Even by the standards of the book world, 2007 saw more hand-wringing than usual, as well as some unexpected good news. The year was punctuated by anxiety over the decline of many newspaper book review sections and worry that publishing, with its old-fashioned way of printing books on paper and shipping them to stores or to online services, can't
keep up with a fragmented, increasingly distracted and digital world.
A flurry of bookstores, especially independents, fell victim to the chains, big-boxes and Amazon.com. In Southern California, that meant the shuttering of Dutton's Beverly Hills, Book Soup's Orange County branch, Anaheim's Book Baron and several beloved used-book stores. Leimert Park's Eso Won Books and Pacific Palisades' Village Books are hanging on by the skin of their teeth: Village owner Katie McLaughlin said she's waiting to see how holiday sales go before deciding whether next year will be her store's last.
And because of price discounts, the final installment of the Harry Potter series didn't give many stores the shot in the arm they were hoping for.
Even literacy itself, according to a report by the National Endowment for the Arts, seems to be on a slow but steady decline. Add to this the destabilizing and ever-increasing pace of change.
"It's one of those years -- they come along every once in a while -- where everyone worries and pulls their hair," said Marie Arana, editor of the Washington Post Book World.
Is any of the unease justified? Some of it clearly is, but it depends on whom you ask.
The uncertainty around technological change is responsible for both hopes and fears within the industry, said Jonathan Galassi, editor in chief of Farrar, Straus & Giroux.
"The delivery of the content of a book in different forms and formats is making people nervous," he said, not quite uttering the name "Kindle." "So we're trying to publish in a lot of different formats because we don't know where the readers are going to be. A lot of us in the publishing industry started out when we still used carbon paper and manual typewriters."
With book sections diminishing at publications all over the country, John Freeman, president of the National Book Critics Circle, said his group is asking: How do we continue having literary discussions at a high level, accessible to a lot of people, as newspapers change and the way that people get their news changes?
To Freeman, part of the problem is the way bookselling is becoming a winner-take-all game, with the lion's share of promotion going to a few bestselling authors, leaving the rest to fend for themselves in an ever-more-crowded publishing environment. (Roughly 200,000 titles were published this year.)
"It's a constant high-stakes game for the front-list," he said. "That means anxiety levels will always be very high."
The issue of book coverage is one that Steve Wasserman, a literary agent and former Los Angeles Times Book Review editor, thinks is worth taking very seriously indeed. "It has to do with the ecology of the way ideas get circulated in the culture," said Wasserman. But, he added, the sky is not necessarily falling.
"It's written into the DNA of publishers and writers to whine, to think the golden age was the day before yesterday, that publishing is in a kind of crisis," he said.
Some strong writing
The book world's actual output was much better than these problems would lead one to believe.
"It was a quieter year," said FSG's Galassi. "There were a lot of very good books published, but there weren't as many blockbuster literary books that swept everybody away."
Dwight Garner, senior editor for the New York Times Book Review and writer of the Paper Cuts blog, concurred. "There was a lot of excitement about books by major writers -- Roth and DeLillo and Martin Amis and McEwan -- but the books weren't among those writers' major works. I happen to think that [McEwan's] 'On Chesil Beach' is beautiful. But all of them were mild disappointments."
The year's best work, though, was strong indeed.
"You had to sort of pick around," said Garner, "but if you were paying attention it was a great year for fiction." One of his favorites was Joshua Ferris' "Then We Came to the End," the tale of dot-com downsizing, which Garner said would appeal to admirers of Nicholson Baker's novels as well as fans of the television show "The Office."
It was also a year in which a dead Chilean literary novelist who'd never had a large English-language following, Roberto Bolano, became a sensation here, with his 1998 novel "The Savage Detectives" translated into English and met with raves and genuine excitement.
For Wasserman, it was a great year for the American novel, including books by younger novelists Dave Eggers ("What Is the What"), Michael Chabon ("The Yiddish Policeman's Union") and Junot Diaz ("The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao.")
"These are people of enormous reach and ambition, who are very devoted to language, and they are not oblivious to the times in which they're living."