Notebook: Alpha and Omega (Part Two)
by Ann Kjellberg, editor
Members of the Banned Book Club organized by teens in the Firefly Bookstore in Kutztown, Pennsylvania. “I love to read, so it’s kind of frustrating to see the bans, especially because a lot of adults are banning it, but they’re not asking teenagers our opinion on these books,” the book club’s fourteen-year-old founder Joslyn Diffenbaugh (rear, right) told The Guardian. Sixteen-year-old member Jesse Hastings (rear, center) said she thinks removing books from library shelves “leads to a lot of kids being a lot more closed-minded.” Photo by Hannah Yoon
(Read Part One of this post here!)
I wonder how large the overlap is between the avid readers who participate in self-publishing platforms, many of them nourished by active and synergistic presence on social media, especially the unexpected bookselling juggernaut, TikTok (Barnes and Noble CEO James Daunt said a few weeks ago that BookTok is giving bookselling a boost not seen since Harry Potter), and the traditional book world. Successful self-published authors move into traditional publishing, and writers of serialized work on platforms like Vello (and Substack: See Salman Rushdie and Chuck Palahniuk) envision their work as an eventual traditionally published book, but how much are those books tapping the same readership rather than existing in these distinct worlds at once? E-book buying by the measures of traditional publishing has plateaued: falling or rising somewhat, depending on whom you ask. But John B. Thompson, in Book Wars: The Digital Revolution in Publishing, argues that the largely uncharted world of digital self-publishing may make up for and surpass the growth in traditionally published e-books that flattened around 2012. (The scale of digital self-publishing is cloaked by the invisibility of sales figures for its major player, Amazon, which siphons may self-published books on its platform directly into its proprietary reader, the Kindle, which does not report disaggregated earnings nor assign one of the ISBN numbers that tracks books in the general market.) Some small publishers believe e-books could be priced more affordably, and become more popular, though others fear a devaluation in all the intangible elements—editing, marketing, design—that go into a book if e-books are priced too low. A recent report showed that committed readers are reading less—as in fewer books—but are they reading in other ways? To cite another reading variant, the story-sharing app WattPad, which has become an incubator for TV and movies and in 2019 developed a book publishing arm of its own, has eighty million users world-wide, most of them, like Colleen Hoover’s readers, young women, many of them reading teen fiction, fanfiction, and (as in the lion’s share of self publishing) romance. WattPad writers describe the interchange with readers as they write to have become a necessary part of their process.
Such thoughts dovetail with reflections on the career of the late publishing giant, Jason Epstein, who died last week at 93. Jason was a big figure in my universe, having laid the foundations of my old haunt, The New York Review of Books, and remained a constant presence there. (I’ve written before about his innovations in paperback and on-demand publishing.) What I felt wasn’t quite captured in the coverage of Jason’s career was the extent to which he envisioned commercial and technical change as, potentially, in the service of literate society: his premise was that the best that civilization has to offer should be at the disposal of the most possible people. When he invented the trade paperback in 1953, the first run included books by D. H. Lawrence, Joseph Conrad, Andre Gide, and Stendhal. (Louis Menand has a detailed account of these developments in his recent book, Free World: Art and Thought in the Cold War.) Jason’s reboot of Book of the Month Club alternative Reader’s Subscription, a revival of a shop originally consisting of Lionel Trilling, Jacques Barzun, and W. H. Auden, assembled to offer meatier reading than the strictly commercial BOMC, rarely makes the short list of his accomplishments; it had a small crew of highly literate and eccentric people reading away in a warren of offices down the hall for years of my working life. If Jason could have lived a few lifetimes in sequence he might have been able to help us imagine how technological innovation might sweep up the full spectrum of the writing life, rather than pooling the genres and, often, ploughing past thoughtful work demanding an investment of time.
I think about the torrential availability of information when I reflect on the book-banning campaigns that have roiled the world of books in recent months, at the other end of the life of the book. We considered those a bit in our Notebook of a few weeks ago on the Russian history-preserving project Memorial and its siblings. Many observers have noted that advocates currently seeking to limit the availability of LGBTQ-themed books and books about the experience of racial injustice in libraries are backed by groups with a broader political agenda: political careers have begun in school boards and national parties are engaging in local elections to offices with such responsibilities because of their political valence. Many also note that these campaigns, by design, bypass existing systems for more public review of library shelves. But some of the strength of these movements does seem to spring from real anxieties of parents, just as all attacks on books throughout time arise from the fear of change. How much, I wonder, are these parents, who say that their kids should learn about X, Y, or Z at home, rather than from a library book, doing to limit what their children experience digitally? Perhaps there is a place for a sympathetic conversation about what information children are really receiving, and how, perhaps, a book that has been through a thoughtful editorial process and a careful acquisitions and curricular and placement process might be a better source of information, or at least a more sound prompt to conversation, than what they encounter on the unregulated internet or gaming platforms or in popular music or social media? (See Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen’s revelations about the prevalence of destructive content on teen Instagram.) Perhaps if parents were envisioning together the full information universe that is available to children, the thoughtful processes that lie behind the appearance of a book on a library shelf might reveal themselves in a more welcoming light.
Footnote: Texas librarians surprised themselves last week with the virality of a social-media campaign to provide each other support amidst attacks on their collections. “Librarians are singletons in the school community,” noted the hashtag-inventing retiree of the overwhelming response to her idea, dubbed #FReadom.
Ann Kjellberg is the founder and editor of Book Post.
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