Friday, January 11, 2008

The End of Reading is at hand...*

*or so they want you to think.

Someone over on Absolute Write posted an announcement that Annie Sprinkle's long-running erotic anthology series, The Best American Erotica, is ending. It seems sales have been dropping, etc. Ms. Sprinkle--whom I respect and admire, just want to get that out of the way--has written a long blog post about her feeling about this, and why she thinks it's happened.

It's a good post. But I think it's wrong. Just like I think those five-times-a-year articles by some AP stringer about how books don't ever make money anymore and the book industry is collapsing are wrong, and I'm tired of seeing them.

Nobody is denying people might read less now than they once did. And certainly I see things like the recent financial troubles of Borders Bookstores and get nervous. Nobody wants to see bookstores disappear, least of all me.

But I don't think a lack of reading is necessarily at fault for Borders--I think it's stores like Sam's Club or Amazon that create problems for bookstores. I would even go so far as to guess that some people are buying more books now because of the discounts offered by those places.

I have a few problems with Ms. Sprinkle's post in particular. I certainly don't appreciate her assertion that modern writers of erotica are simply bandwagon-jumpers with no style. I don't agree with her that independent bookstores were king in 1993 and it's their death that has lead to the death of reading, short stories in particular. I'd certainly been to quite a few Barnes & Nobles at that time--in fact, they bought out B. Dalton in 1987 and so went national then. I know that any independent bookstores I went to as a kid were likely used bookstores--we had Waldenbooks and B. Dalton nearby, and that's where we shopped. Granted I was a kid, but I don't even remember seeing any independent bookstores anywhere.

I also don't agree that people no longer discuss books and/or reading. Yes, she's correct when she says newspapers are shutting down their book review sections, but I think, as I have always thought, that those pages don't attract attention because they're not reviewing books people want to read.

All I have to do is look online to see hundreds, if not thousands, of people who care about books and reading. Are we the only ones in the country? Somehow I doubt it. I just think people are buying different books now, and they're buying them from other places. They're buying them online. They're buying ebooks (I absolutely and strongly disagree with her assertion that file-sharing isn't a threat to authors.)

If anything, I think readers--at least in some genres--have grown more intelligent. Ms. Sprinkle mentions how in the beginning there was a "sense of urgency and movement,of this type of writing being on the edge of social change..." and how that's missing now.

To which I say, so what? Maybe I don't want to read erotica With A Message. Maybe I don't want political or sociological opinions force-fed me when I sit down to read a sexy story. Maybe that's why collections of erotic romance sell so well--nobody is Making A Statement. Maybe the American public--and the greater world public--is Message Fatigued, and would rather read fun books and enjoy themselves. If we have less leisure time than we used to for reading, is it any wonder we're choosing lighter books to read?

Yes, the short story seems to be doing the way of the dodobird. But maybe people these days simply like longer works. The assumption that only short stories are truly literary bugs me. Personally, if I'm reading something erotic I like it to be longer. I want to know the characters better. I want a stronger story to go with it. I want to spend some time there. I'm not good at writing short stories and never have been, because to me an erotic short feels a little like a quick anonymous hump in a back alley--over too soon and not as emotionally satisfying as it could have been. I don't agree that the short story is the foundation of storytelling. That doesn't mean I never enjoy them or that I think they're inferior to anything else, it just means I don't agree they're the foundation.

Basically, I just don't agree that the book industry is dying, and I'm tired of being told it is. As long as there are people who read, and pass that on to their children, there will be books.

I agree people are reading less. But maybe they're enjoying it more. And I absolutely agree that we need to take steps to encourage more people to read. But I'm tired of seeing stories of doom all over the place about how nobody makes a living writing books anymore unless they're Stephen King, and 99% of books only sell two copies (never mentioning that they're including textbooks and every self-published book and every academic micropress book about Cow-Tipping in the Eighteenth Century [which I would totally read, btw] in their statistics.)

It may be hard to make a living as a writer, yes--especially depending on your version of "a living". But I'm tired of reading that it's impossible so we just shouldn't try. How many articles do you see about how nobody goes to the doctor anymore, so going to med school is a waste? How nobody goes to see plays so don't bother acting? Why is it only writers and writing that get picked on with such frequency?

Don't sell the public short. They're still reading. At least that's what I think.


Anonymous said...

People are reading, it's the medium that's changed. How many people spend hours a day at the computer reading the news, industry information, celebrity gossip? Once the masses figure out reading ebooks doesn't require a $400 gadjet I think the market will go atmospheric. Especially the short fiction market (media altered attention spans and all).

No one has ever really made a living at writing. It may be that only SK and NR are paid the big bucks but look at how many million dollar movie stars there are and compare that to how many people eke out their exisitence in community theatre, even metropolitan theatre. It is the arts. It will never be a salaried job with benefits and stock options. But for many, my sister the gallery owner and artist included, the benefits of producing art and promoting artists far outweighs the earning potential in other fields.

Love or money? I'll choose love every time.


Charles Gramlich said...

You make some good points. I grew up in the country and there were no bookstores anywhere around. We read from the library. I think the book buying public has splintered, and part of that is due to the huge number of books being released in all kinds of formats. I'm counting self published books there. I just know it's pretty hard to make progress in getting a writing career going these days.

Robyn said...

Short stories are dead? Sucks to be me, then. I like writing shorts, do better at shorts. I like reading them, too, and have never noticed a *bad pun ahead* shortage.

And the people most blamed for short attention spans and severe dislike of reading? Teenagers. Yet my kids will scream to go to a bookstore before music or video games. My son likes manga/anime and the Forgotten Realms sci-fi. My daughter likes anime too, but she loves the books based on the characters in her video games.

SO do all their friends. Maybe doom-and-gloomers just aren't looking in the right places.

Anonymous said...

Maybe instead od more people reading less, it's less people reading more?

I know for me, the older (and wiser?) I get the more I read. There isn't a B&N within 3 hours of here but when I go to San Antonio or Dallas I always go in and pick up some books.

As far as shorts go, I like to read and write them 03:10 To Yuma is based on an Elmore Leonard short if I'm not mistaken -an excellent movie.

Great post as usual, December. -V95

kirsten saell said...

(I absolutely and strongly disagree with her assertion that file-sharing isn't a threat to authors.)

File sharing always makes me nervous. The more stuff is shared, the less money there is in writing, and the less effort (by authors and publishers) tends to go into putting out quality books. It's not just a threat to authors. It's a threat to decent quality in lit--and just about everything else. We want writers who can hope to make a living. We want journalists who don't view journalism as a hobby. And don't even get me started on YouTube.

As for shorts, yeah, the erotic ones always feel like a one night stand. Who would read a short romance with a HEA (or HFN) and closed-door sex? 5000 words is just not long enough for two people to fall in love, and the falling in love is what I read those kinds of stories for.

Only knew of one indie bookstore when I was younger--a huge place in downtown Victoria. The place I grew up didn't have any.

Robyn said...

An aside- I'm blogging again. Address should be in the profile. I missed you!

Anonymous said...

Kristen, there's a good indie booktore in Ladysmith. Salamander Books... It's owned by a mother (forget her name)and daugher (Lauren); they will order anything and have really cool kid's books, funky wrapping and these "stained glass" colouring books...

They'd probably remember me, but they didn't know me as Seeley (darn pen names)...

Anonymous said...

uh, that was supposed to be "funky wrapping paper at Christmas"


BernardL said...

File sharing is a definite problem, and will not go away. As these e-book readers improve exponentially, the file sharing phenomena will escalate with it. I still buy books. As you say, there are too many people down at the mouth, pouring negative anecdotal fuel on the death of publishing fire.

December/Stacia said...

I agree on love vs. money, Seeley, but not on nobody really making a living from writing. I still believe it's possible, at least a modest living. I just think it takes longer to build up to earning a living, and certainly not everyone gets there, but I really don't believe that only NYT bestsellers actually make a living at it.
Perhaps I'm being naive; that's entirely possible. But given how little the hubs and I survived on in FL, it could just be that my idea of a living is much smaller. :-)

Charles, do you really think it's a lot harder now than it was, say, thirty years ago? I don't at all disagree that it's hard. I just think it's always been hard.

I don't think short stories are dead, either, Robyn. They've just become a more specialized market. But there are still places that want them, and as I said in the post, erotic short anthos sell like hotcakes. I know from a few people who've been in the EC Cavemen anthos that, even split between six people, their royalties in the first month alone were, let's say, very good.

And I think a lot of it is upbringing. I find it interesting that while everyone talks about how nobody reads, very few people are willing to take a hard look at how we're raising our children not to read. :-(

YAY! I will update my links again very soon!

December/Stacia said...

That's very possible, V95--less people reading more. I think it's a combination.
I didn't know you were in TX, why didn't I know that? My Daddy lives in Dallas.
I don't dislike short stories. I've read some that I loved. I'm just not good at writing them. :-)

Oooh, that's such a good point, Kirsten, it is a threat to literacy. When people with talent and skill can't earn any kind of money at all they might find themselves unable to continue. The example I always use is that of a book series. You like the first one, so you download the next couple for free, and the writer never gets to finish the series because sales are down. So you (not you personally of course) have not only stolen food from that writer's table, you've stolen the rest of the story from yourself.

I just find it depressing, Bernard, you know? I certainly don't mean to imply that everything is hunky dory but I do think stories about the demise of publishing, like that of Mark Twain, have been greatly exaggerated. And yes, file sharing will increase, and the thieves who do it will continue to refuse to see that they're personally bringing about the decline of the very thing they want.

Anonymous said...

I grew up going to B. Dalton and Waldenbooks. One of the few good things I can say about my dad is that we made almost-weekly trips to the bookstore and everyone got to pick something out. I could never get enough then either.

I also agree that people are reading more in other places, blogs, web pages, etc. That's not to mean that they would pay for ebooks. There's this heavy expectation that if it's online then it's free.

writtenwyrdd said...

I haven't read short stories (with few exceptions) since I was a kid. I don't care for them that much, sad to say. I'm trying to get back into reading them, and it's because of online ezines that I actually have read some shorts lately.

I agree with what you're saying here. Especially the bit about not having an agenda or MESSAGE regarding sexuality in the sexy story.

Sam said...

Hmmmm - I've read that book sales are down, and that only the best sellers are really selling any kinds of numbers.

Bernita said...

I agree.
All this Chicken-Little-Apocalypse-at-Hand- Dark-Age-prophecy burns my wee behind.

Camille Alexa said...

These essays of gloom and anger (yes, there is almost always anger, and a hint of accusation sent out to us, the General Reading Public) coming from Big Name writers and editors often seem to have an underflavor of loss-of-privilege. It's a sure sign of aging when you start to bemoan the loss of 'the good old days when kids knew how to behave' (/to read/ to speak /to act...)

Camille Alexa said...

Or maybe I should have said 'atrophying', rather than aging. I can't help the one, but I can try to stave off the other.

December/Stacia said...

That's true, Michele, I think people do assume that online=free. They would never photocopy a print book and give those copies away, but they seem to think it's fine to do that with an ebook.

Like I said, Writtenwyrdd, I'm not a big fan of short stories either. I've read some I really liked, but in general I prefer novels.
And right. I don't want to read erotica with an agenda. Agendica? :-)

Well, Sam, I know book sales are down. I just don't think it's the death of books, is all. :-)

Right, Bernita, it is very Chicken Little, isn't it? I prefer to be an optimist, myself, rather than look into a dire future where reading is a lost skill & pleasure.

That's it exactly, Camilla! There is such an angry undertone, isn't there? I look at genres like romance, where sales really aren't suffering, as evidence of my theory--we're just not reading what They want us to read. :-)