either is any critical engagement, let alone any excavation of the book’s umbilical connection to the world in which it is born. Only the longest-serving critics, if they are lucky enough to be ensconced in the handful of newspapers that still have them, paw at the possibility of a negative review. And even they, embarking on that journey of a polemical book review, temper their taunts and defang their dissection. In essence they bow to the premise that every book is a gem, and every reviewer a professional gift-wrapper who appears during the holidays.
It is a pitiable present, this one that celebrates the enfeebling of literary criticism, but we were warned of it. Elizabeth Hardwick, that Cassandra of criticism, predicted it five decades ago, when she penned “The Decline of Book Reviewing” for Harper’s magazine. It is indeed some small mercy to her that she did not live to see its actual and dismal death. Hardwick would have winced at it and wept at the reincarnation of the form as an extended marketing operation coaxed out by fawning, persistent publicists. In Hardwick’s world reviewers and critics were feared as “persons of dangerous acerbity” who were “cruel to youth” and (often out of jealousy) blind to the freshness and importance of new work. Hardwick thought this an unfair estimation, but she would have found what exists now more repugnant. The reviewers at work now are rather the opposite, copywriters whose task it is to arrange the book in a bouquet of Wikipedia-blooming literary references.
‘The Power of Reading’ is the message to Taiwan’s consumer base at this year’s sprawling Taipei International Book Exhibition, while Frankfurter Buchmesse’s professional program there examines changes in business, markets, and sales.
The Taipei International Book Exhibition (TIBE) is an important event for Taiwan and a measuring stick for the country’s publishing industry over the coming year, according to director James Chao. The TIBE “predicts the performance in sales for the year and reflects the confidence of the publishers,” Chao told Publishing Perspectives in an interview.
Opening Tuesday (February 6), the TIBE is a six-day book fair which this year features Israel as its guest of honor, an international rights center, and a Frankfurt Publishers Training Program opening on Monday, the eve of the exhibition’s public launch.
Directed by the Frankfurter Buchmesse’s Katharina Ewald, this year’s Publishers Training Program (February 5 and 6) highlights publishing markets in Argentina, Brazil, Mexico, and Thailand. Speakers include:
- Richard Nash, US-based entrepreneur and consultant in publishing
- Jackie Huang, Andrew Nurnberg Associates China director (read our interview here)
- Jerome Su, chairman with Bookman Books and BK Norton, Taiwan
- Amy Ho, founcing CEO of CW Education Media & Publishing Company, Taiwan
- Sarah Sohlemann, online marketing lead with Verlagsgruppe Random House, Germany
- Gerald Cai of MXRi and SnapLearn, Singapore
As well as working as the director of TIBE, Chao is also the chairman and president of China Times, said to be the only publicly traded publishing company in Taiwan. We’ve opened our interview with Chao by asking whether the TIBE is more a trade show or a consumer-facing book fair.
More and more Indians may be getting comfortable with online buying, but that has not translated into comfort with paying for ebooks. Publisher Penguin Random House says that e-books constitute about 1% of their total book sales currently. Flipkart and Amazon did not share numbers regarding ebook sales, though Amazon, which produces and sells the Kindle ebook reader, said that the market for ebooks in India was still “incipient”.