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Will Publishing Survive?

A Symposium

February 25, 2001

Yes, the culture is changing--and accelerating. The publishing industry reflects that transformation. Information can be transmitted faster and more specifically through digital media. Movies, as even Norman Mailer has acknowledged, are the dominant entertainment medium. Television is superior at capturing the moment.

So where does that leave publishing? In that necessary and useful place between information and entertainment, a realm in which stories can be told and ideas can be articulated, meticulously and artfully, for all time. As jobs go, it is a difficult but important one.


Jonathan Karp is a vice president and senior editor at Random House. His authors include the late Mario Puzo, Po Bronson and Sen. John McCain.


The statement you ask us to respond to about the current situation for publishing in America sounds like it was written by Chicken Little. It's all gloom and doom; or in the words of the immortal fowl, "The sky is falling. The sky is falling." But the sky has always been falling for publishers ever since the first day of modern publishing when Gutenberg got his machine to run and then checked the heavens before darting off for some sausage and beer for lunch. Is it difficult for publishers to acquire and sell "difficult yet important writing"? Well, sure, but in a year when the Harvard University Press sold between 15,000 and 20,000 copies of Walter Benjamin's "The Arcades Project" and about 5,000 copies of Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri's "Empire"--books that are about as difficult and important as I can imagine--I have to count my lucky stars and believe that everything is possible in America. I thank the gods that it is possible to publish such books and survive to tell the tale.

I guess I belong to the Pollyanna school of publishing whose motto is: Quality sells. I reject the pessimism in the statement you ask me to address. I don't think publishers need to make a choice between losing their shirts and losing their immortal souls. The environment may be hostile in a general way to the exercise of the intellect on paper that comes bound between covers, but it seems to me that ever since the success of Umberto Eco's "Name of the Rose," Douglas Hofstadter's "Godel, Escher, Bach" and E.O. Wilson's "Sociobiology," we have evidence that there is a market for serious fiction and nonfiction. The rise in this market parallels the rise in the market for serious coffee, although it does not equal it. That's why the books and the coffee are sold side by side in stores across the country. The growth of bookstore chains has led to increased sales not just for shlock but for quality. Look at the success of publishers getting Edward W. Said, Michel Foucault, Stephen Hawking, Stephen Jay Gould, Judith Butler, Patricia J. Williams, Richard Posner and Martha Nussbaum into the homes and minds of thousands.

The interest in such authors has only grown from year to year among people in the Boomer generation and older. Will such growth go on? There is a big problem emerging for publishing and there is nothing publishers can do about it. Your statement touches on it when it talks of the "advent of electronic technologies" threatening to transform "reading itself." Exactly right. Figures gathered by the Consumer Book Industry Study Group show that, overall, people 30 years of age and younger are simply not buying books. That is not because they are buying e-books. The changes that are coming to book publishing are coming not from the Internet, but because of technologies developed much earlier in the 20th century for recording and selling music and motion pictures. The plain truth is that the culture of literacy is waning because people have found alternative ways of developing a sense of themselves as selves which was always the most important product of the experience of reading. People will continue to crave artworks and their desires to become engaged in artforms will be satisfied by newer media.

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