Yet if it is the worst of times, it is also the best of times--a paradox only for those not close to the ground of publishing. Quality fiction continues to appear against the grain of all these developments, much of it not lacquered by the predictable unpredictability of the writing school. And as the New York houses continue their slow-motion train wreck, independent publishers spring up across the country in response to this inadvertent deregulation. In a business school case study of capitalism's creative destruction, the new is being born every day in the accumulating humus of the old. And the new is new primarily in its adoption of the attitudes that its predecessor jettisoned in its effort to stop being old. In a time of publishing shoddiness and hypertrophy, therefore, these small companies focus on a limited number of titles; edit them appreciatively; and market them with creative brio. And they do well by doing good. According to the reckoning of Leonard Riggio, head of Barnes & Noble, non-Top Ten publishers are responsible for more than half of the books sold by his mammoth organization.
Technophiles (and phobes) argue over the consequences of the electronic publishing to come. Purists worry about losing the artifact of the book itself, but of course that slick artifact was once vellum and leather, and later harsh paper and boards. But even if e-books are a curse and not the bounty that Jason Epstein and others hope for, it is hard to buy into the grim scenario imagined by the prophets of publishing doom who imagine a future somewhat like the conclusion of Ray Bradbury's "Fahrenheit 451" in which the last remaining band of readers stumbles through the snow mouthing the words of the last texts.
Things may not be better than ever, but they are not as bad as they seem.
Peter Collier is founder and editor of Encounter Books, an independent house based in San Francisco. He is also co-author, with David Horowitz, of several books, including "The Rockefellers" and "The Kennedys."
"The vulgarians are coming!" is a long-cherished bromide of intellectuals of a certain age who rue the excesses and vapidity of their own times, while waxing nostalgic of earlier "golden ages."
While it is true that books by tasteless radio personalities, shallow presidential consorts and violent ex-football stars tend to dominate the popular news media, this is nothing new. These books have a long pedigree, and are calculated to fulfill an immediate public interest, only to die when that interest inevitably ebbs. Most of these books are as innocuous as the Y2K bug.
In the meantime, university presses have increased their presence in the trade publishing scene, and their lists bristle with both new and reprint titles meant for a general, non-academic readership. Anchor Books, Pantheon, Hill and Wang are a few of the many examples of imprints within larger "commercial" houses that seem undeterred in producing and publishing books of stature and longevity while enjoying the benefits of their associations. Smaller presses devoted to important, but admittedly non-mainstream writing seem to be flourishing: Dalkey Archive Press (publishers of Georges Perec, Harry Mathews, Flann O'Brien, Aldous Huxley and others); Graywolf Press (publishers of Jane Kenyon, Sven Birkerts and Tess Gallagher); and Verso (publishers of Jean-Paul Sartre's "Critique of Dialectical Reason," among others), are just three such publishers that have found their niche while pursuing quality writing.
New technologies and changes in reading habits hold the promise of broadening rather than restricting the range of available materials. Electronic processes have only enhanced production and distribution. To suggest otherwise is sheer Ludditism.
Surely this world is big enough to encompass the memoirs of the Duc de Saint-Simon, Jacques Casanova and Dennis Rodman. (Guess which of those books is currently out of print?) Things can't be too bad if among this year's bestsellers at Dutton's Brentwood store were Jose Saramago's "Blindness," Jacques Barzun's "From Dawn to Decadence" and Seamus Heaney's exciting translation of "Beowulf." The vulgarians may be coming, but they're keeping very good company.
Douglas Dutton is owner of Dutton's Brentwood Books, an independent bookseller in Los Angeles since 1987. The Dutton family has been independent booksellers in Los Angeles since 1961.