I’ve been working in publishing for a long time—over 22 years this summer.
When you do something for that many years, you can’t help but notice the changes happening around you, and over the past two decades, publishing has changed even more than the average industry.
When I first started my job as an editorial assistant at Enslow Publishers back in July 1996, books were everywhere. I would spy people reading on the train, at the beach, in restaurants, on park benches. Instead of tapping away on cell phones (which, at that time, were still more or less the size of bricks), people would actually pass the time by using their brains and enjoying a good book.
Schools and libraries, of course, were filled with books. In fact, Enslow’s main market was school and public libraries, so the books I was helping to produce were heading straight for the stacks, to be used by eager young minds all over America (yeah, right—the one thing that HASN’T changed in all these years is the general apathy and indifference of the average young person).
But books (which I had loved all my life) were special. And I wasn’t the only one who thought so.
Back then, if you were lucky enough to land a publishing contract (even a “small” one with a young adult nonfiction publisher like Enslow, where I worked), your friends and family (and most of the rest of the world) were going to be excited, impressed.
People were going to demand signed copies of your magnum opus and couldn’t wait to go around telling everyone they knew that their friend was a real, live, published “author.”
And then came the rise of self-publishing and everything changed.
Suddenly, with a few clicks of the mouse, anyone could be a “published author”—and suddenly, books were no longer so impressive.
These days, if you tell people you wrote a book, they barely acknowledge the statement. Unless you can hand them a copy of the New York Times bestseller list with your name on it, they automatically assume that by getting “published,” you mean you uploaded your Word document to Amazon. And in most cases, they’re absolutely right, because most books these days ARE “published” in exactly that way.
Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m not bashing self-publishing. It has its purposes and it can be done well. All I’m saying is that self-publishing has changed the game for all of us who work with books.
In my first ten years as a professional editor, before self-publishing became common, there was so much editorial work around, so many high-quality books being created, that I was constantly being hounded for the names of freelance editors. “We need help, there’s so much work!” people working in-house at various presses would tell me.
In my second ten years as an editor? Just about all the publishers I worked with went out of business, and the few that managed to survive cut back dramatically on both the quantity and quality of their books. Many, in fact, stopped bothering to have their books professionally edited anymore.
As one editor (at a Big Five publisher) told me, “Nobody reads anymore. Why should we waste the money on editing when we can make more profit if we skip it?”
I watched my friends and colleagues lose jobs, leave the business, start doing other things, like giving massages and making jewelry—all while I had the crazy idea to start a small press of my own, yet wondered if I was just delaying the inevitable and would soon be following in my friends’ footsteps, looking for a new line of work. So far, I’ve managed to hang in there, but I’ll admit it hasn’t been easy.
I don’t blame self-publishing for the decline of the publishing industry, but there’s no doubt it has changed things. Because almost no self-published titles are professionally edited, they have driven down the quality that readers expect to find in a book, which means people who read aren’t willing to pay much (if anything) for the books they read. And why should they, when there are literally millions of ebooks up for grab for 99 cents or even for free online every single day?
Throw in the fact that people are reading less to begin with and you’ve got a perfect storm. And the trend isn’t going to stop: Young people—the same ones I worked so hard to produce books for back when I worked at Enslow—are growing up almost entirely without books.
A couple of years ago, I gave my niece a box set of my favorite young adult series, hoping she would love the books as much as I did. She looked at them like she had no idea what they were. My sister explained, “They only read on their tablets in school these days. They barely even see actual books anymore.”
That? Terrified me.
Look, I have nothing against ebooks and e-readers. They’re fantastic for reading on the go, and I honestly don’t know how I managed to travel at all before I owned my Kindle.
But it scares me—and makes me profoundly sad—to know that there are whole generations growing up today that will never know the inexpressible pleasure of reading a REAL book, fanning the pages to suck in that unmistakable new book smell, curling up and losing yourself in the story, without ever having to check to make sure you have enough battery life to make it through the next chapter.
Sometimes it seems like books and literature are dying. I feel a bit like a dinosaur, trapped in a tar pit, looking to the sky above and wondering what that meteor is up to.
I wonder sometimes if my days—and the days of reading and literature in general—are numbered.
But even if they are, even if we’re all doomed, I’ll keep going: I’ll keep reading, keep writing, keep editing, even if I’m the only one left who really cares about books and the written word.
I just hope I won’t be alone for too long.