Throughout 2004, we kept hearing about the death of the book. Or, at least, the end of reading. We heard a lot about how publisher revenues were down and readers were off surfing the 'Net or not watching television and whatever interesting things people do when they're not reading books the way they're supposed to.
Realistically, though, when all of the numbers are looked at, I can't help but think that the readers are still out there -- they're certainly here, reading about books -- but their buying patterns are changing.
And who could blame them? Dollars are scarce these days. In a world where a hardcover novel costs as much as a good steak dinner -- or a couple of not so good ones -- is it at all surprising that consumers of books are looking at other options for their reading fix? And what does that look like? While some publishers and retailers reported downward trends in 2004, used book sellers are doing a booming business, especially those set up to sell things in an organized way online.
Nor do mainstream publishers only have to worry about competition from books they've already published. Rapid changes in various self-publishing technologies make it quite possible for literally anyone to publish a book. While some self-published efforts are not worth the paper they're printed on, a few are quite wonderful. Many worthwhile books are now being published and distributed by dedicated amateurs without the preconceptions that the old pros bring to the table. Someone forgot to inform some successful self-publishers about all the long-held "rules" and some of these newbies are managing to separate consumers from some of the public's book buying cash in part by using some of the methods that mainstream publishers have long held don't work. Think about that.
The problem can not possibly be with the book itself. We're talking here about a perfect design, something that has been developed and brought to its present form over centuries of beta testing. The book requires no power source beyond human imagination. It is highly portable and has no trouble getting on subways, trains or through even the most stringent airport security. It can inform, educate, illuminate, lull, produce laughter and fill potentially unproductive hours with learning, entertainment and personal growth. The book works. The marketing of books, as presently enacted by a small group of mainstream publishers, no longer does.
One of the trends we noticed in 2004 -- perhaps brought about in part by a confused mainstream press scrambling to produce meaning from figures they've lost the ability to make sense of -- was the production of a higher number than usual of really large books. What's really large? Over five pounds, often over 10 and sometimes much more than that. Take, for instance, Taschen's 75-pound GOAT: The Greatest of All Time. A tribute to boxer Muhammad Ali, GOAT includes a sculpture by Jeff Koons and a whopping $10,000. price tag.
While GOAT was an extreme, it was not alone. There were many big, hulking books whose marketing would perhaps make more sense if they were sold by the pound. A few of these have made our Best of the Year list. How could they not? Big is impressive. There is something truly regal in a few of these books. Huge pictures, big shiny covers and the royal "thud" that a book of this stature makes when dropped onto a coffee table (not to mention your toe). Is this perhaps the reason that, in 2004, interior designers were pushing bigger coffee tables? You need it, after all, to hold up these gargantuan volumes.
In November the inevitable rounds of international book prizes set off a flurry of controversy. It wasn't a new flurry -- that is, the words that got bandied had been bandied before -- but it struck me that there was an extra dose of vehemence in the bandying this year. Why, critics asked, can the winners of the UK's Man Booker Prize and Canada's Giller and Governor General's Award for Fiction expect sales of their books to be enhanced by the bestowing of these prestigious awards when the winner of the United States' National Book Award usually sees no such added benefit? It's a good question. One that begs examination. I won't try to answer it in this space -- or even pretend to have the answer -- but I do wonder if awards attached to literary endeavors in the U.S. get buried under rafts of awards programs attached to more visible -- more sexy -- pursuits. With the constant barrage of music and film awards battling for a tiny slice of consumer attention, literary awards get to be like an unfortunate cousin: the blind date no one wants to claim.
To bring these thoughts full circle, it strikes me that the blame for this can be placed squarely at the feet of the large publishing houses who wield the cash to compete with other forms of media but who refuse to do so because of outmoded and patently erroneous ideas. The thought, for instance, that advertising doesn't sell books keeps publishers from advertising in magazines and newspapers. The tightness of the publisher's purse strings mandate that magazines and newspapers give books less space in their periodicals. When books get less space, the opportunity to attract new consumers is lost. And publishers sell fewer books. The catch-22 of a self-fulfilling prophecy. The real losers: the authors who work so hard only to have their books ignored, and the potential consumers who are not seduced by the latest winner of the National Book Award when they very well could be. The idiocy of it all makes the mind reel.
Oddly, none of this idiocy makes us, the editors and contributors of January Magazine, any less enthusiastic about books and the people who make them. Collectively, we read thousands of books in 2004 and reported on quite a few of them. This year we're delighted to again bring you what has become January's most popular feature of the year: our selections of the top books of the previous 12 months.
Because we're an eclectic lot and we review from almost all branches of the book industry, our choices run the gamut. The January Best of the Year list is not a popularity contest. And you can't buy your way to a spot. Our choices reflect what our writers and editors liked best of the books they read and enjoyed throughout the year. They don't need to qualify their choices. There is no board or panel. No quotas from certain publishers, no authors that had to be included. And though some of the books included here were reviewed for January in 2004, that's not part of the criterion. These are, quite simply, the books that our well read eyes and hearts liked best.
Did we overlook your favorite book from 2004? Or did you like your favorite so much you feel like shouting to the world? Tell us about it.
And thank you for being a part of January Magazine throughout this vibrant year. We are proud of our thoughtful, vocal readers. Without you it would all be entirely beside the point.
Linda L. Richards
Click below for the Best of list you'd like to see: