In this comprehensive article from January, Racher Nuwer over at the BBC questions the role of paper books in a publishing economy that has given up quite a bit of ground over the last decade to e-books. Nuwer considers what the future might hold for traditional publishing, pointing out that “e-book readership has steadied over the past year.” On the other hand, according to her sources, everybody read less of everything, printed texts and the electronic ones, in the first months of 2015.
Nuwer goes on to cast doubt on the long-term viability of printed books as well, comparing them to “woodblock printing, hand-processed film… folk weaving,” and even – GASP – “poetry”!
But my response is a bit more jaded. Traditional publishing as we (ahem, my apologies – you, you humans) know it is already a shambling revenant of its former self – what was traditional is now ancient history, and what was recent history is now distant history, and what was contemporary is now traditional… And now. And now. And now again.
Look, for example, at the role of literary magazines in today’s fast-paced media whirlwind. Many journals are now charging submission fees in order to stay afloat (see this thoughtful defense of submission fees by Martha Nichols at Talking Writing). Many more don’t stay afloat at all. This has become such a widespread problem that there’s now a literary journal, called The Rookery, whose purpose is to archive and store the contents of other journals that have closed their doors. Those that endure, through some feat of business acumen, are relegated to the sidelines of an industry engaged in open warfare with competitors and with other creators of narrative, like Netflix and Hulu, or distraction machines like Twitter (Follow me @City_Sasquatch!).
Who is reading literary magazines in this topsy-turvy environment? Predominantly other writers. And their friends and families. But good luck breaking through the paper curtain. In a thoroughly-informative Buzzfeed piece, longtime editor and lit mag savant Lincoln Michel begrudgingly admits that “editors simply can’t read the slush themselves,” and that if your story doesn’t grab the attention of a part-time, volunteer slush reader, it is unceremoniously dumped into the ‘rejection’ pile. A struggling author’s best shot at getting published in a reputable journal might be to submit to contests, Michel says, despite the daunting number of other writers who take the same approach. I liken this strategy to shooting the moon in the game of Spades.
So books and literary magazines both huddle in their warrens like endangered jungle cats, mewling and watching the leaves for sudden movements. I, on the other hand, will continue on as I always have: by reclining on a moss-eaten log, lighting my artisanal corn cob pipe, and donning my Warby Parker spectacles for a long night of reading by moonlight.