I was feeling lonely and somewhat deracinated so the first week of June I flew from London to New York. I bought new shoes and walked around like a tourist: on the High Line, over the Brooklyn Bridge, back and forth between Park Slope and Williamsburg, up and down from Midtown to SoHo. The shoes didn’t quite fit, so when I resumed my old habit of crashing publishers’ parties, I had blisters on both heels and was walking around with the tentative gait of an elderly cripple. Publishers are always said to be staggering towards the grave, buffeted by corporate takeovers, discount chains, the internet, and teenagers who never open a book, but the gossip was that advances were up, perhaps because editors have money today and may not have any tomorrow. It was the week of Book Expo America, and basements and penthouses had been rented. The view of the halfway finished One World Trade Center was new, but the faces in the crowd were familiar. I spent 11 years in New York, and now I always think of the people who no longer show up at the party: the reporter who wrote a Neo-Beat novel involving a charismatic porn actor and now holds elected office in the Rust Belt; the tutor who wrote a novel he believed would only be understood by the computers of the future and is now in finance; the poet who at university wrote with a facility that made me jealous, did a couple of maddening years answering the phone at a literary agency and currently runs a real estate concern that deals in mobile-home subdivisions across the Deep South. My first job in New York was on the copy desk at a celebrity weekly where I put in and took out commas and wrote the occasional headline: ‘It’s 2 a.m. in Hollywood – Where Are the Bush Twins?’ The woman who sat behind me and wrote in her free time about female boxers today raises rabbits and sells them for meat somewhere in the Great Lakes region. Whenever someone left town my friends used to say I was like a narrator upset that characters were leaving the story without his permission. Then I left too, and killed my character off. The places of the departed are taken by recent graduates of writing programmes who’ve yet to have the look of hope wiped off their faces.
My next job was with a mass-market study guide publisher owned by Barnes and Noble. I cut corners on the budget by doing much of the typesetting myself, working into the night and showing up late most mornings, a habit I’ve yet to kick. The office was in a blockwide building in Chelsea now owned by Google; after midnight mice chased each other in sprints across the floor, and you could watch hookers and johns file into a building two blocks south. I pushed the production schedule ahead two months so that we could print the bulk in China and ship them back in a boat, but we printed some in Indiana too. I visited the press in Crawfordsville, the town where in the 1870s Lew Wallace sat under his favourite beech tree and wrote Ben Hur: A Tale of the Christ, the bestselling American novel until Gone with the Wind. Everyone seemed to be very Christian, more than half the books they printed were Bibles, and most of the press operators had served in the army. Liberals in town had started a rifle buy-back programme. I spent the night in the Holiday Inn watching television, which I didn’t have at home, and staying away from the strip club a hundred yards away because I didn’t want to disgrace the corporation by being seen. (My minder from the printer’s headquarters was also a reverend.) The employees who dealt with New York asked me what I was doing on the morning of 9/11. I slept late that morning. ‘Sally over there,’ one of them said, ‘was on the phone with McGraw-Hill.’
One of my tasks before I quit to go into magazines was to rewrite Macbeth and Romeo and Juliet for editions that presented Shakespeare’s text opposite my easy-to-read prose ‘translations’. The books apparently sold well, but I wasn’t entitled to a royalty. A group of my colleagues broke off to start a dating website and this spring one of them got an ‘estimated $1.3 million’ for a book about social networking data. The trade press lately reported a ‘major deal’ for a new children’s series ‘set in a dark fairytale world where technology and magic intermingle’. Giant advances are paid because publishing itself is more and more a dark fairytale world where editors put their faith in technology intermingled with magic. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows accounted for around 2 per cent of UK book sales in 2007, out of 120,000 published. This autumn it could be Rowling’s novel for adults, about a town ripped apart by the death of a parish councillor. Or maybe her magic only works on children.
I took my blisters to Book Expo to collect proof copies and catalogues. Posters on all the doors advertised the new Dean Koontz novel. I asked an editor I know if he’d seen anything exciting: ‘The only people who are excited are the ones selling young adult vampires.’ At a booth marked THE GOVERNMENT BELIEVES IN GOD – WHY DON’T YOU? a preacher was flanked by two young women in white spandex bodysuits with wings on their backs. More angels were roaming the floor. Queues at the signing booths led to authors of romance novels. The displays suggested that people want to know how to get along with their spouses, attend to their children’s mental hygiene, start a successful online business, survive a genocide, get to heaven, kill zombies, or achieve success after losing a limb.
I walked the floor picking catalogues off tables and stuffing them in my bag. ‘We don’t print those any more,’ a publicist told me. ‘They’re mostly electronic now.’ Two old friends of mine were signing advance copies of their novels. One worried about the giveaways undermining his royalties but thought the ritual a good way to meet women; the other was staving off boredom by sharing a bottle of whiskey with his readers. The three of us decided to leave. On the way out we passed the Amazon booth, where a man was delivering a revolving seminar on how to make ebooks, then the booth of a small press whose editor told us he was staving off boredom by occasionally pretending to represent the Scientology delegation. Just before the door we were accosted by the head of a mission from Moscow. Her offerings included the complete works of Michael Cunningham in Russian. She wouldn’t let us leave without a copy of Sense, a novel by a Chechen called Arslan Khasavov, 24-year-old winner of the Debut Prize. The novel shows ‘the limits to which an indifferent and hypocritical society can push a romantically minded and well-meaning young person’. A mesmerising video at the booth showed what the Debut Prize can do for young authors: on the screen a young man sat down to clink glasses of white wine with five blondes.
I’m now in London, my blisters almost healed, with a pile of catalogues on my desk. Adjectives march in pairs through blocks of promotional copy: ‘remarkable and buoyant’, ‘imaginative and challenging’, ‘funny and heartbreaking’. The coupling compounds their vacuity. What you get from a stack of catalogues is a sense of the uselessness of most new books. And not only in the realm of diet tracts and inspirational manuals. On a single day the LRB office received the following titles: The Christian Rejection of Animal Sacrifice; The End of God-Talk: An African American Humanist Theology; Exhibiting Mormonism: The Latter-Day Saints and the Chicago World’s Fair; The Fading Light of Advaita Acarya: Three Hagiographies; Jesus Christ, Eternal God: Heavenly Flesh and the Metaphysics of Matter; A Mahzor from Worms: Art and Religion in a Medieval Jewish Community; The New England Soul: Preaching and Religious Culture in Colonial New England (25th Anniversary Edition); Refiguring the Spiritual: Beuys, Barney, Turrell, Goldsworthy; Teaching Mysticism; Theos Bernard, the White Lama: Tibet, Yoga and American Religious Life. All these from three publishers: Columbia, Harvard and Oxford. The universities believe in God. Why don’t you?
Yet it’s hard to hold a grudge against an industry that invests time and money in assembling a book of photographs of ‘a hundred of the world’s most breathtaking trees’ accompanied by the secrets of their botany. Then you come to a list that hits all the big subjects: the Arab Spring, the economic crisis (twice), oil, Christianity, the fall of imperialism, narco wars, the Cold War, English monarchs, the rise of imperialism, the history of the world (‘in twelve maps’), Afghanistan, Biafra, Occupy Wall Street, Shakespeare, sex, World War One, World War Two (twice), Europe after Napoleon, the UN, Hollywood, Mao’s China, the Tube, Baudelaire, Opera, neuroscience and astrophysics. The list is Allen Lane’s, and if it all sounds too general, it’s followed in the Penguin Press catalogue by a line called Particular Books with more eccentric works by ‘literary’ authors on subjects like perfume, swimming and the history of the kitchen. And after that come the Classics. Whatever the merits of any given title (proof copies indicate that a few of them are turkeys), the patently frivolous is absent. The five corporations that account for about half of the book market in the UK all maintain a prestige imprint or two. Although these sorts of book don’t generate growth, they supply the symbolic capital associated with seriousness (if literary prizes serve one good purpose, it’s to persuade publishers that they’re doing something important). Besides, ‘quality books’ have a chance of selling over the long term, whereas a ghost-written celebrity memoir is sure to sell nothing after six weeks.
The catalogue of the young Amazon publishing arm is by comparison strictly commercial: crime, horror, romance, science fiction. A couple of titles resist such categorisation – Thomas Glavinic’s Pull Yourself Together, for example, ‘a modern update on Georges Perec’s classic Life: A User’s Manual, written in accessible, clear prose’ – but its baby steps into quality lit aren’t yet in evidence. (One signing is the actor turned fiction writer James Franco, but his status as symbolic capital is a little shaky.) In the past few weeks, the Nation has run a cover story called ‘Amazon and the Conquest of Publishing’ by Steve Wasserman, and Ken Auletta in the New Yorker has reported on the ebook price wars between Amazon, Apple and the major American publishers. A worst-case scenario sees Amazon lowering prices (absorbing losses itself), then scaring off or buying out the competition, then raising prices once it’s achieved a monopoly, something it already has in online nappy retailing. Wasserman collects the comments of publishers and booksellers, most of them afraid that what’s in prospect is ‘a largely denuded wasteland’, purged of publishers, agents and retailers, leaving only readers, writers and a few editors who work for Amazon. What most frightens Wasserman is the Kindle Singles programme: Amazon commissions a piece of writing too long to be a magazine article but too short to be a book; the author earns a royalty delivered monthly by bank transfer; agents and publishers aren’t involved. The denuded wasteland is already here.
People in New York were wondering why Amazon bothers to publish its own books (it doesn’t make its own nappies) when it could just buy HarperCollins or Penguin for $500 million or $1 billion. But it likes to try things out and relishes complete control. A thriller writer in Chicago who published two books but was sitting on nine others his publisher didn’t want now makes $4000 a day thanks to one of Amazon’s experimental platforms. Perhaps I’m a fatalist, but I can’t believe that one of the ultimate effects of ebooks will be some kind of gold rush for writers. They are pawns in a bigger game. (Publishers are even less significant next to Walmart, Google and Apple.) In his comprehensive study of contemporary publishing in the US and the UK, Merchants of Culture, John Thompson argues that books like the ones reviewed in these pages will be around as long as publishers value symbolic capital, and that readers will continue to prefer to read those books, unlike encyclopedias, as paper rather than bytes.The denuded wasteland may after all be fertile enough. Books, most of them useless, will still come out, and writers will go on leading their more or less precarious lives. If characters like Rupert Murdoch and the executives of Hachette leave the story, who’ll be upset?