I got my undergraduate degree in journalism. My whole college career, I sat through lecture after lecture about how the industry was dying (if not already dead). No one knew exactly what the next “big thing” would be for journalism. All we knew was that it would have something to do with the internet. The ambiguity of it all was fascinating and terrifying: Here was something I loved, and I was cradling the last dying remnants of it in my hands, trying to learn its secrets before it wasted away.
After graduating, I decided I had had enough of the drama of the dying field. So I went to Portland, OR and got a masters in book publishing. My first ever assignment as a graduate student was to write a paper about the death of the print book and how ebooks were gobbling up market share thanks (in part) to the Amazon conglomerate and the immovable traditionalism of the Big Five. Once again, I felt as though I were standing on the edge of The Way Things Used To Be, looking out at the ocean of new, tenuous, inconclusive information about the future. Thank goodness I’m a romantic at heart, or else I probably would have been on the next train out of Portland.
Since then, after overcoming the initial bleakness of the situation and really getting immersed in the industry, I realized something: The book wasn’t dead. The book had been buried alive. And I had a shovel.
The difference between the death of print journalism and the death of the print book is one of culture. Unfortunately, but really understandably, journalism does not create a consumer culture. It exists as a tool, a resource; it is (at least in its purest form) by nature an unbiased, ambiguous, faceless entity designed to unobtrusively convey information to a mindlessly absorbing populace. You may have a favorite news organization, favorite journalists. You may just like looking at page three of the Sun. But when all is said and done, journalists aren’t arbiters of culture. They don’t create. They report the cultures and creations of others.
Books, on the other hand, are pure art. Everything from the words inside to the binding to the interior layout design to the finely honed marketing campaign and the showcasing in bookstores is just that: creation. They pose answers to Great Questions: Why are we here? What is humanity’s purpose? How do we make our lives meaningful? Five different books will give you five different answers, and create five different cultures in doing so.
Here in Portland, especially, the book culture remains a vital heart line. We are the one of the cultural hubs for independent publishers. There are book launches, readings, and slams all across the city on any given night. Writing and publishing conferences like Write to Publish and Wordstock pepper the calendar. Down the street from my house is the Independent Publishing Resource Center, which has printing presses for the public to use. In the center of the city, Literary Arts uses books to promote literacy and community service. We even can boast the largest independent bookstore in the world.
Are there challenges to the print book and the publishing industry as a whole? Yes, definitely. A recent PEW Research poll indicates that there has been a drop of about 6% in American adults reading print books between 2014 and 2015. Is it the end of the world? Not necessarily. Since 2011, ebook sales have peaked at 20% of the market and have stopped their carnivorous advance on the more traditional formats. But more on that later.
The publishing industry has a whole lot to change (and the publishing industry does not really like changing very much), but these challenges will hopefully help push us in the right direction. And, after having the privilege of getting up close to the inner workings, hearing the heartbeat, witnessing the joy and passion of the people who keep the industry alive, I think I can safely say that books are going to be just fine.