Thursday, June 5, 2008

Of making many books there may be an end

Fifteen years ago or so, when AOL had made e-mail easy and everyone was getting into it, the frugal Mr Neff suggested that we use e-mail instead of the telephone to stay in touch when he traveled. I objected. "E-mail is so Protestant," I said--"all word, and no real presence."

From body to word
Back in the late fifteenth century, when Mr Gutenberg's invention had made books easy and everyone was getting into them, the printed word became cool. Newly discovered ancient sources were now available to everyone who could read, and their authority seemed to trump that of the local bishop. As Martin Luther sang, "That word, above all earthly powers, no thanks to them, abideth."

Church services began morphing from sacral rites and mysteries into classroom lectures. Eventually, in many circles, salvation would hinge on saying the right words rather than on receiving the church's sacraments, and devotion would mean regularly reading from a book rather than kneeling before the Eucharist.

An embodied church--one with jewel-toned windows, a rumbling organ, mold and incense, bread and wine, cold holy water and trickling oil--became a tourist attraction, an exercise in nostalgia. Modern spirituality could be bought at Borders, and the coffee was good too.

The word falters
Borders, it turns out, was so twentieth century. The giant bookseller is in financial trouble: in March, it admitted it was looking at a number of options including putting itself up for sale, and Tuesday it announced it would lay off 274 corporate employees, a twenty percent reduction.

Publishers are in trouble too, or at least trying to keep trouble at bay. In April, Thomas Nelson said it would cut its number of new titles in half and reduce its workforce by ten percent. In May, Zondervan laid off five executives including the publisher; while Random House, the world's largest publisher of consumer books, replaced CEO Peter Olson, 58, with Markus Dohle, 39.

Yesterday HarperCollins replaced CEO Jane Friedman, 62, with Brian Murray, 41. Publishers Weekly, the trade magazine for bookstores, libraries, and publishers, recently cut their reviewers' pay in half; Tuesday they laid off their religion editor (never mind that religion books consistently outsell books in all other categories).

What's next?
Is this just the normal shuffling of personnel, unusual only in that so much is happening at once? Is it merely a cyclical changing of the guard as Boomers age and a younger generation matures? Is it nothing more than one industry's response to recession? (The airlines have been having a rotten spring too.)

Or is something more paradigmatic happening here? Will future historians say the Age of the Book lasted from about 1500 to about 2000? Will the Digital Age eventually turn books into curious antiques? (If you haven't already seen the YouTube video "Introducing the Book," click here now.)

New CEO Murray says that this is "a time when digital technologies are creating new opportunities to bring authors and readers together." If the book, the technological wonder of 1500, inexorably moved people away from real, embodied presence, where will digital technologies take us?

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