a novel by JOHN GRABOWSKI

Are books “back”?

The announcement from Barnes and Noble got my attention.  It is touting the Fall season for books.  Now in a way this is nothing special.  It’s a press release and all businesses use press releases to hype upcoming events.  What makes this special is until recently the publishing world has been about as upbeat as someone on Death Row.  For a while about a year ago there were very few books coming out.  I remember walking into bookstores and seeing only a handful of titles on the “New Releases” shelf, most of them sequels to well-milked franchises.

But look at the things they’re touting in the B&N message: “A strong line-up of historical biographies by prominent authors…” “For readers of history and current affairs we are looking forward to…” “‘”We know our customers are looking forward to new titles from bestselling authors who haven’t published in a while such as Jonathan Franzen, Laura Hillenbrand and Tom Clancy,'” says VP of Marketing Patricia Bostelman.  And most of all  everyone is all agaggle about Jonathan Franzen’s new opus Freedom.  Imgine, getting excited over serious fiction—heck, over anything without vampires and werewolves in it.  I’m generally not one for optimism, and of course there’s a fair amount of The Usual Drek in the announcement too, but I couldn’t help but get at least a little excited.

While I hardly believe we will now witness the rebirth of the Great American Novel, I do think there may be reasons for some measured optimism:

  • Electronic book readers* are helping sell titles again.  I don’t know if this is a fad or the interest will continue, but the iPod has helped music, and probably will continue to in ways we can’t foresee.  Perhaps the iPad will do the same for books.
  • The recession may be helping book sales.  Simply put, people have more time to read.  (The happened in the 1930s too.  It’s no accident that a lot of enduring masterpieces were written during the Great Depression.)  And with the collapse of lots of once-high flying companies and the careers ladders that go with them, I think people are turning away from those “get-ahead” books that were making demands on what little reading time many of us have, and may be returning to fiction and other forms of “recreational reading.”
  • Books are actually a pretty inexpensive form of entertainment. Fancy vacations are now too pricy for a growing number of people.  Also, the eReaders mean you can take more of your books with you if you do travel.
  • After a dry period of several years, more product is needed to fill the pipeline. A few years ago, some publishers were refusing to consider any new submissions. Now there’s a need for more stuff.  Also, the B&N announcement mentions several writers who are publishing again after a long break.  Their mere presence is bound to stir up excitement.
  • I really think the recent economic, social and moral crisis in the United States and elsewhere has made at least some people more introspective and thoughtful.  They’re searching for answers and insights—and not just from the usual gang of idiots.

So here’s to hoping publishing gets healthier.  Here’s to hoping more people turn off the boob tube and its lame Fall offerings and try some new authors instead.  After all, the latest forensics crime shows are just like the last two, or seven.  The latest episodes of House will have the good doctor making three wrong diagnoses before going through self-doubt, having an epiphany based on a random comment, and a eureka! moment that saves the patient against all odds.  The latest sitcoms will feature the same gags as the old sitcoms, since they recycle more than just the paper those scripts are printed on, it seems.

Who cares about all that when you’ve got so much good reading calling your name?  So here’s to the rebirth of  The Great American Novel.  Or at least some pretty good ones.

* Interesting name, since we still do the reading; wouldn’t “book readers” be a better name for the people who narrate audio books?
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