Books Aren't Dying
The author of Ablutions describes confronting grim news about the industry just as his debut novel was scheduled to be released.
February 28 marks the official release date of my debut novel, Ablutions. All through the long and at times wretched trek I made from inspiration to project completion, I’d never given the practical side of publishing a thought. It wasn’t until the book was sold that the nuts-and-bolts of it were flung at me in the form of a gathering financial crisis, and I was forced to study business models and bottom lines, things I was now a part of, and which suddenly mattered in my life. I soon found myself longing for the days of ignorance, of not knowing or caring.
When, at the age of seventeen I decided I would spend my life writing fiction. I didn’t know what this entailed, exactly - a room, I supposed. A room and books and paper and solitude. Looking for encouragement, I discussed the newfound commitment with my school counselor; she nodded, doodling on her notepad, then spoke of a youthful fondness for poetry. At last she suggested I take over my father’s construction business, then sent me back to my English class, which I was close to flunking. Soon after this I dropped out of high school and moved to British Columbia, Canada. Here I found the room, and the books, the paper, and the solitude. With a charmless bachelor’s countless hours up for grabs, I kept myself occupied for over a decade learning or trying to learn how to write.
I understand the desire to write and read about the death of publishing. It’s a perversely and universally appealing topic.
All through this I was blissfully ignorant of the business side of publishing.
And now, it seemed I’d no sooner had the book accepted than I was confronted with the now-familiar headline about the imminent and certain demise of books, fiction in particular. As though to illustrate the point, my publisher promptly merged with another, larger publisher, and my editor left for a different house - this before I’d signed any contracts. Many days passed with no word as to whether Ablutions still had a home or not. A long silence followed, and try as I might to find comfort there was none to be had, because no one could predict the outcome. The verdict eventually fell in my favor, thankfully; I was assigned an excellent new editor, and everything moved forward. The dread slowly lifted and I felt fortunate to have gotten my brush with book-death out of the way early. Surely the rest of the ride would be a smooth one.
Every industry has slack times, and everyone has bad days at work. But when the day goes so poorly that the media decides to assign it a name, one can’t help but take notice. Black Wednesday was: an ulcerous, horrific pisser. My publisher announced an acquisition freeze. Others announced layoffs and cutbacks and every manner of cancer and blight. No one could predict the bottom of the free fall, and as is common during a crisis, a lot of things were said in the spirit of hardline reporting which oftentimes erred on the side of shrill and thoughtless and occasionally, it seemed to me, simply untrue.
The articles began to pile up, each bleaker than the one before. Books are dying. Books are dead. It is now impossible to make a living as a writer in America. I read them all with increasing concern, for the industry in general but also for myself. I was this close to publication - would the pyramid city really collapse with my novel at the printer’s? Eventually my concern crested and was replaced by a growing annoyance, then a kind of outrage. I found myself thinking more and more: what if all this media attention was focused on the books currently being published instead the end of the printed word? I wondered about the feelings of the authors, especially the debut authors, who had books coming out during that miserable week. Where was their fanfare? Where was their welcome? These people had put in their years of studying and toiling and had finally, against great odds, been given the opportunity to share their work with the world, and they were greeted with a wake. What must they have been thinking?
I understand the desire to write and read about the death of publishing. It’s a perversely and universally appealing topic. I’ve been surprised to find myself discussing it with people that admittedly don’t read very much, or at all, people whose lives wouldn’t significantly change if there wasn’t another book printed. And yet they’ve been well versed in the recent news and headlines. The idea of a world without books, even for people that don’t rely on them personally, is tragic on a fundamental level.
For my part, it’s been a struggle to make sense of the headlines, to pinpoint my book’s place in the world. Part of me believes the species itself is dipping toward extinction, so it only stands to reason that our economy and entertainments should perish first. But in the twelve months since Ablutions found a home, I’ve met countless men and women eager to read and discuss every current title under the sun - people that simply love books and reading. Increasingly, I find myself wishing their points of view were better represented in all this.
I don’t mean to dismiss the concerns regarding the changes and upsets in publishing. And I’m not belittling the lost jobs and contracts and livelihoods. These are all too real, and should be addressed and discussed. But I’ve stopped reading about the death of books because it’s wasteful and morbid and insulting to the authors, agents, publishers, booksellers, critics, and readers that keep the world community of fiction interesting. Books aren’t dying. Books aren’t going anywhere. The model is changing but the words and stories and paper and ink are proof of a living, vital entity.
Patrick DeWitt is the author of Ablutions: Notes for Novel. It his debut novel and was published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.