Too Many Books, Too Few Serious Readers

By Mark Sommer. Mark Sommer's most recent book, "Living .. | The Christian Science Monitor, March 21, 1994 | Go to article overview

Too Many Books, Too Few Serious Readers


Mark Sommer. Mark Sommer's most recent book, "Living .., The Christian Science Monitor


AS the nation prepares to pave itself over with the silicon chips of the information superhighway, the book publishing industry appears in danger of being left in a backwater. In one recent week, Harcourt Brace summarily fired half its veteran editors, Houghton Mifflin closed its Ticknor & Fields imprint, and Macmillan discontinued its venerable Atheneum division. These were the latest casualties of the brutal bottom-line mentality that has ravaged what had until recently remained one of the few corners of American culture where purely commercial considerations did not always predominate.

Over the past decade or more, a series of mergers has almost eliminated free-standing, independent publishing in New York. Faceless corporate conglomerates have swallowed up industry giants, replacing editors with accountants as the chief arbiters of literary merit. In the last month alone, Paramount, which owns Simon & Schuster, bought Macmillan - and Viacom bought Paramount.

Meanwhile, economic recession and the declining base of readers for so-called serious books have caused many publishers to slash their "midlists," books whose profitability may be marginal but whose literary quality and social significance justify their publication. Driven by dollar signs, many major publishers now reject most manuscripts that don't instantly emit the sweet smell of success, reserving their mammoth advances and promotional budgets for best-selling authors and tantalizing topics. Predictably, originality suffers while formula writing proliferates.

Meanwhile, a cozy relationship among corporate publishers, literary agents, book review editors, and bookstore chains dooms most books to obscurity while propelling a select few onto the front counter, the talk-show circuit, the full-page ads, and the coveted review in The New York Times. The opportunities to peddle influence in the parochial world of New York publishing are surpassed only by the legendary politics of the nation's capital.

Small-press books stand little chance of breaking into the large chains that now comprise half the bookstores in the country. Even those books that do often disappear from the shelves to be remaindered and shredded within months of publication. With the emergence of corporate-run "superstores," even major independent bookstores find themselves at an acute disadvantage, paying more to buy books wholesale than the chains sell them for retail.

In a sense, book publishing has fallen victim to the very ease with which books can be manufactured. Too many books are chasing too few readers. An astonishing 49,000 titles were published in the United States in 1992, but most sell dismayingly few copies. A recent survey found that nearly half of all American adults are functionally illiterate. In a population of more that 250 million people, novelist Philip Roth guesses there are just 120,000 "serious readers" (who may read a few hours an evening). Literary agent Nan Talese puts at 4,000 the number "who keep up with reviews of literary work, then will actually go into the store and buy the book."

The causes of this stunning disparity between supply and demand are various: a glut of glitzier forms of entertainment and information; the rising price of books; severe cutbacks in library acquisition accounts; the decay of American education and public discourse; and a pace of life too pressured for the contemplative ambience of many serious books. …

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