The pallbearers strain under caskets filled with the carcasses of books nobody loved. The press attends the funerals. 'Domestic Book Sales Flat for 2006,' blared a banner in a January e-edition of Book Business. 'Say Goodbye to the Book,' mourned a syndicated tech-column headline in a March edition of the Wisconsin State Journal. In the latest Harper's, Cynthia Ozick dissects the decline of reading in the electronic age.
The obituaries aren't entirely premature. Raphael Kadushin, 53, acquisitions editor for the University of Wisconsin Press (and an Isthmus contributor), cites a shocking bit of publishing-industry lore: Based on the number of sales you can expect for a book that's reviewed in The New York Times, the number of committed readers left in the U.S. is only five or ten thousand. 'In a country of 300 million people, that doesn't even qualify as a fetish anymore,' Kadushin says.
Kadushin's figures may be too low. The New York Review of Books' circulation is about 125,000, and if you spring for the NYRB, you're interested in books. But even that's a pitiful statistic. Are local publishers and writers depressed?
Kadushin is. 'I think the Internet is one of the biggest enemies of literacy and the book,' he says. 'The entire country's become a cheerleader for the Internet because we're economically and emotionally invested in it, it's a sign of modernity, and yes, you can put every book in the world on the Net. But what most people get from the Internet aside from porn and bad antiques are little snippets of undiluted information. There's no real authority behind a lot of it. Nobody can distinguish between a crappy blog and a serious book anymore.'
Add to bad writing the staccato attention span that goes with clickability, and everyone loses. 'Kids growing up with the Internet as their primary source of text don't know how to read complete prose,' Kadushin says. 'Reading an actual book takes practice; you have to learn how to visualize images. If you don't develop the skill and taste for it as a child, you don't know how to deal with books. You can post every book ever written on the Internet, but nobody will read them.'
Books aren't part of popular culture anymore, Kadushin laments. It's a chicken-and-egg cycle ' shrunken book-review space in magazines and newspapers keeps would-be readers out of the loop. Indie bookstores with buyers who choose books they love and spread the word themselves are dying.
The big publishers are putting 90% of their money behind 5% of the list, Kadushin says. 'Money's the bottom line. There are too many good books aimed at an incredibly shrinking market. What kills me is how so many beautiful books go literally unnoticed.'
The UW Press keeps its books afloat on the rough seas of contemporary literature by developing a niche market, knowing it well and selling to it directly through reading groups, word of mouth and small events. 'It's a very grassroots kind of selling,' Kadushin says. It's come full circle, in a way. Our sales are reliable ' we sell what we expect to sell.'
Jacquelyn Mitchard, 52, is depressed about book sales, too, though she and Kadushin don't agree on much else. Mitchard, a former Capital Times reporter, lives in the country near Madison with her husband and eight kids. Her first novel, The Deep End of the Ocean, launched Oprah Winfrey's Book Club in '96 and instantly became a New York Times bestseller. Today Mitchard, whose publisher is HarperCollins, has a loyal following, six more novels and a handful of books for kids and teens, but she's not busting charts.
'To sell a book now is like the song in Gypsy, 'You Gotta Have a Gimmick' ' a trumpet or lights ' in order to get a plug,' Mitchard says. 'I have stories to tell, and I think I can tell 'em well enough, but I spend as much time thinking up marketing strategies as I do writing.'
The trick, she says, is figuring out how the market's changing. That means being able to wield the Web. Mitchard's got a slick interactive site loaded with goodies, including a direct e-mail link, family photo albums, podcast stories and 'Jackie's blog.' She's on MySpace. And the protagonist of her new young-adult novel, Now You See Her, based loosely on the Audrey Seiler missing-girl hoax, has a vlog on YouTube. I watched an installment called 'Hope Is Vanishing.'
'I didn't get the idea of having an actor playing Hope on YouTube from my kids,' Mitchard says. 'My editor and I thrashed it out. It appeals to young people 'cause the Internet's their go-to place. It's mine, too. Years ago someone at the UW showed me the Worldwide Web and I thought, 'that's just baloney.' In 10 years it's changed by orders of magnitude.'
Online publishing quality is still pretty raw, but a much more sophisticated Internet is coming soon, Mitchard predicts. 'Electronic publishing is very hopeful for book sales, the problem being you don't pay as much for that kind of air-based product as you do for paper. Musicians have been dealing with this problem for 10 years already.'
Not that she believes paper books, and their readers, are going the way of the honest politician anytime soon. If Kadushin aims for a little literary niche, Mitchard shoots for the mainstream.
'The great reliables ' the six-books-a-year people with salons of helpers ' aren't always at the top of the bestseller lists any more. Sometimes meritorious writers get there, and one thing that contributes to sales is business travel. There are so many people sitting around outside Starbucks at O'Hare ' for them, books are a portable universe. Even portable DVD players you can rent and turn in at the next airport can't replace getting completely lost in a book.'
Mitchard's not the only Wisconsin writer to make Oprah's list. Jane Hamilton, 49, was an Oprah pick twice in the late '90s, with The Book of Ruth and A Map of the World. Hamilton, who lives with her family on an apple orchard near Racine, has written five novels and says she's thinking about another.
All those death threats on books aren't terribly conducive to writing. 'I don't know how well my last book did, but I assume sales were flat along with everything except [Nora Ephron's] I Feel Bad About My Neck. But because I started out with absolutely no confidence that I'd ever have a reader, the new era feels very familiar. I have a low-grade sadness about the publishing world that I only know how to stave off with work, so I'll probably keep writing.'
Hamilton's not at all on close terms with the Internet. Her publisher, Doubleday, made her a Web page. 'I don't know if it helps ' I haven't actually visited it.'
While teaching at a recent conference for would-be writers, Hamilton heard an Internet marketer give a seminar on hooking into the appropriate interest groups. 'Say I wrote a book about a woman who was brain-damaged. I'd have a link that pops into brain-damaged chat rooms. Maybe I should do that, but I resist.' (Her latest novel, When Madeline Was Young, about a brain-damaged woman, came out last fall).
Literary fiction's become marginalized, Hamilton says. 'It's an antique thing, like tatting or making butter. I can't pinpoint when it happened, but it's been in the last couple of years. I know this ' I've had a very good run. I'll never get the kinds of advances I got in the Oprah years. That's over. I really don't want to have to work at WalMart. I do lie awake thinking about it.'
Hamilton's prediction is dark. 'I think there'll be very small publishers who do beautiful books, lovely and rare, and some people will buy them. As long as we're living the book will probably endure, but in a world where everything seems so uncertain, worrying about books sometimes seems like an indulgence.'
Lorrie Moore, 50, has never been picked by Oprah and probably doesn't care. She's been on the Times' bestseller list. She's got rabid fans. She shares with Anne Rice an editor at Knopf, but blockbusters aren't Moore's game. The chaired UW professor of creative writing is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters, a reigning queen of the American short story, and, she says, 'a struggling single working mom.'
'Writing has always been an artistic pursuit rather than a professional one,' says Moore, 'so I never expected to make a living at it, which was pretty much a lucky and accurate guess on my part. All sales are gravy to me. On the other hand I do have bills, so I can look at the royalty statements with a sad sinking feeling, as there are lean times when gravy has to be thought of as a Reaganesque vegetable.' (If you're too young to get the reference, Google it.)
If the university is Moore's meat and potatoes, it's no money match for a run of bestsellers. 'If someone wants to teach, there are sacrifices, financial and geographical. Certainly I'd have had more books to sell if I hadn't been teaching.'
But the ivory tower's as good a shield for artists as any against the naked forces of advanced capitalism, and Internet marketing is not on Moore's mind. No lorriemoore.com pops up when you Google her name. 'I'm afraid I know nothing about YouTube,' she admits.
Does the future for writers like Moore look bleak, or hopeful? 'There's no other choice but hopefulness,' she says.
Dean Bakopoulos, a UW Creative Writing Program MFA, was Moore's student. He was 29 when Harcourt published his debut novel, Please Don't Come Back From the Moon, in 2005. It made The New York Times' 100 Notable Books list. Moore called it 'original and brilliant.'
Today Bakopoulos is the executive director of the Wisconsin Humanities Council, the outfit that brings you the annual Wisconsin Book Festival. It's a day job he loves. The hours are flexible, giving him time to hide out and write in his new Mineral Point home. He's on the third draft of his second novel, and this one, he says, is going really well.
'I'm happy with what writing and publishing have done for me. I love my publisher, my editor, my agent. I'm in really good hands. All I have to do is produce.'
Yes, there's a market ' the public is hungry for stories, Bakopoulos says. At sessions the Humanities Council sponsors in small towns around the state, people come out of the woodwork to talk about books.
That doesn't mean booming sales, despite the odd popularity of big-box bookstores. Certain books do very well in the corporate emporia, but most folks don't buy much ' book prices are too high, the economy too uncertain, Bakopoulos says. 'Faced with an overwhelming array of unfamiliar titles, you're gonna come out with the new Mitch Albom schlock.'
Writers worry about flat book sales, he says, like hardware salesmen worry about flat hardware sales. The media don't help. 'I love Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert for having serious authors on their TV shows, but I can't remember when I've seen them include fiction. There's no shortage of books and interesting authors to interview, but literature's not getting the coverage it once did.'
This sounds like one of Kadushin's main complaints, but Bakopoulos, in a way, is the anti-Kadushin. He speaks for a younger generation that favors the Internet. Blogs restore writers' cultural significance, he says.
'There's a lot of hacks publishing online, but the blogs and online mags that really take off, like Salon.com, are reaching more readers than most writers do with a hardcover novel. The Internet hinges on good writers. People get sick of reading junk, so they go back to the good sites.'
Good content is one way the Web creates readers. The interactive aspect's another. Bakopoulos says his paperback sales are driven by kids on MySpace. 'Please Don't Come Back From The Moon is about pissed-off young people who feel disconnected, and MySpace bloggers are into that.'
Bakopoulos doesn't have his own MySpace page, though he may get one soon. But there's a direct e-mail function on his Web site. He answers his messages, which come in even from Europe. 'It's a good way to get young readers interested in my next book.'
But aren't books going obsolete?
'I love books as objects,' Bakopulos says, 'but what I really want are readers. If I have to reach 'em in a different way than Hemingway it's not a tragedy. I'd hate it if my next book came out in e-form, but not as sad as if someone told me there was no more writing. Now I write 300-page novels, but by the time I'm 55 I might be writing a short story a week for some Web site.'
The moral to this story, coming to you in a weekly newspaper that's still being printed, is the inexorable march of technological change. Hieroglyphs, books, computers ' they're all just information storage devices. Like it or not, the medium's the message. Some day we'll mind-meld with our computers, eliminating the need to read. In the meantime writers still write, readers still read, and some still do it much better than others.